Plastic bags are hard to recycle, but in America, they’re also hard to avoid. In Japan, the art of furoshiki helps many people avoid plastic by wrapping everything from sandwiches to wedding gifts in fabric. Learning furoshiki takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, you may never need to use a plastic bag or wrapping paper again.

What Is Furoshiki?

The word furoshiki refers to both the fabric itself and the practice of wrapping items in cloth. Modern furoshiki developed in the Edo period, when people visiting the public bath wrapped their clothes in a piece of fabric while they bathed, then used the fabric as a bath mat while they dressed. The direct translation of furoshiki is “bath mat.” Japan is not the only country with a cloth-wrapping tradition; Koreans have been wrapping things in beautiful bojagi fabric for centuries.

Where to Find Furoshiki

Traditional, reusable furoshiki come in a wide variety of prints and fabrics. Available in boutiques or online, these fancy furoshiki are great for wrapping gifts. For everyday use, you don’t have to spend a fortune. Any square or slightly rectangular piece of fabric that looks nice on both sides can be used as furoshiki. You can stock up on bandannas and scarves at the thrift store. While you’re there, pick up a couple of old sheets to cut to shape for wrapping large or odd-sized items. Whether thrifted or new, the fabric should be thick enough to support the weight of the object you want to wrap, but not too thick for tying in knots.

When you wrap your lunch in furoshiki, it also becomes a tablecloth/napkin. Photo: Adobe Stock

Get Started

Furoshiki can be a little intimidating at first. There are many traditional tying patterns and historical rules about which fabrics to use for specific occasions. Nowadays, convenience and personal taste take precedence. Plastic waste is a global problem, so even in Japan, using furoshiki today is as much about respect for the environment as it is about tradition.

Many resources explain how to wrap different items. Some instructional books are quite thorough, but online tutorials are a great way to start. Either way, learning to fold furoshiki can be fun — like making origami with fabric. Start by wrapping something simple, like a gift box or a book. With time and practice, you can work your way up to much more elaborate packages. Whether you pursue furoshiki as an art or cheat a little with Velcro, you’ll still be keeping plastic out of the landfill.

This article was originally published on April 9, 2018.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.