How Origami Works

Paper cranes are perhaps the most iconic of origami subjects. The crane is a mystical creature in Japanese lore.

It is a delicate art form of the most intricate kind. It requires patience, mental and physical dexterity, and solid math skills are helpful, too. And it's the stuff of dark, wicked nightmares for anyone suffering from pulpuslaceratapohobia (a fear of paper cuts). It's origami, the art of paper folding.

The term origami comes from two Japanese words: oru (to fold) and kami (paper). Origami artists are usually called paperfolders, and their finished creations are called models, but in essence, finely crafted origami might be more accurately described as sculptural art.


In terms of necessary supplies, origami is one of the simplest art forms in human history. It requires only two things: a sheet of paper and some imagination. You can certainly use standard white copy paper to get started in origami, but you can also buy special origami papers designed for the specific demands of skilled paperfolders.

When origami artists begin, the method they use to create their models is called the design. And any sort of printed or drawn instructions that guide the artist is called a diagram. Many simple diagrams help novices make basic models in just a few minutes. However, advanced artists might spend weeks puzzling out the balance of shapes and folds needed for a particularly complicated model.

Like all art forms, origami isn't just about paper folding. Within each artfully folded form lie reams of history, culture and symbols that bridge generations, geography and lifestyle.

Hardcore mathematicians are drawn to origami for its geometrical precision. Psychologists and their patients find value in the meditative qualities of paper folding. Maybe there is some innate component of human nature that drives this basic interplay of mind, fingers and paper. Whatever the draw, there is serious creativity and work involved in the best origami.

Keep reading, and you'll see exactly how origami masterpieces come to life. And rest easy, paper cut fearers -- this story is all digital.


The Folds of History

Animals are a recurring theme in origami models. Frogs and cranes are especially popular.

Without paper, there is no origami. So the history of the art form is closely tied to the history of paper and its development in human society. Yet because of the delicate, almost ephemeral material used to make models, the history of origami is an uncertain one.

The Chinese first invented paper around 105 A.D. These handmade papers were a luxury item, and there is no record of paper folding in Chinese history.


During the sixth century (501 to 600 A.D.), Buddhist monks introduced paper to Japan. As in China, it became a rare and expensive product, prized and often reserved for special occasions and religious rituals. As paper became more common, so did paper folding.

By the 1600s, the Japanese were folding paper not only for serious ceremonial purposes, but also just for fun. One of the oldest and most direct references to paper folding appeared in a 1680 Japanese poem by Ihara Saikaku, in which the author writes about paper butterflies that appear in a dream.

Not everyone took naturally to the painstaking work of folding, of course. So in 1797, Akisato Rito wrote the first instructions for paper folding in a work called "Sembazuru Orikata," which means "thousand crane folding." Orikata, translated, means "folded shapes," but in the 19th century, origami became the more common term.

Japan didn't have a stranglehold on paper folding, however. There's plenty of evidence that paper folding emerged in Europe around 700 A.D., at least in part thanks to the famous Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected China with much of Europe and Asia. The Spanish, in particular, took to paper folding early and became known for their many sophisticated, geometric designs.


An Island of Paperfolders

Akira Yoshizawa was a master paperfolder. He was also prolific, as he folded around 50,000 models during his lifetime

European countries certainly played a role in the popularization of origami, but it was the Japanese who took origami from its humble beginnings to its greatest artistic heights.

Through the 1800s, Japanese authors published more and more books about origami, further embedding the art in Japanese culture. During the same era, schoolteachers in both Japan and Europe were teaching the art of paper folding to their students, but the designs resulted mostly in the same traditional models that had been passed along for generations. That would soon change.


Perhaps no other single person had a greater impact on origami than Akira Yoshizawa. Yoshizawa spent most of his early life toiling in obscurity, working labor-intensive jobs and expanding his paper folding repertoire as a hobby. During the 1930s, he developed a system of diagrams, symbols and arrows that offered detailed insights on creating complex models.

In the 1950s, he published books filled with those detailed diagrams, including instructions for entirely new and imaginative kinds of models. He also invented the concept of wet folding, in which parts of the paper are dampened and then manipulated to provide a more rounded and sculpted appearance, allowing for a greater range of potential subjects.

Subsequent media exposure helped make Yoshizawa an internationally recognized artist. He participated in art exhibitions all over the world and is still revered as the master folder who helped launch origami as an art movement.

These days, talented and skilled paper folders are found across the globe. Their technical expertise lets them create incredibly detailed shapes and forms, including models of animals, plants and other features of the natural world that look almost lifelike.

None of these intricate designs would be possible without a few origami innovations.


Know When to Fold 'em

Origami can be very simple or exasperatingly difficult. By mastering basic folds, you can advance to harder models.
Ryan McVay/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Origami isn't just about folding paper cranes and airplanes. It encompasses an entire range of paper-folding genres and categories, all with their own expert practitioners and aficionados.

There are a few basic guidelines to which serious paper folders adhere: They generally use only one solid sheet of paper, they don't cut the paper in any way, and they don't use glue, either. That means paperfolders must carefully plot out complex designs and also make the best use of each fold.


Folding is the basis of all origami. To that end, paperfolders have developed many types of folds that let them push toward evermore elaborate designs.

With these sorts of basic folds, a paperfolder makes bases, which are simple starting shapes that serve as jumping off points for a plethora of different models. There are four primary bases. From easiest to most difficult, those bases are the kite base, the fish base, the bird base, and the frog base.

