Teen Origami Workshop

I drove from the Twin Cities to St. James, Minnesota to teach a group of teenagers how to fold various origami models. I brought various models from home so that the teens could see examples of advanced folding in the modern age. I also did some research so that I could provide a summary of the history of origami and I stressed out about what exactly I was going to teach once I got there.

I was terrified that there would be a dozen or more teens of different skill levels all trying desperately to follow along, but was relieved to see that it was actually a very small group. We folded boxes and cranes, boats and cups. I found them to be good students, who paid attention. 

I was impressed at the selection of origami books available at the Watonwan County Library. It was quite impressive, with a skill range from beginner to advanced. Visitors could legitimately get a broad folding education simply from visiting the library.

All in all, there could have been a slightly larger group, especially since the librarian had thought there would be more, but I would return all over again to repeat the experience.



When I started folding in high school, I was basically the only person interested. A classmate had been somewhat excited about origami as a subset of Japanese culture (which was a passion of his), and another student knew a handful of models, but had no interest in learning more. My only interaction with professional origami artists was via their books and websites. Many of my books were gifts given to me by friends who mysteriously had an origami book, but had no interest in folding. Origami was associated with generosity, both in giving of books and in teaching through those books. Also, many people put their diagrams online with no expectation of reward for their work. 

I had in my mind this idea that origami was a force for peace. Sadako Sasaki gave the crane new meaning and millions of people across the world have folded cranes with a hope for peace, tolerance and unity. The act of folding is a slow, calm process. If you fold too quickly, you may rip the paper or fail to line up two edges or fail to set a crease correctly. Patience and attention are the keys to a successful folding project. It also helps if one is gentle. So you can imagine how one can quickly construct an idea that origami is a pathway to inner peace and eventually social peace. 

My first introduction to animosity in folding was when I started to learn about copyright battles. Akira Yoshizawa accused his Japanese contemporaries of stealing his ideas and publishing them. Robert Lang, John Montroll, Michael LaFossse and others tend to spend much of their time developing content for books and presentations and rely on royalties. Those who share their diagrams via books can be very protective because it is often their only income. No one likes working on a huge project, expecting to get paid and then find out that others stole their ideas. I recognize that this is an acceptable and necessary form of animosity in our competitive, capitalist economy. I can see the financial pressures that cause people to be angry. There is, of course, also the anger from someone stealing your idea without even giving credit. I grudgingly acknowledged that this was a symptom of or economy, not of the art form.

Then I attended an origami event (organized independently of Origami MN or OrigamiUSA). I showed up and folded. People were having difficulty, so I helped them out. People asked me questions, so I answered them, and next thing I know, I realize that I am a much better teacher and better informed than the woman running the event. She went to get a drink of water, and a few minutes later, another woman is trying to explain to me that this event belongs to the first woman. Essentially, I was unwelcome and the woman running it did not have the courage to even figure out what my name was. So, I left.

It shook me, though. I never realized that my folding skill might be intimidating to others, that this knowledge was power. Folding had always opened doors, never closing them. I had only seen folding as a way to cheer people up, make things better. 

Recently, I was talking to a fellow folder at Origami MN and we discussed animosity in origami. It seems that people can become prideful in their skills and refuse to mingle with the lesser folders. That for them the art is measurement of worth and everyone is ranked, with the highest rank imbued with some sort of authority. It is elitism, just like everywhere else. I had always hoped that origami was more democratic because the medium (paper) is universally accessible and I had encountered so much in the way of free diagrams. 

Peace, democracy, origami. 
How can anger be a part of this?

[The picture is one I took of the Spirit of Peace]


A Safe Place for Paper

To store my origami paper (specifically the 15cm x 15cm sheets) I have been using a box that once held a desk calendar. It was flimsy, falling apart, and all around bad. So I decided to construct a new box that would house my nice paper.

This new box is made from scrap wood in the basement. I carved the pieces so that the walls came together as finger joints that were held by friction alone. Then I cut grooves along the top and bottom of each wall so that they would hold two flat boards, one for the floor and one for the lid. At this point, I also lowered one wall so that the lid could slide out of the box.

