Trip to a Paper Towel Factory

Summary: We were confused when our hosts enthusiastically told us they were taking us to a paper towel factory. It turned out to be pretty interesting, and we had fun designing our own towels. We still left with unanswered questions.

“We are taking you to a paper towel factory!” our hosts enthusiastically told us through my Mom’s translation. We were perplexed. True, none of us had toured a paper towel factory before, but the level of enthusiasm seemed out of proportion to the wonder and fascination we’d expect to have. But we went along gamely, open to seeing what the fuss was all about.

We arrived at a nondescript building on a drizzly grey day in Hamamatsu. A medium-sized room was set up with about a dozen chairs and a table in front with several buckets, and a couple of heating elements with pots on them. Around the room hung mesh-like fabrics, dyed various colors. The smell of vinegar wafted through the room.

A gentleman with rubber gloves explained in Japanese about how the “washi towels” were invented. A young cousin translated for us. Basically, washcloths woven in a manner similar to fishing nets have been developed, but instead of using standard cotton or other natural or synthetic textile fibers, he found a way to create them out of paper fibers.

The patented method creates a soft, woven fiber washcloth that doesn’t dissolve in water. They are durable, able to be used many times over a year before they break down. They also are purportedly good for people with sensitive skin.

We were all given a piece of raw cloth, and as with tie-dying, we twisted and wrapped ours with rubber bands, then had the gentleman or lady dip them in various dyes to render our own unique design.

After we were done, we were invited into the mill to see the weaving machines whirring away, weaving meters and meters of new washi fabric.

Regarding the term “washi,” we were confused at first by the name “washi towel.” Was it a version of “washing towel,” or could it have referred to “washi” as in a kind of paper?

Subsequent research has determined it is the latter. “Washi” comes from “Wa” (Japanese) and “Shi” paper, and refers to paper made in a traditional way out of anything from tree bark to bamboo, hemp, rice, or wheat.

We tried to ask several times why one might choose to make washcloths from paper, and each time we received a litany of the virtues of these cloths (durable, soft, generates a good lather, can be used without soap, etc.), but we never got an answer as to why paper versus natural or synthetic fibers.

Regardless of the reasons, we able to bring home our own tie-dyed washcloths and enjoyed learning about the innovation of durable paper fabric (that doesn’t dissolve in water) and seeing it made.

Washi Towel Factory Website (in Japanese)

Website in English describing the factory and showing more pictures.

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