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Japanese girl surrounded by origami cranes.

Origami is the name now given1 to 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 enjoys worldwide popularity with people of all ages and from all backgrounds and cultures.


If one researches the origins of origami one finds several different histories proposed. Even the name 'origami' it has been suggested2 was not created until the late 1900s as a translation of the German term 'papierfalten' when Kindergartens were introduced to Japan. What is more certain is that origami underwent a great change during the twentieth century, from a relatively small number of basic models, mostly learnt by children, to the highly creative and complex artform it is today.

Although paper manufacture itself was invented and refined in China between 2000 and 1500 years ago it is from Japan that the first references come that relate to using paper to create folded models. It is known that by the 12th Century AD paper was being used in Japan to make tsutsumi3 for storage of goods, and particularly gifts of flowers, where each type of flower had its own distinctive wrapper. The art did not expand from this ceremonial use to recreational folding until paper became less of a luxury commodity. By the end of the 18th Century AD books had been published containing instructions for fairly complex models such as paper dolls and chains of birds.

Less than a hundred years after these books were published, Japanese origami models were introduced to Europe and a philosopher from Spain, Miguel de Unamuno, developed many new models from the basic bird base used to create the flapping bird.


One useful method of understanding origami (before its explosion into new forms from the second half of the 20th Century) is by means of the bases used. An origami base is a partially folded model from which several models can be created, and is usually named after a typical model that can be created from it. In European origami, possibly derived from earlier ceremonial fabric folding, the only bases known to be used before the mid 19th Century were the windmill and waterbomb bases. The bird base and frog base it appears were introduced from Japan in the 19th Century .

Perhaps the most famous traditional model is the Japanese crane5, 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, suffering from leukaemia as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima during World War Two, 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. Exhibitions of Yoshizawa's work in the West gave inspiration to US and British folders and helped the art to gain popularity outside of Japan.

Many modern-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 plus a Rupert story told to include the model. At around the same time, Robert Harbin, a stage magician, 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 It was Oppenheimer who popularised the name 'Origami', as she preferred it to the more mundane 'paper folding'. The clases were followed up by a newsletter called The Origamian, that, following input from the BOS, evolved into Origami USA (OUSA). With growing membership, both these organisations are going from strength to strength. Among other things, they hold annual conferences and organise 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 would not themselves create models that use non-square forms (for example, Dave Brill's horse is folded from a triangular piece of paper). This has resulted in the vast majority of modern diagrammed models being based on squares - almost every model a folder looks for is likely to start with a square.

However, the most vehement debate is about the use of cuts in a model. Pure origami uses no cutting at all, and is the basis of most serious origami. Given how much can be achieved without cutting it seems like sacrilege to debase the art by allowing cuts to achieve an effect. It would be like sticking a photograph to an oil painting 'to add realism'.

A few models are impossible to do without cutting - eg the 'hundred cranes' 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 fold a model in front of a sceptic proving that yes, it is one piece of paper, and no, no slits or cuts have been made.

It should be noted that this controversy emerged in the 1950s, and prior to this many uses of origami involved sometimes extensive cutting, which some argued allowed for more refined forms, not distorted by excessive paper folded within the model.

The Appeal of Folding

One reason why origami appeals to so many people is the ability to take a simple piece of paper, an ordinary, everyday object, and in a matter of minutes (although sometimes, with more complex models, over many hours), turn it into a recognisable6 creature (such as a striped zebra) or practical item (a cup you can drink from) ... the possibilities are almost limitless.

More than that, origami can be a relatively cheap hobby - many models can be folded from normal paper (usually after cutting to a square), but packs of regular origami paper7 - 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 observed you folding the piece. There's a whole series of folds made by using paper money - known by some as 'billfolds' - which can be left as tips to delight (or, if you are unlucky, irritate) a restaurant's waiting staff.

The Range of Origami Styles

Origami today has developed into a large art form with many different branches, and many different types of folding. Using any of the following subheadings in a Google search may well bring back images of the fantastic things that can be achieved with origami8.


