In order to discover what is possible to do with a piece of paper, people may think to ask a child. In fact, the practice of making art from a single sheet of paper is hundreds of years old – and possibly older. The ancient art of origami involves a creation of a piece of artwork that may be two-dimensional or three-dimensional in nature. It may be flexible and offer movement, or it might be stiff and permanent in shape. Although paper itself is fairly flimsy and delicate, a piece of origami can retain its design for years.
As with many ancient practices, origami holds a number of benefits for people who engage in it. Depending on the style, origami may require people to fold a shape without using scissors, glue, or tape. This promotes critical thinking and spatial awareness that is helpful for children and a practical hobby for adults. The widespread popularity of origami has led it to influence many different fields and industries, from popular culture to engineering. By understanding the most common types of origami, their history and the best way to achieve them, people will be able to better enjoy this art form.
Table of Contents
- The History of Origami
- Variations of Origami
- Origami Paper Options
- Benefits of Origami
- Origami Today
The History of Origami
The practice of origami is most commonly associated with Japan. And while it is true that many of the most intricate designs that fit the origami classification come from Japan, the full picture is more varied. Part of the problem is that recording the history of a paper product is difficult. Because paper products will break down easily even in dry weather and completely melt when wet, there are not many papers that survive for centuries. Historians rely on depictions of the folded paper designs as much as the actual artifacts to piece together a cultural history of the practice.
What historians have revealed is that throughout the centuries, the art of folding paper developed independently throughout China, Japan, and various places in Europe. These examples remained relatively isolated until trade became much more accessible throughout the 19th century. By then, artists were passing ideas along common trade routes. They built onto traditional practices and created new ideas with more intricate designs. Once paper became a product easily bought by most social classes, origami turned into the widespread hobby people can see in the present day.
The ability to make origami starts with the production of paper. In China in the 2nd century CE, a man named Cai Lun is widely credited with standardizing the creation of paper. Although there were other attempts made in the centuries prior, Lun’s process made paper much more useful for writing in particular. He used materials such as:
- Old fishnets
Lun’s approach became popular. After his death, people who made paper would travel to a temple built in his honor.
Centuries later, paper was still widely used. Examples are difficult for archaeologists to find, because paper degrades quickly over time. However, there is evidence that people had adapted it for ceremonial purposes. For example, in China in the 10th century, mourners would fold paper into “yungbao,” a shape that resembled gold ingots used as currency at the time. They would burn the folded paper nuggets as an offering to the person who had died. Although this probably is not the earliest example of paper folding, it is the earliest one that historians have been able to document and study.
Historians estimate that paper was introduced in Japan in the 6th century CE, although evidence of specific types of folded paper did not arrive until much later. Experts suggest that paper came to Japan by way of Buddhist monks. Japanese papermakers refined the process to create paper that was thinner and able to fold without breaking. Historians can define the late 17th century as a clear date that origami was in practice, but many believe it may have begun much earlier.
Due to the delicate nature of paper and the difficulty of finding records from 1,000 years ago, the earliest examples date from about 1680 CE. Specifically, historians point to a poem by Ihara Saikaku. In the poem, Saikaku mentions a particular folded butterfly that figured into Shinto weddings. During the Edo period in Japan, which runs from the early 17th century to the late 19th century, the practice of origami flourished. Historians note that there were several instructional books on various folds, like the ubiquitous paper crane. Paper was still quite expensive, but it became more available to different groups of people over time.
The earliest example of folded paper in Europe may be from late in the 15th century. A print from a woodcut in a book from the period suggests the popular origami boat, and the preference for folding would continue to grow. By the 17th century, European aristocrats had developed a taste for elaborately folded napkins. This was a mark of high class and a clever way to entertain guests who came to stay. By the 19th century, innovators with an eye on education started to adapt folding paper as a curriculum for school children.
Although Europe and East Asia were reasonably well-connected by the late Middle Ages, historians argue that the practice of folding paper developed in Europe concurrently. To support this claim, they cite examples of the way that the early designs folded paper. Specifically, early modern Europeans preferred to fold paper along parallel or perpendicular lines, creating squares instead of the diagonal folds popular in China and Japan. By the late 19th century, however, ideas about the best origami approaches were flowing freely from east to west and back again.
Variations of Origami
There are dozens of types of origami. While some are built to expand on a previous idea, others make it easier for people to make elaborate designs. Still, others set strict limits on the practice to encourage creativity. This is not surprising, for any craft that has survived for more than 1,000 years. Although many folded creations could fit into more than one style, people who are interested in learning may want to understand the most common approaches. This will make it more interesting and allow them to discover new ways to solve similar problems with design.
