Treasures from John’s Collection: Tenugui 手ぬぐい
Chuusen (注染) Dyeing
First take a peak at this clip on YouTube: The images below are taken from it.
Synthetic dyes boast qualities best suited to chuusen. They are inexpensive, and can be stored for long periods of time. Most require steaming, but bypass the need for a mordant.
   The dyes are poured over the yardage and sucked through to the bottom layer with the help of a vacuum.
Array of Colors Awaiting Use
Isn’t this a wonderful shot of a dye can? Simplicity of line coupled with an efficient design make it a joy to use as well as ponder the meaning of life in ever shifting planes of universal bends twists and dings, etc., etc., etc....
Isn’t it interesting how something one person will dismiss without a glance, another person will see as a rare treasure? Tenugui often fall into this category.

The word tenugui (手ぬぐい) means “hand wipe.” And that is what they are. They are also used for head coverings, on occasion for wrapping things, and to wipe up spills on the floor–but not all at the same time! And just because they are used for such mundane purposes doesn’t mean they have to be ugly.

One of the delightful aspects of Japanese culture is how often care and attention is taken to make items used in everyday life not only functional but a joy to use or a beauty to behold. So while tenugui are put to every conceivable use as a rag, a great deal of artistry goes into making them attractive and many people collect them for this reason alone. Try cutting and pasting 手ぬぐい in your browser and see how many links come up – everything from connoisseurs waxing on about the aesthetics of a particular tenugui artist, to pages and movies devoted to showing yet one more creative way to press this treasure into service.

One of my favorite stores in Tokyo is a tenugui store called Fujiya in Asakusabashi. Below are three of my favorite tenugui collected through them years ago.
Dye Can at Rest
This season’s selection of stencil images are stored overhead for easy access. The stencils are used to apply rice-paste resist to stacking layers of cotton yardage.
This one appeals to me for its stark simplicity and commanding presence. The image is of a woman hiding her identity as she heads toward a bridge from which she will leap to her death. You can almost see the resignation in her eyes. Despite the kind of attention burqas have received in the press over the past few years, there is something very powerful in having all visual clues about a person hidden, forcing one’s attention entirely on the eyes. I think this piece is classic in this sense–and it’s handy to wipe up a spill from time to time…
Stencils Stored Overhead
Applying Paste
The craftsman pulls from a large batch of paste using a wood debabera to push the paste through the stencil on to the cloth. Layer after layer, he alternates the cotton yardage and the paste until a full bolt of fabric has been prepared. The paste image in each consecutive layer must line up precisely with the layer below.

In the image below, additional paste has been added to the top layer of the cloth encircling some areas with a moat. Notice that these boundaries do not follow the lines of the original image or stencil. Instead they are helping to define the areas into which additional colors or shadings will be added. This may be easier to detect in the close up below. (I like the plastic jug that has been cut in half and turned up side down to use as a bowl.)
This image below is of a bunraku doll. Here, again, it is the face that captures my heart. What is not visible in the photograph are the very subtle additions of color to areas of the clothing. See below for an explanation of how this is achieved.

The image to the right (below) has not been “flipped” accidentally. Keep in mind that chuusen-dyed items have no right or wrong side and may be viewed from either.
Moats of Paste Help to Contain the Dyes
Pouring Additional Color into the Contained Areas.
As dye is added to the fabric it is quickly pulled through the many layers and into a waiting receptacle. The craftsman controls the vacuum suction with a foot lever (see below).

Once all of the colors have been added, the fabric is steamed and the paste removed.
Foot Controled Vacuum Switch
And lastly, I find the tenugui above to be quite amusing. After all, it is offering a history of its own use and listing the occupation or type of person pressing it into service.

See if you can guess any of the occupations of the people depicted based on their headgear. There are a few you may be able to spot right away: the burglar, the convalescent, the housewife, the fellow returning from the bath, and the clandestine traveler.

The above tenugui are all dyed using the chuusen (注染) method. Click on Textile of the Week: Chuusen to see how one studio goes about producing these. Take a look at the column to the right on for a slightly different perspective.
Finished Image
Can you see how the shaded areas relate to the moats above?

The fabric is folded back and forth upon itself and the dye passes through all layers equally. Therefore there is no real right or wrong side to the image (unless text is involved). This is true chuusen.

Tenugui are sold in stores, but they are also quite often commissioned by businesses to hand out free to customers, a bit like refrigerator magnets are handed out here. Often these will contain a company logo, business name, or advertisement of some sort. Because of the labor involved in the chuusen process, cheaper methods are always being explored and exploited.
Automated Silk Screen Set Up
One such method is not so very new. It involves automated silk screening as seen on the right.

Another increasingly common method is simply using an inkjet printer and textile inks with a very wide format printer.

However, in both of these printing techniques there is a sharp difference between the right and wrong side, as seen in the image to the far right.
Printed Tenugui Showing a Clear Difference
in the Right and Wrong sides of the Fabric
copyright John Marshall, 2012
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