For centuries, paper has provided artists with surface on which to create their two-dimensional works. And recently, we’ve seen a marked uptick in papercraft – which uses paper to create three-dimensional models of various levels of intricacy. Let’s examine the roots of this practice, and see how it came to achieve the popularity it enjoys today.
Papercraft is an art form that has developed independently in many different parts of the world before finally coming together in the 20th century. Despite this, we tend to associate paper-folding with the Far East – specifically with Japan.
Origami is a term that’s virtually synonymous with all forms of paper-folding. Through this practice, it’s possible to create models of a range of different objects – ranging from the classic crane to the lotus flower and everything in between.
But, though origami is now taken to be synonymous with virtually all forms of papercraft, it’s actually particular to Japan, with the term being derived from the Japanese words for ‘fold’ and ‘paper’. The art first came to be at around the 6th century, when Buddhist monks arrived in the country. At the time, paper was very costly to produce, and so it was used solely in religious ceremonies as a display of devotion. Traditionally, origami creation forbids cutting the paper – more intricate designs which involve cutting is instead referred to as kirigami.
Across the Sea of Japan, the Chinese were hard at work developing their own paper-folding practice, known as Zhezhi. This art form mostly focuses on emulating functional, man-made objects like boats rather than the animals and flowers found in origami. Ironically, though the Japanese art form came to be the more famous, it was in neighbouring China that paper first came to be invented.
The invention of paper
It was in China that the paper which would eventually be imported to Japan and inspire origami practice was first invented, during the Han dynasty. Though the word ‘paper’ is derived from the papyrus plant, which in turn inspired the papyrus paper that the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used for writing, it was the Chinese of the Han dynasty who first developed the paper we know today, using crushed fibres from local plants.
Under previous dynasties, information would be recorded principally using bone and bamboo, or in some cases, silk. Each of these proved impractical for different reasons – the former two were too heavy and bulky to be of any use, while the latter was far too expensive.
The invention of industrial-scale papermaking is popularly credited to a single Han dynasty court official, a eunuch named Cai Lun, who came up with a process for making paper in 105AD. Legend has it that he took his inspiration from a species of wasp who made their nests out of a mixture of dead wood fibres and saliva. Though the precise formula Cai Lun used has been lost, the principles through which he made his paper still endure today (though the machinery used has gotten vastly more sophisticated). Felted fibre sheets would be drained in water, then the water would be drained, and the results dried. This would produce a crude version of the distinctive sheets we would recognise today.
At the time, the breakthrough was revolutionary – and it would earn Cai Lun the praise of the reigning Emperor, He, who would bestow upon him fabulous wealth and an aristocratic title as a way of saying thank you.
In the west, paper has long been used as a way of creating a small model aeroplane. By simply making a few folds into a sheet of A4, it’s possible to create a device that’ll stay intact and produce enough drag to stay airborne over a short distance. These principles were understood by aircraft designers like Da Vinci, and then later Victorian inventors who would use balsa-wood and paper when prototyping their aircraft. The Wright brothers would build a number of small-scale prototypes on their long and fraught journey toward manned flight. And even when sophisticated technological tools like computers were introduced in to the world of aviation, the paper aeroplane remained a useful prototyping tool, with multiple layers of paper being laminated together to create a solid, lightweight material that would more closely replicate the properties of a full-sized aircraft.
If you’d like to try your hand at papercraft, then you’re in luck – thanks to wealth of instruction you’ll find on the internet, there’s never been a better time to get acquainted with the skills you’ll need. You’ll be able to pick up the necessary materials from any good retailer of Arts and Crafts supplies.