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A Tsutsugaki Yuage: A Baby Towel from Izumo

Written on July 28, 2012

This very distinctive indigo dyed cloth, made in Izumo, with its prominent, red-dyed corner, is referred to as yuage.  Typically, it is a gift given to the parents of a newly-born child by the baby’s maternal grandparents.Taken from “Country Textiles of Japan: The Art of Tsutsugaki,” by Reiko Mochinaga Brandon:

“One of the special characteristics of baby towels from Izumo is a bright red patch of color–traditionally dyed with madder (akane) or safflower (benibana) in a triangular shape–that appears in the upper right part of the design and most often in the right top corner.  The color red was believed to expel evil and prevent smallpox, a devastating childhood disease for which no cure was known in Edo times.There is basis for this belief.  The fact is most natural dyes used in the countryside came from plants that were known to have medicinal properties.  In the pharmacopeia of Chinese medicine which was practiced in Japan, madder was prescribed for bleeding, jaundice, or rheumatism and safflower for fever, high blood pressure, and irregular menses.  Red was also very special because it was one of the colors prohibited to commoners during the Edo period.  Red was therefore considered a precious color, allied with power and status.  The towel’s red area was only used to wipe the baby’s face, while other parts of the towel were used to wipe the baby’s body.”And just as this very special towel is charged with medicinal powers, its imagery is equally potent in symbolism.  The hand resist dyed, or tsutsugaki drawing shows a crane and a turtle at opposing corners in the design, and also seen is the traditional pine/  bamboo/ plum motif called shochikubai.  Shochikubai  conveys good wishes for a long life: plum shows courage as its blossoms, the first of the year, burst forth from under ice; the bamboo is resilience since it bends but does not break and the pine is a symbol of long life–and also of a faithful marriage as its needles fall in pairs.  The crane and tortoise, too, are well-known symbols wishing a long life.This yuage measures 32″ x 25 1/2″ or 81 cm x 65 cm.  Its cotton is woven from hand spun yarns and it dates to the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

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  1. Comment by paula253:

    beautiful, and thank you for explaining all the symbols! what an auspicious beginning … but it looks practically brand new, as though no baby ever got wrapped in it.

    July 28, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  2. Comment by Claudia:

    How interesting. As usual it all has meaning and thanks too for explaining. It seems also that apart from the red corner the only extra colour is the blue in the middle of the last image. I wonder if this has a meaning or is perhaps another example of the artistic restraint so effectively demonstrated in many Japanese designs. It’s very pleasing to the eye.

    July 29, 2012 @ 4:18 am