Then I sanded all of it and made sure the inside could neatly hold a 15cm square sheet, which it does! When it all came together, I drilled vertical holes in the corners and drove a wooden dowel into each corner so that they wouldn't accidentally come apart.

I sanded it all again and then used a wood burner to draw the image of an orizuru on the lid, just in case people didn't know what the box was for! And finally, to protect the wood, I put two layers of varnish. 

I am very proud of my box. It's not perfect, partly because the wood was scrap, and partly because I am an amateur, but it will serve well for a long time. And, I can proudly say that there is not any glue or metal in the final construction.


Hiden Senbazuru Orikata

The Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (The Secret of 1000 Cranes Paperfoldingis the first origami text in existence.

It was first published in 1797, and does not appear to have been republished since. It marks a turning point in origami tradition when the method for teaching shifted from exclusively direct instruction to text and diagram instruction. Now, people in one hemisphere teach people in the other hemisphere without ever meeting. There are untold hundreds (or thousands?) of origami books out there, everyone teaching everyone.

This particular book is not the most helpful. If you are a beginner, it lacks many diagrams, and all the models rely exclusively on cutting the paper.  Specifically, it shows various ways to precut sheets of paper in order to create connected cranes. 

I suggest checking out the full book. There is more to it than origami. It has a few pictures of people playing with cranes, both the animal and the folded paper. I find it very charming. But remember, Japanese is written from the opposite direction, so page 6 is left of page 5, for example.

I would love to be able to read the text, but I do not know how to read Japanese, yet. If anyone thinks they can translate, I would be interested.

[I should mention that the pictures were originally hosted by the Japan Origami Academic Society, but were taken down. The web archive still has the original page up. If it works for you, great, but if it does not, I took the liberty of putting them here.]


The History of Origami

I am going to be teaching a little origami in an introductory course for some middle schoolers. I thought I should provide a handout with a summary of origami history for the students. This is my first draft:

In the year 105 AD, Cai Lun invented paper for the Han Dynasty in China. At that time, it was a very difficult to make paper and so it was only for the very rich. The Chinese may have folded paper shortly after inventing it, but it is not clear if they did. Eventually, monks brought the knowledge of how to make paper from China to Japan in the 6th century.

Nobody knows exactly when the Japanese began folding paper, but is it known that the first models were for ceremonial purposes. The noshi was given with gifts, especially among samurai, and were considered tokens of good luck. The mecho and ocho butterflies were used in traditional Shinto weddings, possibly as early as the Heian period (794–1185). Unfortunately, the models were not written down since they were taught from parents to children. Nor were they given a single name. Origami was also called Orikata, Orisui and Orimono.


The first book on origami was published in 1797, called Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (The Secret of One Thousand Cranes Paperfolding) and it gave instructions on how to fold multiple cranes so that they are linked together. All the traditional folds were published in other books and origami became very popular in Japan.

The knowledge of paper making also spread west over the Silk Road through the Middle East. It reached Spain in 1036 with the Moor invasions and spread to the rest of Europe. At first, simple astrological diagrams (similar to fortune tellers) were folded in Spain. In the 16th century, napkin folding became popular among dinner tables for the nobility.

By the time Friedrich Fröbel lived (1782–1852), people all over Europe were folding. He was a teacher who also folded. He changed schools all over the world when he invented kindergarten. As the idea of kindergarten spread, so did origami, but it was still very simple. Miguel Unamuno (1864–1936) was an author and teacher who lived in Spain. He made many discoveries about new ways to fold and his ideas spread to the Spanish speaking countries of the world.

But it would be Japan that would finally make origami a worldwide art. Akira Yoshizawa (1911–2005), grew up folding. It is believed that he folded as many as 50,000 models throughout his life. He was different than other Japanese folders in that he insisted that origami was a creative artform, like painting or sculpting. In the 1950's he became a respected folder and published several books. He invented the standard instructions used by authors today. His work became very popular and he coordinated with many other folders in the United States.

After meeting Yoshizawa, Lillian Oppenheimer founded the Origami Center in New York in 1958 and folding groups started to appear all over the world. Some of the notable groups today include OrigamiUSA, the British Origami Society, Nippon Origami Association, Japanese Origami Art Society, and the Israeli Origami Center.

Further reading:

[The image is from the
National Diet Library (Diet, as in legislative body)]