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Japanese girl surrounded by origami cranes

Origami is the art of folding paper. The term itself comes from two Japanese words, oru meaning 'to fold', and kami meaning 'paper'. As an art form, and a hobby, it has been growing in popularity with people of all ages and from all backgrounds, all over the world.


It is believed that paper was first invented in China some time around the first century AD. And almost from the very beginning, people saw the potential in folding it into various forms and shapes. As the secret of how to make paper spread to Japan in 6AD, and, through the Moors, into Spain in 8AD, so both cultures developed their own traditional paper folded models, which were taught and handed down from generation to generation. Examples of such traditional folds, which are still enjoyed among Japanese children to this day, are the crane, the turtle, and the Chinese junk - a model which pulls open to form a boat. Spanish traditional folds include the 'pajarita' - an abstract bird form, and various other geometrical designs.

Perhaps the most famous traditional model is the Japanese crane, which has become a symbol of peace throughout the world. Tradition has it that if you fold a thousand paper cranes within one year, then your wish will come true. This inspired a young girl, dying as a result of the Hiroshima bomb, to try and fold a thousand cranes before she died. There is now a peace monument in Hiroshima commemorating Sadako and the Peace Crane.

Modern Folding

Origami as an art form, creating original designs rather than merely replicating traditional models, began in Japan in the 1930s with master folder Akira Yoshizawa. He has created tens of thousands of original models, and is also responsible for creating the system of lines, dotted lines and arrows that is the universally accepted format for diagramming models to this day. It was exhibitions of Yoshizawa's work in the West that inspired US and British folders, and led to the art gaining popularity outside of Japan.

Many current day folders in the UK can trace their interest in Origami back to the Rupert Bear annual, drawn and illustrated by Alfred Bestall. From 1946, the annual regularly included an origami model to fold, and a Rupert story around the model. At around the same time, Robert Harbin, a stage magician, had also discovered origami, and, in conjunction with Bestall, formed the British Origami Society (BOS) in 1967. In the US, Lillian Oppenheimer had also discovered paper folding, and founded The Origami Center as a limited series of classes in 1958. This was quickly accompanied by a newsletter called "The Origamian", and, following input from the BOS, evolved into Origami USA (OUSA). Both these organisations are still going strong today, with growing membership, and annual conferences and events.

Controversies in Origami

Like any school of art, origami has its own debates, discussions, and factions. Certain folders insist on starting only from a square of paper, and dislike models that use non-square forms (for example, Dave Brill's horse is folded from a triangular piece of paper).

However, the most vehement debate is about the use of cuts in a model. Pure origami uses no cutting at all, although very few folders would object to one or two small snips to make things easier - to bring out the ears of an owl in a basic model, for instance. Certain models are impossible to do without cutting - the 'hundred cranes' for instance, is folded from a single large sheet of paper, with slits cut into it to divide it into small, connected squares, each one of which is folded into a crane. But part of the joy and impressiveness of origami is being able to unfold and refold a model, to prove to a sceptic that yes, it is one piece of paper, and no, there have been no slits or cuts made.

The Appeal of Folding

And that perhaps is part of the reason why origami appeals to so many people. Being able to take a simple piece of paper, an ordinary, every day object, and, sometimes in a matter of minutes, sometimes over many hours, turn it into a bird, an animal, a dragon... the possibilities are endless.

More than that, it's a relatively cheap hobby - packs of regular origami paper, which is square, coloured on one side, and white on the reverse, are affordable even on a child's pocket money. Diagrams can be found online, and membership of a society such as BOS or OUSA, provides many opportunities to meet with other folders and learn new models.

Origami models make wonderful gifts for people - especially if they've watched as you fold the piece. There's a whole number of folds made using money, which can be left as tips to delight a waitress.

Current folders and their work

Origami today has developed into a large art form with many different branches, and many different types of folding. The following links are to pictures and essays on a selection of areas of paperfolding.

  • Perhaps one of the best known folders in the UK is Dave Brill. He is renowned for the artistic style of his creations, which he wetfolds1. Some of his most famous models include a horse, lions and even origami smoking!
  • The trend for realistic folding has been taken to new levels by the work of Robert Lang. He has developed a technique which enables him to get an almost infinite number of 'points' from one piece of paper. This allows for incredibly complex models, such as life-like insects, an Allosaurus skeleton, and a cuckoo clock that actually works. 2
  • In the USA, Michael La Fosse combines hand made paper with wetfolding to produce models that are indeed works of art. From his studio in New England, he has developed origamido - the art of origami.
  • While most origami is made from a single sheet of paper, there is also Modular Origami, in which many sheets, sometimes in the thousands, are joined together to create larger forms, often geometrical shapes. Valerie Vann, who created the popular Magic Rose Cube3 has a webpage which provides more information on modular folds.
  • A new area of origami, and one which produces beautiful results, is that of tesselations. Here, a large piece of paper is folded and collapses in on itself, with twists in the folds, to produce a flat design, which, when held up to the light, shows another pattern through it. The best exponent of this art is Chris Palmer, whose 'Shadowfolds' page has examples folded both from paper and from raw silk.
  • Not surprisingly, much has been written on the geometrical shapes formed by folding, and the overlapping of origami and mathematics. Tom Hull has been made professor of Math for his work on this, and his page is well worth reading.
  • And of course, as in any area, Origami has its jokers and its jesters. Head of the Bay Area Rapid Folders (yep, that's BARF) is a young unicyclist, juggler, and incredibly creative folder - Jeremy Shafer. This is the man who sets a piece of paper on fire and then proceeds to fold a flapping bird from it - while unicycling.

Useful Links

If you want more information, then the following pages are good starting points:

1Wetfolding uses water to dampen the paper, thus making soft curves rather than hard creases. Once the model dries, the curves stay in place, making for a stable, lifelike form.2That's 'works' in the sense of the cuckoo pops out, the pendulum swings, and so on. Not 'works' in the sense of the hands move round and it keeps actual time. Just in case you were wondering.3A 6 piece model, a red and green cube, which opens up into a rose with three leaves.

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