Who would endeavor to elevate the lowly, utilitarian dish rag into a highly collectible art form? The Japanese would—and the reasons why can be discovered at Woodman/Shimko Gallery in Palm Springs.

Dating back to 800 AD, tenugui, first made in woven silk, were used use in religious rituals. By the early 19th century, tenugui became a prop for storytellers as part of a comical monologue or a traditional story. When Japan began to cultivate cotton during the 1800s, tenugui were transformed into a household necessity to be washed and reused—artistic dish towels, in other words.

The size of tenugui have not changed since the ninth century: Each is 35 by 90 centimeters, or roughly 13 3/4 by 35 1/2 inches.

“I received my first tenugui as a gift,” said Woody Shimko, of Woodman/Shimko Gallery. “It was a hand towel that had three Japanese words: tree, grove, forest. I was hooked. Today, my collection nears 3,000.”

The tenugui creation process—which has not changed for centuries—results in unique pieces of art. Tenugui masters and their apprentices begin by dying pieces of bleached cotton cloth. Depending upon the season, weather, humidity, temperature, etc., no two colors are the same.

At first, tenugui look like nothing more than hand-painted fabric. However, that assumption is incorrect: a master, after creating one stencil, or a series of stencils, applies layers of color onto the fabric to create each finished piece. The stenciling process is akin to silk-screening.

To satisfy an ever-increasing interest in the art form and create competition among different artisans, tenugui masters expanded subjects to include landscapes, geometric patters, abstracts, wildlife, people and quasi-representational images.

Given their utilitarian origins, Tenugui are almost never titled. Even today, households change their tenugui dish towels seasonally, and tenugui are often acquired to mark various holidays.

“Over the past half-century, many artisans began to infuse humor into their tenugui,” Shimko said.

In a move from home to commerce, tenugui became business cards carried in a pocket or briefcase; they also became a vehicle to promote businesses. For example, for a sushi restaurant may have the restaurant’s name, address and an image of a fish or piece of sushi on tenugui. Some sumo-wrestlers and kabuki actors use them instead of autographed pictures,

Tenugui collectors in the United States are increasing rapidly, in part because of the art’s affordability; high-quality pieces range in price from about $250 to $350. While pre-1950 tenugui can be found, they are costly, because many were destroyed during World War II.

Today’s collectors tend to focus in on a specific subject or theme. Seasonal images are frequently collected, as are abstractions, animals, landscapes, humor and promotional items.

It’s a treat to see this fairly unknown art form on display at Woodman/Shimko Gallery. Be sure to give these gorgeous dish rags a look.

The tenugui show at Woodman/Shimko Gallery opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, March 27, and continues through the end of April, at 1105 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 760-322-1230, or visit www.woodmanshimkogallery.com.