This is a very finely embroidered Fukusa with cloth, silver and couched gold thread on a dark blue silk background. The design shows a woman in fine garments with a small boy or attendant to her right side. Behind the two people is a fence with gold post tops and there are large green leaves similar to those of a palm tree above and behind the fence. The attendant is holding a tray with three cone shaped objects on it - we have no idea what those might be.
The garments on the lady are quite detailed with myriad of different colors. On her head is a decoration in the shape of a phoenix. The phoenix (ho-o) is the symbol of the head of the administrative hierarchy. This office was held by the empress. We do not think that the woman in the design is supposed to be an empress as the Phoenix crowns worn by the Empresses were much larger and more ornate. We would speculate that this woman is high court lady in waiting to the household of the Empress and that the more simple phoenix piece on her head is a symbol that she was in the palace hierarchy. The fukusa is backed with a plain red silk square. On the four corners are white silk tassels.
The fukusa measures 26" by 27" and is in excellent condition - there may be a thread or two pulled somewhere on the design - but we have not been able to locate any. The red silk backing is a bit faded and does have a smudge on it. The entire piece has two folds in it from having been folded in half twice. These will hang out after framing. We date the piece to the late Meiji period, circa 1890 - 1910.
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). 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.
The fukusa was made with a combination of embroidered techniques. Most metal threads are available in silver and sometimes copper as well as gold; some are available in colors as well. Goldwork is always surface embroidery and free embroidery; the vast majority is a form of laid work or couching; that is, the gold threads are held onto the surface of the fabric by a second thread, usually of fine silk. The ends of the thread, depending on type, are simply cut off, or are pulled through to the back of the embroidery and carefully secured with the couching thread.
In embroidery, couching and laid work are techniques in which yarn or other materials are laid across the surface of the ground fabric and fastened in place with small stitches of the same or a different yarn. The couching threads may be either the same color as the laid threads or a contrasting color. When couching threads contrast with laid threads, patterns may be worked in the couching stitches. Couching is also characteristic of Japanese metal-thread embroidery.