about origami

Writing a comprehensive history of paper folding is almost impossible, since information about the art form prior to the 15th century is virtually nonexistent. There are many plausible assertions about its origins and early history, but most of those are based on little firm documentation. Many studies assert that origami was invented by the Japanese about a thousand years ago, but its roots may well be in China. It is also highly probable that the process of folding was applied to other materials before paper was invented, so the origins of recreational folding may lie with cloth or leather. Certainly, within Europe, the practise of napkin folding and cloth pleating were held in high esteem. However, paper has proved to be the ideal material to fold, and so it is logical to assume that paper folding followed the discovery of the papermaking process.

Paper was invented in China, and a Chinese court official, Cai Lun, has been traditionally credited as the inventor, though contemporary research suggests that paper was invented earlier. However, Cai is known to have introduced the concept of sheets of paper about the year 105 CE. By making paper from the macerated bark of trees, hemp waste, old rags, and fishnets, he discovered a far superior and cheaper way of creating a writing surface, compared with the cloth made of silk that was commonly used. Papermaking skills subsequently migrated to Korea and from there to Japan, via Buddhist monks, by 610. Japanese papermakers improved the quality of paper still further, and the quality of their paper would have been suitable for folding, although no hard evidence of origami exists before 1600. In 1680 a short poem by poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku references butterfly origami, revealing how well engrained in Japanese culture paper folding had become by that time. One of the earliest known paper-folding instruction books was Akisato Rito’s Sembazuru orikata (1797), and it showed how to fold linked cranes cut and folded from a square of paper.

German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), inventor of the kindergarten, was an avid proponent of paper folding and its educational benefits, and he helped to spread paper folding around the world. Three basic types of folds are associated with him: the Folds of Life (basic folds that introduced kids to paper folding), the Folds of Truth (teaching basic principles of geometry), and the Folds of Beauty (more-advanced folds based on squares, hexagons, and octagons); the famed folded and woven paper Froebel star, a popular Christmas craft and decoration, was named after him but was likely invented by someone else. About 1880 those Froebelian folds were introduced into Japan and Japanese schools, and it was about that time that the word origami began to be used to describe recreational folding. German contributions to paper folding continued with Rudolf Steiner’s first Waldorf school (1919), in Stuttgart, Germany, which emphasized assorted hands-on activities including origami, and with the Bauhaus school of design (1919–33). Bauhaus used paper folding as a means of training students in commercial design, and revered Bauhaus teacher and artist Josef Albers was especially adept at creating dome-shaped structures from flat sheets of paper.

Spanish author and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) was also significant in spreading origami’s popularity. He was a celebrated paper folder who could be found in cafés making paper birds. He discussed paper folding in numerous works, including Amor y pedagogía (1902; “Love and Pedagogy”), and even used it as a metaphor for his deeper discussions of science, religion, philosophy, and life. Paper folding spread across South America as well, principally because of the work of the Argentine physician and master folder Vicente Solórzano Sagredo (1883–1970), author of the most comprehensive manuals on paper folding in Spanish. In England Margaret Campbell’s seminal book Paper Toy Making was published in 1937, and it contained a large collection of origami designs. Two years later the paper flexagons of British mathematician A.H. Stone, whose paper structures altered their faces in curious ways when properly flexed, gave a boost to both the recreational and educational popularity of paper folding.

After World War II there was increasing interest in origami in North America, and the subject was intensively researched, especially by folklorist Gershon Legman in the United States. In 1955 Legman arranged an exhibition in Amsterdam of the origami of the Japanese master Akira Yoshizawa (1911–2005). Yoshizawa was considered the preeminent folder of his time, and his work inspired subsequent generations of folders. Also in the 1950s, Lillian Oppenheimer helped popularize the word origami and introduce it to Americans. She founded the Origami Center of America in New York in 1958, used the relatively new medium of television to popularize the art form, and produced several books on origami with children’s entertainer and TV star Shari Lewis; as Oppenheimer was fond of saying, “Why should the Japanese have all the fun?” In the 1960s and early ’70s, American folders such as Fred Rohm and Neal Elias developed novel techniques that produced models of unprecedented complexity.

Kirigami vs. Origami

Kirigami is the Japanese art of cutting paper, named from the words "kiru" (to cut) and "kami" (paper). Symmetry is a very important concept in Kirigami. Snowflakes, pentagrams, and flowers are all examples of Kirigami projects in which cuts are made to enhance the symmetry of the design.

Kirigami and origami are often confused, but these two crafts are not the same. It's true that they both incorporate the use of beautiful papers and folding techniques to make flowers, animals, and other designs. However, pure origami does not allow you to make cuts in the paper. To construct your design, you must fold one or more sheets together. In addition, there is no gluing or taping allowed in origami. In Kirigami projects, however, both techniques are acceptable.

Occasionally, people practicing Kirigami will use a pencil to make marks on the paper before they cut. While this can help a beginner improve his accuracy in creating more complicated designs, the history of Kirigami recommends that crafters use scissors or a knife only.

A Brief History of Kirigami

It's thought that Kirigami was first used in Japanese temples as a way to make offerings to the gods. By the 17th century, Kirigami was widely recognized as a true art form throughout Asian culture. People in Japan and China created Kirigami designs to represent:

  • Wealth
  • Perfection
  • Grace
  • Elegance
  • Man's relationship with the universe

In the United States, Kirigami did not become popular until the 1960s and 1970s. Florence Temko's 1962 book Kirigami, the Creative Art of Papercutting was the first guide to introduce this Asian craft to people in the U.S. One interesting aspect of Kirigami in the United States is that people have begun to combine Kirigami techniques with a variety of other traditions. Bunraku, a form of Japanese puppet theater, is sometimes done with Kirigami puppets that have moveable parts. Scherenschnitte, a German paper cutting craft, is combined with Kirigami to make beautiful cut paper silhouettes.

Kirigami Today

Although Kirigami isn't as popular as origami, you can still find many examples of Kirigami around you.

  • Crafters cut Kirigami designs to decorate handmade greeting cards.
  • Use Kirigami designs as embellishments for scrapbook pages.
  • Incorporate Kirigami into framed artwork and other home décor projects.
  • Cut paper designs can be used to decorate packages or to make handmade gift wrap.

Kirigami in Schools

Kirigami lessons are often a part of the curriculum in elementary schools. Kirigami helps to teach students about the importance of Japanese culture, while they are working on developing:

  • Scissor skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • Visual motor skills
  • Planning abilities

The most popular example of Kirigami for kids is having children cut paper snowflakes to decorate windows for Christmas. Paper doll chains used as simple toys to entertain children are another good example of Kirigami for young people

Kirigami as a Frugal Craft

In the early days of the history of Kirigami, paper was expensive enough that the craft was restricted to upper-class individuals. Today, however, anyone can enjoy this fun hobby.

Many people like crafting, but find hobbies such as painting, quilting, or woodworking to be too expensive. Part of the appeal of Kirigami today is that it is a very frugal craft. Paper is inexpensive, especially if you use basic computer or copy paper for practicing your designs. The only other supplies necessary are a sharp knife or fine tip scissors, a metal ruler, a paper folder, and a cutting board. Check out Kirigami books from your local library or you can turn to Web sites offering free Kirigami templates as a source of inspiration for your crafting endeavors.