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Do you know about Furoshiki, the Japanese art of wrapping gifts?

It’s the art of wrapping gifts in fabric that can be reused over and over again, saving reams and reams of paper, and the trees that are pulped for it

Fabric wrapping is simpler, more versatile—and stylish. Photo: courtesy Geetika Jain

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Gift-giving is as old as the hills but in some cultures, such as in the US, it goes well beyond birthdays, weddings and visits to people’s homes. There are pre-wedding showers where the bride-to-be is typically given toasters, blenders and table mats. Then there are baby showers where the mum-to-be might be surprised with bassinets, toys and clothes a month or so before the little one arrives.

Recently, I attended a big 30th birthday for a beloved daughter returning from overseas, where the parents had 30 gifts wrapped in pretty paper and reams of ribbon. The gifts, some useful, some delightful and some forced, were torn open to squeals of delight from the guests and the pile of paper scaled the height of the sofa.

Three plastic garbage bags were brought in for the boxes, wrapping, tissues and ribbons, and then left outside for the garbage collectors. The birthday girl was all smiles and hugs, for the whole thing had been a labour of love, but she couldn’t abide the sight of the piles in front of her.

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Later, she confided that she needed none of those gifts, they gave her “stuffocation” (suffocation from owning more stuff) and she was appalled by the garbage. She had become attuned to considered living practices and would calmly explain her stance to her folks when the time was right.

I was in violent agreement with her. Gifting is a bane. I wish people would stop bringing packages of unsolicited objects. My friends know they need not, and must not, bring anything when they visit. “Leave your arms free for hugs,” I tell them. And if someone does bring something, I accept it graciously, letting them know at another point that I actively prefer no prezzies. With the exception of something small, incredibly apt and meaningful once in a blue moon.

Don’t we all rue those shelves or cupboards full of random things god knows who brought?

Circulating gifts gives me the hives.

Yet gift-giving can also be a delight for the giver and receiver. It’s one of the accepted languages of love. Occasionally, it does make sense. How does one solve the wrapping?

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Here’s where the Japanese practice of furoshiki comes into play. It’s the art of wrapping gifts in fabric that can be reused over and over again, saving reams and reams of paper, and the trees that are pulped for it. Books, bottles of wine, chocolate boxes can all be wrapped in the same fabric innumerable times as you pass the parcel. No fasteners are used. Just simple knots. Fabric wrapping is simpler and more versatile than paper wrapping. In addition, the gifts look incredibly stylish.

Wrapping in fabric is surprisingly easy to learn. By googling the word furoshiki, you will stumble upon several dozen sites with videos that reveal the art of wrapping, from the simplest to the most technical styles. By laying the piece of fabric on a table, and placing a book in the middle, for instance, you can simply gather and knot the two opposing ends and it’s done.

While wrapping objects in fabric has been recorded in Japan for the last 1,200 years, in the Edo period in the 17th century, a certain Shogun invited guests to his onsen (a traditional hot-spring bath) where men wrapped their kimonos in their own fabrics to distinguish which was theirs. Once done bathing, they would stand drying on this fabric. Hence the origin of the word furoshiki: furo (bath), shiki (spread).

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In 2006, Yuriko Koike, the minister of environment, actively promoted the art of furoshiki as a way of increasing environmental awareness and reducing the use of other materials that are thrown away and add to landfills. When in Tokyo and Kyoto, I visited shops that are entirely devoted to selling fabrics for wrapping. Some of these were printed on both sides. I learnt how to make simple knots and once I got the hang of it, I began devising my own way of wrapping to suit the object I was wrapping.

Furoshiki entered my life and is here to stay. I enabled myself by heading to wholesale shops and buying reams of attractive fabrics at a good price. I selected from lightweight sheer prints to dense cotton geometrics. I had a tailor cut it into squares of 70x70cm (a typical size) and hemmed at the edges so the threads wouldn’t run. Sometimes I use pinking shears to cut the squares myself. The zig-zags prevent threads from coming loose at the edges.

Any fabric can be used—silk, cotton, rayon, polyester. It just has to be foldable. Furoshiki is the name of the art as well as the fabric used to wrap.

Wrapping a gift in furoshiki takes far less time, is much greener, looks more elegant, and as my friends often say, it feels like receiving two gifts in one.

Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest.

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