While many types of origami are designed primarily to serve as decoration, there are others that fulfill a specific function. Action origami moves when the person holding it pulls on a particular piece, and the paper crane is probably the best-known example. Once folded, someone can tap or lightly tug on the crane’s tail, which makes the wings go up and down. Action origami includes various kinds of paper airplanes as well, although these are a later design.
Many of the most popular origami folds perform some kind of action, which makes them a particular delight for children. For example, the origami frog will hop across a table if someone presses down on the rear and releases it. Additionally, the “cootie catcher,” sometimes called a fortune teller, creates flaps that the user can write messages in order to determine another person’s fortune. Turned upside-down, it has four spaces for people to put their fingers or even small items. Although inflatable frogs or waterbombs also count as a type of action origami, some experts argue that the inflation does not make them a true action piece.
Golden Venture (3D) Origami
Historians suggest that Golden Venture origami began as late as the 1990s. As the story goes, several Chinese refugees found themselves in an American prison after attempting to emigrate to the U.S. illegally. Golden Venture origami, which is a type of modular folding, was named after the ship in that story. Because the options are virtually unlimited, these origami creations can be quite large in size. People like this approach because the folds are simple and easy to create over time. Some people believe that it helped the prisoners collect money to pay legal fees, because they sold the creations once they were completed.
The triangle pieces used for this type of origami are relatively easy to make. People can create them by:
- Folding a rectangular piece of paper horizontally and vertically
- Folding the ends upward to create a downward-pointing arrow
- Tucking the top edges into the triangle
- Folding the triangle in half to make a pocket
With this design, it is simple to combine the triangles into a more elaborate shape.
Because Golden Venture origami is so different from other types of origami, it has dramatically expanded the creative use of folded paper. For example, designer Mauricio Velasquez Posada incorporated 3D origami into fashion he called “Geomorfos.” His approach takes hundreds of folded papers and incorporates them together into fashion pieces. Some appear more like a paper design than clothing, but others strongly resemble classic dresses and other styles. Other artists have used cardboard or other sturdy paper-like materials to make origami furniture or even structures that people can walk through.
Pure & Pureland Origami
The Pure and Pureland origami styles set a number of restrictions on the setup, design, and function of the piece. These approaches came later at points in the 20th century. To meet this philosophy, Pure and Pureland origami art must follow these rules:
- Simple instructions that are easy to follow
- No use of glue or tape to hold it together
- No paint or other decoration added once it is complete
There are several reasons these styles evolved. There is nothing wrong with using an elaborately shaped paper to make origami or cutting into it as part of the design. However, proponents of this approach argue that origami must be simple in order to be accessible to most people, especially early learners of the art.
The Pureland style, developed in the 1970s, requires that the design follow simple mountain and valley folds, which makes it easier to follow. It has also promoted a renewed creativity; people who want to create designs within the practice use the strict requirements to make even more beautiful pieces. Although the creator, John Smith, argued that the main premise was to make the folds easy to replicate, he indicated that he also wanted the style to make people think of ways to create without adding complexity.
While many types of origami call for the folding of a single piece of paper, modular origami is different. With modular origami, someone creates multiple folded pieces of origami in the same triangular shape. There may be dozens to a particular design – or even thousands. These pieces are put together to create a three-dimensional model. Modular origami requires someone to fold, stack, or carefully place the pieces together to create a shape. Some designs give an elaborate geometric appearance that seems to go on forever.
The trick to modular origami is the way it stays together. Many argue that in order to remain true to the philosophy, modular origami must be able to hold its shape without use of tape or any other adhesive. This requires a balance of placement and tension, as people must fold each piece exactly correct, or else the design may not fit neatly or completely. However, some designs rely on thread or glue to hold them together. This may also be a necessity if each paper is not precisely the same size, or if the person learning the skill has not mastered the technique yet.
Wet Folding Origami
Wet folding is an approach to origami that looks significantly different from other styles. Specifically, a person lightly sprays the paper, then folds quickly before it dries. The result is gentle curves instead of abrupt or sharp folds. This is one of the trickiest styles, as it takes significant practice to master. People have to learn how much water to use and how to create the folds without ripping the paper. The paper is more likely to tear or turn to mush if it becomes too wet. If it is too dry, it will not keep the curve.