'Very slightly damp' folding is probably more accurate. Use heavy-duty paper rather than thin kami and a spray bottle like you get for misting plants, turned to the finest spray possible... very lightly dampen the surface of the paper, wipe off most of the excess with a dry cloth, and leave it for a few moments for the fibres to swell.. the paper will become a lot softer and more pliable. Then fold - and use softer, gentler curves rather than sharp creases - it gives a much more naturalistic look. And when it dries, it'll be pretty solid too.

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 wetfolds. Some of his most famous models include a horse, lions and even origami smoking.

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.

Modular 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 Cube10 used to have a webpage which provided more information on modular folds.


A new area of origami, and one which produces beautiful results, is that of tessellation. Here, a large piece of paper is folded and collapses in on itself, with twists in the folds, to produce a flat design consisting of smaller repeated units, which, when held up to the light, shows another pattern through it, often reminiscent of Moorish or Islamic designs. The best exponent of this art is Chris Palmer.

Origami Jokes

As in any area, Origami has its jokers and its jesters. Head of the Bay Area Rapid Folders (yep, that's BARF) is a 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. His book, noted below, will not tell you how to achieve this feat, but does live up to its title of astonishing and amusing.

Origami Mathematics

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 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 Maths for his work on this, and his page is well worth reading.

The trend for realistic folding has been taken to new levels by the pioneering cross-disciplinary marriage of origami with mathematics by Robert Lang. He has developed a technique that 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 works11.

Further Information

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

  • Joseph Wu's Origami Page - the ultimate resource for all things ori.

  • Nick Barber's Origami.com is one of the simplest places to find model diagrams, as each set of instructions can be searched for by name, or complexity, or picked out from a small image of the finished model.

  • Origami records and curiosities - Want to know the largest or the smallest models folded? The longest jump made by an origami frog? It's all here.

In addition to on-line resources some people prefer to have a book in front of them to study how to make models. There are numerous books available, but it is unlikely that you will find any but ones containing the same very basic children's origami models on the shelves of your local bookshop. While there are many that could be ordered it can seem a bit of a gamble knowing, sight unseen, whether a book is 'right' for your level of skill, or whether the diagrams can be easily followed.

One site that may help here is Gilad's Origami book review, which not only shows what models made from the book will look like, but will often show you in which other books they also appear.

The following are a few that you may find worth investing in:

  • Robert Harbin's Teach Yourself Origami, an admirable primer that has been in print for over thirty years and contains many of the models that appeared in the Rupert Bear annuals mentioned earlier.
  • Origami to Astonish and Amuse by Jeremy Shafer, which not only ranges from simple to horribly intricate models but provides many tips, variations to try, and thoughts about origami modelling. Be warned, it also has some origami 'jokes' (such as how to fold an origami square, invisible duck, and monolithic rubblestone boulder).
  • Origami For The Connoisseur by Kunihiko Kasahara and Toshie Takahama contains a range of elegant models, showing twist-folds, such as the Kawasaki rose, as well as iso-area folds (where as much can be seen of the coloured as of the plain side).
1Prior to 1880 it appears that several related words were used in Japan - 'Orikata' or 'Orisui' or even 'Orimono', and the word 'Origami' was unknown outside of Japan2David Lister offers this hypothesis in his History of Origami.3Ceremonial wrappers4.4One questionable use of tsutsumi, which is hard to credit, is as wrappings used to cover the male member, in the form of birds or animals, used in foreplay.5The bird, not the lifting mechanism.6With origami figures 'recognisable' is sometimes a flexible term, and occasionally a hint is needed before someone can say 'Oh yes, now I see it!'7Kami.8Unfortunately external links also tend to mutate over time, so only fairly reliable9 sites have been linked to directly.9And decent as, believe it or not, there is an erotic origami model site (entirely unrelated to the historical Japanese tsutsumi mentioned earlier)10A six-piece model, it's a red and green cube that opens up into a rose with three leaves.11That'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.

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