At first glance, a tenugui towel doesn’t look like much. It’s a thin piece of cloth, usually dyed to show a design or pattern, that is used in everyday life in Japan. And while the popularity of tenugui towels started to decline with the introduction of newer, thicker fabrics, they are currently experiencing a resurgence and have made their way back into Japanese lifestyles.
Tenugui refers to the traditional Japanese cotton-weaved towel. These towels are usually about 90 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide and their history dates back to the Heian period (794 AD – 1185) when they were exclusively used in religious Shinto ceremonies. During the Edo period (1603-1868), tenugui towels were common household items and today, they’re often used as handkerchiefs and hand towels (they are also good for wrapping gifts, souvenirs, and as headbands).
Because tenugui towels are so thin, they dry very quickly and are extremely absorbent. Because the edges aren’t sewn down, they are usually frayed – this adds character to each towel and helps them dry quickly when wet. Since tenugui are often hand-dyed and get better with use, each towel is personal and unique to its owner. In the kitchen, tenugui are useful for wiping down the surfaces of counters, dishes, and sinks. Chefs also wear them as bandanas to absorb sweat. They are reusable and biodegradable, which makes these towels ideal for kitchen use.