Animals are a popular subject with paperfolders. However, clever artists don't settle for rough approximations of their subject creatures. Instead, they strive for meticulous recreations of specific species, right down to the shapely legs of a helmet beetle or the jagged contours of a mountain gorilla's face. Artists apply the same dedication to their representations of people, architectural structures, automobiles and even plants.

Geometrical designs are another common motif. Using precise diagrams, paperfolders bend and twist the paper into all sorts of sophisticated and tricky shapes.

Many people use a flat surface, such as a table or desk, to make folding easier. Some artists insist on folding with only their hands, without so much as the help of a table. Others employ simple tools, like paperclips, to make the process a little easier.


Pulp Geometry

In modular origami, the artist makes many models and assembles them into a bigger piece

Origami has such a long history that the art form has split into many different subsets. Paperfolders might eschew one category of origami to solely embrace one genre, or they make become experts in several types of origami.

Modular origami is an offshoot of traditional origami in which the artist uses multiple sheets of paper to create many copies of the same shape. Those copies are then assembled into one larger structure. These pieces are often far more complex and much bigger thanks to the fact that the artist isn't restricted to using just one sheet of paper.


Modular origami does stick to one important rule. Artists still can't use glue, tape, or other substances to build the piece. They might, however, use a cut or certain folds in the paper to help the many discrete sheets stay in place.

Action origami is origami that can move, albeit with human assistance. For example, an origami bird might have wings that flap, or a frog might jump after you compress its papery rear legs. Bangers are also popular; when you flick or pop a banger the right way, it makes a loud noise.

Jewelry origami results in wearable art. Food origami is origami that's actually made from food, such as seaweed, fruit, or pastry. Sometimes food origami is actually folded, and other times it's just created in a manner that makes it look like traditional origami.

Procrastination-prone office workers have developed their own category, called sticky note origami. Using those ubiquitous reminder notes, people make creative (if tiny) paper sculptures.

Some artists prefer origami tessellations. Tessellations are generally flat, and look much like a sheet of paper filled with repeating geometric patterns. Hold a tessellation up to bright light and you'll often see a kaleidoscope effect as light passes through different thicknesses in the model.

The list of origami categories goes on and on. The techniques to make the shapes of your choice, however, might be limited, especially if you adhere to one technique or style of origami.

The so-called Pureland style of origami restricts artists to making only one fold at a time. Complex folds are forbidden altogether.

Technical origami uses crease patterns in place of diagrams for very complex models. The crease pattern shows where each individual fold must be made on the sheet. Usually very mathematical in nature, technical origami is responsible for most ultra-complicated models, and some artists use computers to complete the diagrams.

Wet-folding, a technique introduced by Yoshizawa, is much more flexible, allowing for the use of dampened paper, which lets the artist make soft, rounded edges and curves instead of just sharp, jagged edges.

Regardless of the exact genre or technique, origami still depends largely on the paper quality and characteristics.


A Papery Epilogue

You don’t need fancy paper to make origami. Even a simple dollar bill will do.
Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Any kind of paper that holds a crease will work for origami. But the most common kind of paper is called kami, or koi paper, and it's specially designed to suit the needs of paperfolders. Kami is thin, crisp, easy to fold, holds a shape, and it doesn't lose a lot of its strength after it's been manipulated.

Kami is often printed with a color, pattern or picture on one side. Some papers are 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) square or smaller. Others are 10 inches (25.5 centimeters) or even larger. But 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) square is a common size.


Japanese foil, also called paper-backed foil, is thin paper adhered to metal foil. The foil gives the paper added durability and makes for sharper, stronger creases. Foil papers also come in garish metallic colors as an added decorative touch.

Washi is a thick, tough paper prized for its sturdiness and organic feel. But washi is also a handmade and, thus, very costly kind of paper. Another downside to washi is that its thickness prevents artists from making precise creases and folds.

You don't need to spend money on expensive papers for origami projects. Really, just about any paper will do. Artists make models with cheap copy paper, paper currency, and even toilet paper.

The artistry of origami isn't just for tinkering. It's proven useful for researchers, who must find the best way to fold certain types of products, such as solar arrays and air bags. And therapists find that emotionally troubled patients sometimes respond better to treatment when confronted with the mental tasks demanded by origami.

Teachers add origami to their lessons to help students learn geometry and other mathematical acrobatics. The visual and tactile elements of origami seem to help some students better absorb math instruction.

But a lot of people fold paper simply because it's fun. There is both mystery and order in origami. Logical thinking plays off of intuition as artists work, constructing models that provide intrigue and inspiration to anyone who sees these works.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Draper, Marion. "Ilminster: The Japanese Art of Paper Folding." June 17, 2011.
  • English Origami Club.
  • Feature film site. "Between the Folds."
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  • Independent Lens. "History of Origami."
  • Lang, Robert J. "TreeMaker."
  • Lister, David. "Islamic Arab and Moorish Folding?" British Origami Society. March 19, 2005.
  • Nishihara, Akira. "The World of Geometric Toy."
  • The Origami Swami. "A Visual Timeline of Paperfolding and Origami History."
  • Origami records site. "Origami World Records."
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  • Paper Circle. "Origami out of Hand."
  • Serena da Riva, Donna. "Paper Folding in 15th Century Europe."
  • Tempko, Florence and Paul Jackson. "Paper Pandas and Jumping Frogs." China Books. 1986.