The Public Paperfolding History Project

Index Page


Some Introductory Notes

A Note about what is meant by paper in this project

In this project paper is defined as a thin, usually flat, material made from cellulose fibres which are held together by hydrogen bonds (as distinct from felts in which the fibres are simply matted together). Card or cardboard is simply thick paper. Pasteboard is a material made by pasting together two or more layers of paper.

Paper is not, of course, the oldest foldable material. Foodstuffs such as dough, leaves and plant stems, animal skins and leather, cloth and felt, and metals were all folded long before we have any record of the folding of paper. Paper, however, folds in a very different way to these other materials.

We do not know when, where, or by whom paper was first invented, or whether it was invented accidentally or as the result of a deliberate experimental process. Nor do we know whether, if it was the result of a deliberate experimental process, it was intended to be a medium for writing or painting on, wrapping with, or something else entirely. We do not even know whether paper was invented just once in one place or several times independently in several places. What we do know, however, is that the earliest evidence for the existence and use of paper comes from China, and that we can trace the spread of the knowledge of how to make and use it from there to the rest of the world. Chinese tradition dates the invention of paper to 105CE, but, according to the Wikipedia page on the History of Paper, 'The earliest extant paper fragment was unearthed at Fangmatan in Gansu province, and was likely part of a map, dated to 179–141 BCE. Fragments of paper have also been found at Dunhuang dated to 65 BCE and at Yumen pass, dated to 8 BCE. As far as I know, none of these fragments shows signs of having been folded.

We also do not know, of course, when paper was first intentionally folded for some practical purpose, although it is reasonable to assume that this would have been not long after it was first discovered.

At present this project does not extend to include information about the folding of other 'paper-like' materials, such as papyrus, parchment, vellum or the so-called 'bark papers' known as tapas in the South Pacific, and huun and amatl (aka amate) in Central America, which do not, according to Dard Hunter (writing in his 'Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft') qualify as true paper in the sense given above.


A Note about what is meant by folding in this project

By folding in this project I mean any change of direction intentionally induced by any means in the original flat plane of the paper. By this definition rolling is a form of folding. Folding does not necessarily imply the making of a crease.

(Incidentally, the word 'intentionally' is included in this definition only because within the terms of this definition it is difficult to pick up any piece of paper without accidentally inducing a change of direction in the flat plane of the paper.)


A Note about the nature of evidence

Writing an outline of paperfolding history is rather like playing a game of join-the-dots. You start with a series of discrete facts and try to join them up to create a coherent narrative. The errors in this narrative - and there will be errors - will come mainly from two sources, either lack of evidence at some crucial point, or an over-enthusiastic effort to link the evidence together to make the narrative flow. The first is somewhat inevitable. I have tried to avoid the second.

This is not a definitive, set in stone, type of history. New evidence in this field is being uncovered all the time. Some of this new evidence will no doubt confirm the validity of the historical narratives in this document. Other new evidence will equally undoubtedly require that we reassess what we think we know.

Paper is not, of course, the oldest foldable material. Foodstuffs such as dough, leaves and plant stems, animal skins and leather, cloth and felt, and metals were all folded long before paper was invented. However, paper has qualities that make it particularly suitable as a folding medium and consequently the folding of paper has developed in a way that the folding of other materials has not. The folding of other materials is only included when it bears on the history of the folding of paper.

Paper is ephemeral and many objects made of folded paper are routinely destroyed or discarded as soon as they have been used. Very few folded objects made of paper survive intact, and so the record we have of them relies largely on their mention or appearance in poetry, books, fabrics, drawings and paintings. It is likely that many paperfolds are much older than the earliest evidence for their existence, but, unfortunately, we cannot know, even approximately, how much older they might actually be. We can therefore only date them by the first clear evidence we have.

The ideal evidence to substantiate the existence of any paperfolding design at a particular date is a combination of an illustration (to show us what the design looked like) and a written description (to confirm that the design is in fact made from folded paper). Unfortunately, in many cases, one or the other of these elements is missing. If we only have text it can be difficult to know exactly what design is being referred to. If we only have an illustration, then it can sometimes be equally difficult to tell if the design is really a paperfold, or whether it simply looks like one but is actually something else entirely.


Two unsubstantiated conjectures

There can obviously be no paperfolding without paper. The earliest fragment of paper we have, which appears to have been part of a map, was found at Fangmatan in China, and can be dated to between 179 and 141 BCE. On the basis that paper is first known from China, and was therefore probably first invented there, it is often conjectured that paperfolding began there too.

If by paperfolding we mean paperfolding for everyday practical purposes, then this is probably true. It is probably also true that, as knowledge of how to make paper spread to other cultures, they would also have begun to fold paper for similar everyday practical purposes in similar ways.

If, however, by paperfolding, we mean the folding of paper in less ordinary ways, for instance to facilitate the cutting of symmetrical patterns or decorations, or to create representations of objects, toys, puzzles etc., then there is much less of an obvious connection to the date that papermaking first appeared in a culture. So, while we might reasonably conjecture that everyday practical paperfolding began in China, it would be completely incorrect to conjecture, as people frequently do, that, for instance, recreational paperfolding must have necessarily begun in China too. To decide questions like this we need to look at the available evidence and to be guided by it.

A similar error is often made in relation to paperfolding in Spain. Paper was introduced to Spain by the Moors in the 12th century, or possibly earlier, and was being manufactured there, in Xativa, by about 1150. It is reasonable to conjecture that some of this paper was folded for everyday practical purposes but as far as I know there is no evidence to support the idea that any other more esoteric type of paperfolding originated there.


Everyday practical paperfolding

Paper is, of course, and always has been, most often folded for practical everyday purposes, than for any other more esoteric reason, the main practical purposes being:

For wrapping objects to protect them from damage

For making packets or bags to keep seeds or powders in

To make paper objects, like maps or letters, more easily handled by folding them down to a smaller size

To conceal what is written or printed on a sheet of paper

although there are, of course, many others.

Originally, all this practical paperfolding was done by hand, but much is now done by machine. Paper is machine-folded into envelopes, advertising leaflets, packets and packaging. Letters are often folded by machine to fit into envelopes. How long this will continue in the digital age, however, is anyone's guess.


Three regions

There are, at present, only three regions of the world where we can trace the development of independent paperfolding traditions in any detail, China and the Chinese diaspora, Japan and Europe. Our knowledge of the development of paperfolding in China is much less detailed than in the other two regions. Paperfolding in the Americas, particularly in Argentina and the USA, is largely an extension of the European tradition, although, in the case of the USA, with some limited influence directly from Japan and China in the 20th century.

There are perhaps other regions of the world in which a paperfolding tradition that goes beyond simple everyday practical paperfolding exists, but if so, evidence to confirm it is lacking. The most obvious candidate is Korea, but, at present I am not aware of any documentary evidence that would substantiate the existence of such a tradition, although the necessay evidence may, of course, emerge in future.


A word about language

A word about language. I generally prefer to use the word 'paperfolding' rather than 'origami' because the word 'origami' is hard to define. However, it seems impossible to avoid it completely. So when I use the word 'origami' on this site I mean 'recreational paperfolding', ie 'a pastime, craft or artform where paper is folded to create representations of living creatures or inanimate objects, abstract or decorative geometrical forms, toys, games, puzzles or flexible novelties'. This is not a perfect definition, but I hope it will make my intention reasonably clear.