The way wet folding works is in the adhesive used to hold the paper together. Without this adhesive, paper would be flimsy or even crumbly once it dried. When someone gets the paper slightly damp, this activates the adhesive to some extent. Once the paper is folded and allowed to dry, the adhesive sticks into place, holding the origami piece in better condition with the delicate curves and the tight creases. Where a dry-folded piece of origami might curl or collapse over time, the wet-folded style retains its shape.
Origami Paper Options
Most people are probably familiar with the brightly colored origami squares available from a variety of stores. This is not the only variety, and it is often not the best choice for certain types of folds. In fact, there are many paper options for folding origami. People can easily rely on whatever scraps they have at home, and there have been many creations based on dollar bills or even business cards. With an understanding of the most popular types of origami paper, people will know the best ways to use them.
Kami is probably the best-known type of origami paper. Cut into standard squares, these pieces usually have bright colors. Although people may gravitate to this type because they think it is the most traditional, this is not necessarily true, as kami is mass-produced, and early versions only had color on one side to keep manufacturing costs down. The paper itself is generally thinner than standard copy paper. While this makes it easier to fold, it also makes it more likely to break down over time or tear. As such, kami is an ideal paper for beginners, but it may not be the best option for elaborate designs or something that people want to keep for a long time.
For people who want a little more variety and strength from their origami creations, duo may be more appropriate. This paper is also mass-produced, so people can also find it in a variety of craft shops or stationery supply stores. Duo simply means that there are two colors, one on each side. For people who want to give an added depth to the piece, it may be ideal. Duo also comes in a wider variety of sizes, which allows someone to select the one that is more appropriate to the design. Many experts say that duo paper is stronger and thicker, but this depends heavily on the manufacturer.
Origami artists who have some experience with wet folding often shift to using Tant paper for their projects. Tant is a thin paper that is very stiff. It has a slight texture to it, which adds a figure of interest to the completed piece. Tant comes in a wide variety of sizes, but it is typically only sold in solid colors. Tant is ideal for wet folding because it can hold a soft crease for a long period of time. However, the disadvantage of its thinness is that it can tear very easily, and it is typically not a good choice for people who are new to origami.
Anyone who has opened a package wrapped in brown paper may be familiar with Kraft paper. This paper is rough, rustic, and durable, but its thickness makes it less practical for some delicate or tricky folds. Although it is quite inexpensive, Kraft may not be best for people who are likely to make mistakes. Otherwise, it holds its shape well and works perfectly with wet folding. People can get it in almost any size, including long rolls like butcher paper. Some Kraft paper options have colors, typically on one side. Otherwise, it usually comes in brown or another natural color.
Washi, Chiyogami, and Yuzen
Washi paper is a traditional style of papermaking from Japan. If you’ve ever seen Washi tape in the craft store, this where it gets its name from. It is often made by hand and comes in a variety of thicknesses. Some versions can be nearly translucent while others are quite thick. As a general rule, it is more durable and less likely to tear than other papers popular for origami. This paper often features bold, traditional designs. Chiyogami or Yuzen is a type of Washi paper that adds gold coloring to the design. Given the effort needed to make the paper, this type tends to be the most expensive and difficult to find.
Mulberry paper is a popular choice for origami, but it needs preparation first. This paper comes from fibers of mulberry trees. Mashed into pulp and allowed to dry, this paper is thick but looks fibrous and almost translucent. Sometimes, manufacturers put in other elements in a kind of design. Because of this inconsistency in each piece, mulberry paper cannot hold most origami folds unless it is treated. People may choose to use a starch spray to stiffen it, so that it will crease properly and hold a fold over time.
For origami artists who want to add extra shine or metal color to the piece, foil paper is an excellent option. This is essentially a thin piece of foil that has a paper backing to help keep its shape. The result is still quite thin, but it is durable and able to retain its color and shape for years. People who desire the art to reflect light but not shine through may find this the best choice. For others, it can be somewhat tricky to use and unforgiving. Mistakes in the fold will be very obvious in the finished product.
Some people want a paper that is so thin that light can shine through it. Although there are a few choices to meet this requirement, Glassine paper may be the most popular, as it is one of the thinnest options available. Additionally, the nature of the paper makes it very easy to fold, so someone who is looking to make very tight creases can use Glassine and a bone folder to achieve it. Because this paper is easy to fold, it is difficult to reverse a fold, which makes it a better choice for experts or people who are particularly familiar with a specific design.
Benefits of Origami
Origami provides many unique benefits. Because most of the designs are primarily decorative, people may wonder why they should engage in this particular hobby compared to others. In fact, origami and the general practice of learning to fold paper can help children and adults develop and maintain a variety of skills.
