From Japan, an Old Twist on Gift Wrap

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

I've had a thing for wrapping gifts as long as I've had a thing for giving them.

Thankfully, my style has evolved. Where once I spent hours cutting out bold figures from magazine ads and pasting them on brightly colored boxes, now I'm more likely to spend hours embellishing simple brown paper with tasteful stripes or dots, tying it up with silk or raffia, and accenting it with a metal or twig tag.

It took a recent trip to Japan to turn me in a new direction. After the clerk at a tradition-bound knife shop wrapped up a package in a single piece of purple rayon, rolling and tucking and expertly fashioning a knot into a bow, I investigated the Japanese art of furoshiki. And I found that centuries after furoshiki first proliferated as a way to carry goods when traveling, the technique is enjoying a renaissance in its homeland as an environmentally friendly substitute for plastic shopping bags, backpacks and paper gift wrapping. Last year, in fact, the Japanese environment minister commissioned a special furoshiki pattern as a way to promote waste reduction.

It makes sense. Wrapping a gift in fabric not only encourages reuse -- depending on size, the recipient can use the wrap as a scarf or pocket square or pass it along as another gift wrap -- but the technique also saves other wrapping essentials such as ribbons and tape.

Better still, it's quick, easy and much more forgiving than wrapping with paper. The only requirements, really, are that the fabric be beautiful and that it be square.

With a few 19-inch cotton squares I found on eBay and the help of "Gift Wrapping With Textiles: Stylish Ideas From Japan" by Chizuko Morita (Kodansha International, 2005), I was able to make quick and, frankly, beautiful work of wrapping a CD and a couple of books. One got a simple square-knot bow, another a four-petal wrap, and the third a flower effect created by tucking the ends of fabric back into the center of a knot. Fabric choice, naturally, affects the result: silky fabrics produce something soft and flowing, cotton material something crisper.

Each took less than 10 minutes, and each has a finished look that would take me at least half an hour if working with paper.

I'm still learning this craft, though, and there have been some hurdles. Even though the method is based on only three simple knots, some of Morita's instructions are tricky to follow (although they are better than those I found on the Internet). I have yet to master a wrap she calls "All Dressed Up," an intricate bow-tie treatment for a bottle of wine, and so far my "Long-Tailed Pheasant" looks more like "Two-Headed Pheasant." Moreover, I initially bought only 19-inch squares, so my fabric is just too small to wrap anything but a little box.

After reading Morita's chart of sizes and uses, I hit eBay again to order some 44-inch squares. Those will let me try more designs with multiple knots, along with the furoshiki ideas I'm most interested in: the Basic Bottle Wrap and Two-Bottle Wrap. The design possibilities of these are lovely, including little handles built into the top. They will forever replace all those ugly wine bags I keep carting to my dinner-party hosts, embarrassed that the quality of the wine is cheapened by the chintziness of the bag. Once I get my new fabrics and master the wrap, though, the opposite problem will become true: I'll have to start buying better bottles of wine.


"Gift Wrapping With Textiles: Stylish Ideas From Japan" by Chizuko Morita. I bought cotton fabrics in traditional Japanese patterns: 19-inch squares for $8 each and 44-inch squares for $18 each, plus shipping from Japan. Shows basic wrapping techniques, but with a shorthand approach that can be difficult to figure out. Also has a limited selection of fabrics for sale. For the DIY-er interested in putting a modern spin on things, a bounty of fabric options awaits. You'll have to order carefully, by the half-yard increment, trim them to fit and, for a particularly finished look, hem the edges.

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