Traditionally in Japan, gifts were placed in a box on a wooden or lacquer tray, over which a fukusa was draped. The choice of a fukusa appropriate to the occasion was an important part of the gift-giving ritual. The practice of covering a gift became widespread during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615–1867).
The scene or the motifs depicted on fukusa are chosen to indicate either the occasion for which the gift is being given, or because they are appropriate for one of the annual festivals, when gifts are exchanged. The richness of the decoration of the fukusa attests to the giver’s wealth and aesthetics.
After being admired, a fukusa, along with its box and tray, were typically returned to the donor. However, when gifts were presented to a high official, the fukusa was not always returned. This was one of the subtle devices used to control the wealth of the lords and samurai.
In the first part of the 18th century, the art of the fukusa reflected the taste of the aristocratic minority of Japan: the daimyo and samurai. The subtle cultural references inherent in the designs were recognizable only to the educated members of these classes, who lived and exchanged gifts in the cities of Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) and their surrounding areas. The use of ornamental fukusa in the Edo era was almost entirely confined to these geographic areas.
By the 19th century, the merchant class moved up the social ladder and adopted customs of the aristocracy, including gift giving with fukusa. Family crests, or mon, were added on the lining side of gift covers beginning in the late 18th century and tassels were placed at each corner so the gift covers could be picked up without touching the fabric. Today, fukusa are rarely used, and when they are it is almost exclusively around Tokyo and Kyoto for gifts given at the time of marriage.
In the Edo era, textiles were an integral part of Japanese art. There was no arbitrary division of art into fine arts and decorative arts, as is prevalent in Western art. Eminent artists were commissioned to design textiles and each work was an original creation. Unfortunately, artists seldom signed their work.
Satin silk was the fabric preferred for embroidery, which often made extensive use of couched gold- and silver-wrapped thread . As paste-resist (yuzen) dyeing became popular, crepe (chirimen) silk was favored. Tapestry weave (tsuzure-ori) tapestry also was a popular technique as well as weft brocade (nishiki).