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The Expert

Wrap Artist

Akiko Keene, 62, Japanese gift wrapper

Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page M03

CUSTOM MADE: I learned the basics of how to gift-wrap from my family in Japan. It's part of our culture. We don't give things in the brown paper sack they came in -- even if we bring bottles of beer to someone's house. In my thirties, I also decided to study dollmaking and traditional crafts. My husband was in the U.S. Air Force, so when we came back to D.C., I started teaching at different stores. I even started my own school, Washington Japanese Doll and Crafts School (www.japanesedollsandcrafts.com). One of the subjects I cover is tsutsumi, or Japanese gift-wrapping.

BOXED IN: In America, gifts are always square. The Japanese way is to emphasize the present's true shape. If it's a triangle-shaped gift, we don't put it in a box; we keep the triangle. To do this, we often use complex folding patterns based on origami technique. The easiest is wrapping with cloth, or furoshiki. I like to use pretty Japanese silks like the traditional, square furoshiki, which can be from a foot to many feet across. You put the cloth facedown, put the gift in the middle and tie the fabric at the top. In the most traditional way of doing this, the cloth ends up tight, like a well-wrapped kimono. A harder wrapping technique, chato, involves folding pleats in paper. The number of pleats you make shows the significance of the occasion. An odd number -- always facing left -- is used for happy ones, like weddings. Funerals and other sad times call for even numbers.

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FIT TO BE TIED: How we wrap things and the material we use tells the person how we feel. For joyous occasions, we tie the mizuhiki [colored cord or ribbon] upward, to make the bow like a smile. There are many types of knots, each appropriate for different types of events. The mizuhiki color symbolizes things, too. Red and white are popular for weddings, because red signals strength and good fortune, while white stands for purity.

ALL THE TRIMMINGS: Along with ribbons and bows, we use things from nature. In winter I use tangerine flowers, bamboo and kelp. The bamboo is a symbol of life and the kelp is a symbol of longevity. In spring I use cherry blossoms and wisteria. In summer I use flowers like the peony. And in autumn I use pussy willows and maple branches.

WRAPPING 101: To learn about Japanese gift wrapping, I suggest Yoshiko Hase's "Book of Gift Wrapping" [$13.95 at www.barnesandnoble.com]. As told to Kelly DiNardo

Keene is teaching a workshop Dec. 12, 3 to 5 p.m., at the Art League Gallery, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-683-1780. www.theartleague.org.

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