Tenugui is simply described as 'a piece of dyed cotton cloth.' Chu-sen Dyeing technique is as unique as the Tenugui designs themselves. Tenugui are dyed by hand, which is why the patterns and the colors are inconsistent on each and every one of them, making them more personal. The design permeates the fabric, so that it can be seen on both sides as the color fades with use and age, the cotton acquires its unique soft texture.
This multi-color dye method was first originated in Osaka to pursue an economical Kimono or Yukata wear. Before the "Chu-sen" dyeing technique was invented, silkscreens were necessary for the number of colors on a design, and as a result the production cost became very high. For a very expensive Kimono, artisans hand-paint complex design on Kimono with the traditional "Yu-Zen" method in Kyoto. So, some of the dye artisans in Osaka came up with this idea of dyeing multi-colors with less number of silkscreens and getting rid of hand-painting work.
There are only few factories left in Japan who employs hand-dyeing method. Unlike machine printing, this method dyes the thread of the fabric, rather than just the surface. The process/labor is divided into four steps: Itaba(drawing pictures), Some(dyeing), Mizumoto(washing), and shiage(finishing fabrication).
To make the Tenugui, a fine patterns are made on a 'bitter paper' and carved by hand and covered with a film of gossamer, which makes them durable enough to withstand repeated use. Glue is applied to pieces of cloth regularly sized for purposes of usage. This stencil paper is called 'Katagami'.
The first piece of cloth is rolled out flat on the printing bed. The paper patterns are mounted as screens, and then lowered onto the fabric. Using a starch paste made from a mixture of clay and seaweed, the inverted pattern is printed on the first section of cloth. Then the screen is lifted. The process of Chu-sen Dyeing is very much like screen printing. The next section from the roll of unprinted cloth is rolled out on top of the previously printed section and the process is repeated, until many layers of cloth have been printed with the starch paste and sandwiched together.
This next step is hand-dying called "Chu-sen". The dye artisans place 'Katagami' on the Tenugui fabric and crete banks with pastes to divide each color sections.
Artisans pour dye materials that are created in the former step on the Tenugui fabric, and then pump the material with a vacuum from underneath. Approximately 20 pieces of Tenugui fabric are overlapped and are dyed at the same time.
Once the dye colors oxidized, the yardage was vigorously washed to remove resist paste and any extra dyes. Then Tenugui are dried and aired under the sun.
These long pieces of cloth are then cut into smaller pieces that become Tenugui. A versatile Japanese towel that can be used as a towel, table cloth, headband, neckwear, and more!
(Source: Nippon Craft, Is Japan Cool)