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The History of Origami: One Fold at a Time

history of origami min
Updated on 04/15/24

You don’t have to go far to find stunning examples of origami. Many classic and modern designs are just an Instagram or Pinterest account away!

Despite its Japanese name, paper-folding art has crossed cultures, geography, and time periods.

But what is the history of origami? Here is how origami developed and evolved to its current modern art form.

What is Origami?

Origami is paper folding, and it received its name in 1880. The name is a combination of the Japanese words for folding (“ori”) and paper (“kami.”) Besides being descriptive, some historians believe the name was chosen because its characters were easier for school children to write.

Traditionally, origami involved one piece of paper that was colored on one side. Now, origami arts include cutting, pasting, and marking to create more complex works. Modern artists also use wet folding and other techniques to smooth once-sharp edges and create a sculptured look.

Where did the History of Origami Evolve?

The history of origami contains mild disputes, but some facts appear to be in agreement. China invented paper in 105 AD, and it’s assumed folding arts followed that. The Chinese word for folded paper is “zhezhi.” Chinese folding patterns focus on inanimate objects like boats, boxes, and gold nuggets.

Japan started using paper in the 6th century. Due to the paper’s high cost, origami practice was limited to Shinto rituals. Called “origata,” paper folding was a hobby linked to higher-class warriors and aristocrats. The Metropolitan Museum of Art features an exhibit of these early designs.

Origami established itself as a leisure activity during the Edo Period (1603-1868.) Woodblock prints show paper formed into origami birds, flowers, and other natural objects. Extant art shows paper cranes, which remain popular today, were created as early as 1770.

Paper folding art also has ties to Europe. The Spanish learned papermaking from Arabian invaders in the 12th Century and started their paper-folding art, papiroflexia, shortly thereafter. Those designs primarily focused on geometric shapes.

In Germany, paper art developed from napkin folding. It also created geometric shapes rather than fauna and flora. Friedrich Fröbel, pedagogue and inventor of the “kindergarten” concept, included paper folding as part of childhood education.

Modern origami is said to be a combination of Japanese and European techniques. However, many of the classic designs remain popular today, such as the infamous origami paper crane.

As paper art grows in popularity, designs become more complex and require additional steps. But you can still find patterns that need just folding–no glue, tape, or scissors!

What was the First Origami Design?

The first origami design also remains in dispute. There are no records of paper folding in China, and the earliest Japanese records date to the 18th century.

However, some sources insist that the first example of origami is the “yuanbao.” Yuanbao were gold nuggets. Monks and relatives folded them before funerals to offer them to the deceased to take with them to the afterlife. This tradition continues today and is thought to have started near 1000 A.D.

Early Japanese designs focused on animals. The oldest documentation of origami dates to 1680. The poem, written by Ihara Saikaku, is about butterflies and discusses how folded origami butterflies wrapped sake bottles at weddings. Like the yuanbao, paper butterflies also remain a modern tradition.

Another reference, a book titled Senbazuru Origita (“One Thousand Origami Cranes”) dates to about 1797. It discussed customs and history and didn’t include many instructions. The book is the source of a traditional story where people who fold 1,000 paper cranes may be granted one wish.

How has Origami Evolved Today?

The primary change from traditional to modern origami is technique. Traditional designs are more forgiving as long as you don’t stray from them too much. Modern designs are exact, with diagrams looking more like engineering schematics than craft instructions.

Traditional origami only involves folding. The final folds should hold the design together. Origami today uses paper cutting and some pasting, similar to a distinct art form called kirigami.

Projects still use the same types of folds, including pleat, mountain, reverse, squash, sink, and petal. Craft stores also sell paper designed explicitly for origami, often in a variety of colors and patterns. This paper contains one colored or patterned side, with the other side being blank. Specialized origami paper is thinner than drawing paper.

Like other art forms, origami has its own “green” movement. The philosophy is based on taking paper that is usually recycled or thrown out and making it into something beautiful. Rather than use origami paper, some crafters and artists use wrapping paper, scrapbook sheets, and newspaper.

Other designs use paper currency as a creative way to gift money. If this sounds fun, be sure to check out our growing collection of money origami.

Modern Origami Artists

Origami wasn’t a unique art form attached to specific artists until the 20th century. One of the better-known artists was Akira Yoshizawa.

Yoshizawa is considered the father of modern origami and the “grandmaster” of origami. He was born on March 11, 1914, and died in New York City at age 94. He moved to Tokyo in his teens and worked at a machine tool factory. There, his supervisor asked him to teach geometry to new employees.

He started learning origami as a child, but he finessed those skills at the factory. Origami was his primary teaching aid. Later, he quit his factory job to focus on his art full-time. In 1951, a magazine commissioned him to create the 12 signs of the Japanese horoscope for its 1952 issue. That work led to exhibitions throughout Japan and, later, worldwide.

Yoshizawa broke from the limits of traditional origami. He invented “wet folding” which allowed the paper to mold into sculptures. This technique allowed him to create gorillas with wrinkled faces and bulging eyes. Other animals had natural-looking rounded bodies and heads. Later, he drafted instructions into a book titled “Atarashi Origami Geijutsu (New Origami Art.) He published that book in 1954.

Before Yoshizawa’s art pieces and publication, origami was primarily a craft confined to children’s nursery schools. He gave it new dimensions and elevated it into a legitimate art form that anyone could learn.

Now, contemporary artists combine traditional origami techniques with modern paper craft. These artists include:

Besides art, origami plays a role in STEM teaching. Origami effectively teaches geometry, problem-solving, fractions, and physics. At its most basic, it can help children fine-tune motor skills.

Where can you Learn Origami?

More people than ever are attracted to learning origami, including the history of origami. Paper remains inexpensive and plentiful, with many attractive options available at art and craft stores. Once a practice of the elite, origami remains entertaining to adults and children alike.

You find many of the most popular origami designs here and choose one to try based on its difficulty level.

Origami is the perfect intersection between the past and the modern age. It is an opportunity to take up an art form without considerable expense and effort. Hopefully, knowing the history of origami inspires you to give this a try and create something beautiful.