Because it is a simple hobby that does not require a lot of equipment or long study, origami is fairly accessible to almost anyone. Some shapes are quite difficult, and modular designs may take months of practice to learn. However, this is a project that people can begin and develop skill. The easiest folds only take a minute or two to master, which provides an immediate reward. Over time, people may discover that it is an enjoyable hobby and stress-reliever that suits them anytime they want.
The best way to explain how origami benefits children starts with a discussion of kindergarten. Very young children are active learners. Almost everything in life is a new experience that they can use to build knowledge and skills for other activities. Although young children require a lot of practice to master a skill, they may not need a strict education or rote repetition in order to grasp it. The primary premise of kindergarten was that children can learn through play. For example, early proponents of this educational model argued that children can develop mathematical skill by learning to sing, dance, or do crafts.
Origami fits neatly into this. By folding paper into an airplane, boat, or crane, children improve their spatial awareness. They learn to follow instructions in sequence with a reward that comes almost immediately afterward. While they are refining their fine motor coordination, they are also learning to communicate with a teacher and other students. The end result is a child who can pay attention, understand simple geometry, and see creativity in a simple piece of paper. The best part is that the child may not even be aware that they are learning these skills during the process.
Origami also presents many possible health benefits to adults. Finding a hobby that is relatively easy to do and takes little time to complete can become an accessible form of stress relief. Therapists have found that teaching patients with depression or anxiety how to do certain origami folds can build self-esteem and lessen the symptoms of these conditions. Origami is also helpful for people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. These conditions are often classified by a loss of memory and ability to complete certain repetitive tasks. Many origami pieces are easy to finish with only a few folds, while others can be adapted to make them more accessible. The way that origami stimulates brain function may allow people to retain other skills that help them take care of themselves.
Because origami helps people practice and retain certain mental skills, it is a useful hobby during recovery from illness or injury. For example, someone who has had surgery or limited mobility in an arm needs to perform physical therapy to regain use of it. Without regular practice, people can lose fine motor coordination. Origami gives them a fun and entertaining way to keep developing those skills. That way, they can distract themselves from minor discomfort created during the exercise.
Origami is best-known for its use in teaching mathematics, particularly for reluctant learners. In many parts of the world, but especially in the United States, people can be afraid of math concepts. The idea of fractions or geometry remains a mystery to many, and being able to understand how to break something up into portions or shapes can be intimidating. By learning to fold a paper into half, quarters, or thirds, even the youngest children can see how the parts make up a whole. Origami makes it easier for them to grasp the simple physics and function of the world around them.
By learning how to do the folds, people develop and refine their cognitive and critical thinking skills as well. Origami is a game of following directions and involves trial and error. While it emphasizes spatial reasoning and precise action, origami also requires people to think outside of a two-dimensional piece of paper. Children who accumulate significant skill in folding paper airplanes can use this knowledge to start solving problems. What makes the airplane fly? Why does this fold work better for distance flight than others? The art pieces can serve as a jumping-off point for discussions of the mathematical complexity and physics necessary to understand engineering.
Origami highlights the importance of practice in developing academic knowledge and skill. Although there are plenty of easy folds that preschoolers can achieve with minimal effort, there are devilishly tricky designs that take hours or hundreds of sheets of paper to complete. Folds must be precise, or otherwise the shape will not resemble the animal, object, or geometric design as intended. Origami teaches children the value of practicing the fold until they get it exactly correct. In return, they get a reward of a delightful piece of art that they can display.
Although origami was designed to mimic many items and animals from nature, it has also shaped the world that people see today. By understanding how a piece of paper can be folded to make a smaller shape, people can use those techniques to innovate. These inventions may be as unique as a contraption that can aid in marine life research thousands of feet under water. They may also be as common as a camping chair that folds up into a fraction of its size for easy transportation.
In essence, this art that was created mainly for decoration or tribute has turned into a hobby that builds skill and teaches people how to shape the world around them. Engineers at NASA have used certain origami folds to make computer equipment smaller and lighter in weight, making them more appropriate for space travel and operable from a significant distance.
The accessibility of the paper and the ease in which people can develop skill in origami ensures its relevance in the modern day. People can use it as a way to manage stress or heal from injury. Origami is taught to children without a great deal of complexity or training in pedagogical techniques, making it an ancient art with nearly unlimited potential. As a result, it is likely that origami will continue to be a popular practice for centuries in the future.