“Wipe that green off your face!”

If you’re a denizen of Pen World, you’ve been there — a fountain pen “misbehaves,” and there’s ink everywhere. Most notably on your hands. Those who feed the habits of the rest of us are especially vulnerable, according to Brian Goulet here: “…I live with ink-stained fingers most of the time!”; and here: “Inky hands are a point of pride around the Goulet shop.”


In an extreme case, such as Brian models above, the choices are limited — wait it out, although full skin regeneration takes about 27 days, according to WebMD; add a couple of extra shampoo-rinse-repeat cycles in the shower; or go to a commercial product such as amodex (see instructions for Hands and Skin) or Kresto, which you can watch John Mottishaw use in the sink at Classic Fountain Pens.

For more mild cases, there is a practical-yet-elegant alternative, the tenugui, suitable for cleaning your pen as well as your hands. It comes from Japan, where it encompasses both function and fashion. It is a multi-purpose cotton cloth, typically a somewhat coarse weave, that can be used as hand towel or napkin, head or neck wrap, wall hanging or table runner, and more — history and detail here and here. Designs include geometric abstractions, household and domestic ware, cartoon characters, and natural scenes. There is even one with Darth Vader against a backdrop of Mt. Fuji and clouds, concatenating the power of myth and mist.


You can get a sense of the diversity from this store display (click the image above for the full effect). Or conduct a search on Google, Flickr, or Etsy if you want more examples.

I first encountered tenugui on the Nanami Paper website, which included this description and the photo that follows:

Paper towels outside the home are almost non-existent in Japan, so the locals carry patterned hand towels called “tenugui” (te = hand, nugui = wipe). You will see them most often on hot summer days, damp with bottled water, resting on conference room tables and desks in office buildings with no air conditioning, occasionally wiping an overheated brow.

Many department stores have entire sections devoted just to tenugui, and in fact there are stores and businesses focused almost exclusively on designing and making them.

They are also useful for wiping fountain pen nibs after filling them with ink; for the same reason, Ito-ya keeps a damp tenugui in a shallow container of water on their fountain pen counter.


In the tenugui universe, pen-and-ink themes like these are rare, so I feel fortunate to have the two lower ones. I purchased the blue one from Nanami Paper and use it as a wall hanging on my office door; and the black one from wuhao newyork (see below) and use it to wipe pens.


As of September 2016, Nanami Paper has two others in stock. One has a letter-writing motif, with a repeating pattern of pens, ink bottles, envelopes, and stamps. The other is effectively a fountain pen user manual, with a 14-panel depiction of cleaning, filling, using, and carrying a pen, plus a curious blend of Japanese and English labels:


It subtly highlights Itoya, the stationery superstore that keeps that damp tenugui on its pen counter — note the “Itoya” on the nib and ink bottle. Although Itoya doesn’t appear to be a manufacturer of these cloths, they have clearly recognized the marketing value of having their name and logo on theme-appropriate designs, witness these two further examples:



As these also show, pens may be included in a wider domain of desktop and office-supply items, some of which may be featured on their own or in other combinations:


As far as I know, there is nothing outside Japan comparable to the store display in the photo above. If you are interested in purchasing pen-themed or related tenugui, here are some suggestions, but remember that in-stock choices will be very limited:

Nanami Paper is most likely to have items as a result of owner Dave’s frequent buying trips to Japan;
wuhao new york has had pen-&-ink items in the past, though none now; owner Ruri is very helpful and orders directly from manufacturers in Japan;
Etsy: JapanLovelyCrafts has the only nib-&-ink tenugui on Etsy at the moment (following image); and
Etsy: KyotoCollection is owned by American expat Gary, who has been great to deal with, though I don’t know if he would be amenable to sourcing special-order items.


A final thought: If Brian Goulet had only known about tenugui four years ago, when he contributed to Stephen Brown’s Fountain Pen News parody, he could have used a pen-themed headband instead of wasting that legendary blue shrink wrap. Then he would have been prepared, at the end of a day of fighting off ballpoint-pen zombies, when Rachel said, “Wipe that green off your face!”


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