“Everyday and everywhere, paper is used as a medium. It passes from hand to hand, eyes to eyes. We often touch it, almost always read it, but is is rarely contemplated…it is a medium with nearly inexhaustible resources…[Paper] is one of the most modest materials, but one that can be shaped in the most complex ways.” Mademoiselle Maurice, Artist, Savoy, France (1)
In honor of Papercrafting Month, we’ve delved into the history of paper. While the digital age has eliminated a lot of paper trails, paper still influences our everyday life. It is arguably one of the most important inventions for human evolution; before paper, we had language, transportation, trade… but we needed to record information. To share, communicate and organize. The invention of paper meant that humans could externalize, categorize and disseminate information (2). Paper shapes our lives in the form of calendars, checks, receipts, currency, books, cardboard, magazines, newspapers, plates and cups, and, most relevant to our work in the art supply industry, arts and crafts.
A Revolutionary Invention
From the time that language became linked to written word, there has been a demand for portable, flexible writing surfaces that could help memorialize, organize and externalize communications and information. Over the course of three thousand years, this surface has evolved from papyrus (woven from the stems of the Papyrus plant) to vellum and parchment (made with animal skins), then to handmade cotton or rag-based paper, and most recently to wood pulp paper made via an industrialized milling process.
The word “paper” originally derives from Papyrus, a material used by Egyptians and Greeks as early as 3000 BC; however the invention of paper as we know it today—flexible, lightweight and durable—was invented in China in 105 BC by Cai Lun, an official of the Imperial court of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The recipe, which was kept secret for hundreds of years, incorporated the bark of mulberry trees, hemp rags and old fishing nets, suspended in water. More affordable than silk and more practical than bamboo, the “paper of Marquis Tsai” revolutionized Chinese society. Eventually around the 600s AD the valuable knowledge of papermaking spread along the Silk Road to Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe; by 800 AD paper was manufactured in the Middle East as well.
Inventors began to replace the laborious, manual processes associated with paper making with mechanized processes such as helve hammers and paper mills in Middle Eastern regions, Nicolas-Louis Robert’s flat-screen paper making machine, or the American Jordan Engine, which refines wood pulp. Additional technologies like chemical bleaching, wood-grinding and chemical pulping resulted in refined, efficient and specialized processes. From fine art papers made in Italy and France to translucent tissue paper in China, these technologies standardized and diversified paper.
First Comes Paper-Making, Then Comes Papercraft
While the story of paper-making is one of global trade and scientific discovery, the history of papercrafting honors the organic evolution of cultural practices in regions all over the world. Presently papercrafting is seen as a trend or innovation; but it is not a new phenomenon. The practice of folding, cutting, layering and manipulating paper to convey ideas has roots in cultures across the world.
With the intersection of design and technology as well as the affordability and accessibility of paper as a medium, papercraft is undergoing a “creative renaissance” (6), both in the fine art world and the DIY / crafter scene. The term papercrafting encompasses a wide range of creative endeavors including scrapbooking, cardmaking, paper flowers, decoupage, paper mache, origami, paper cutting, quilling, paper-making, book arts and paper layering. Because papercrafting is typically inexpensive and accessible to all skill-levels, it is a versatile activity that appeals to nearly every customer. Because of its growing popularity, we featured papercrafting as a key trend in the Winter Buyer’s Guide (p.18-19); reference the guide for demo ideas and essential supplies to feature in your store.
Papercrafting Around The World
For hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years, artisans have responded to the versatility, affordability, flexibility and durability of paper to express ideas, tell stories and form cultural tradition. Papercrafts emerged simultaneously in various cultures as a versatile way to tell intricate stories, signify celebrations, elevate status, impress royalty, embellish everyday life or honor ancestors. Understanding these deep roots helps us fully grasp the appeal and intricacies within the papercrafting “trend”—a form of expression that has been in full swing since the invention of paper.
The ancient tradition of paper-cutting in China, known as Jianzhi, involves intricate patterns and creative use of negative space; the the paper used is typically red, which is considered a lucky color. Finished works of art were traditionally used as window or doorway coverings with the idea of fending off evil spirits; they also adorn lamps, mirrors and interior spaces (8).
Japan: Kirigami and Origami
Kirigami is created using a single sheet of paper that is folded several times and then cut into in an almost sculptural way; Origami, the art of folding paper into various shapes such as animals, flowers, mythical creatures and more.
Mexico: Cartoneria and Papel Picado
Papel picado, or “perforated paper”, is a decorative form of Mexican folk art. Artisans use chisels and mallets to cut elaborate designs into large stacks of tissue paper. These colorful, delicate banners have been around long before the invention of paper in China; however when “Papel de China” (tissue paper) began to be traded and sold in local shops, there was a resurgence of the craft. Papel picado typically adorns ofrendas (altars honoring ancestors) and is also used for weddings, parties, Christmas, religious celebrations; the colorful, delicate paper adds movement and life to any occasion (8). Cartonería is another traditional handcraft in Mexico. These papier-mâché sculptures do not exactly visually fit in with the rest of papercraft—they are 3D and do not resemble paper at all—but their construction relies heavily on the paper industry.
Papercraft is often used to tell stories, especially myths, fables and legends. In India, Sanjih is the act of creating intricate stencils of detailed scenes from the life of the deity Krishna. Originally made with felt, the stencils began to be made with paper, used to create decorative patterns on walls and floors.
Poland, Ukraine and Belarus: Wycinanki / Vytynanky / Vycinanki
A Slavic version of the art form of papercutting, popular in Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine, vytynanky was traditionally made by farm workers and other laborers; these highly decorative patterns and stylized portraits are traditionally used for home decor and as ceremonial or sacred artwork for religious celebrations and holidays (5).
Schenrenschnitte or “scissor cuts”, is a papercraft traditionally consisting of miniature landscapes, elaborate scenes and portraits. Designs are created with black and white paper, featuring symmetrical shapes and dynamic silhouetted forms.
United States of America: Scrapbooking
The concept of scrapbooking dates back much farther than the 19th century; “commonplace books” in Europe and North America were used to collect ephemera, a combination of journal, planner and scrapbook. Sometimes Bibles were also used this way in an early form of what we now know as bible journaling. However in 1872 the term “scrapbook” was solidified by Mark Twain, who invented a “self-pasting” scrapbook that had strips of adhesive in various patterns on each page so that people could display and preserve “pictures, articles, souvenirs, and illustrations” (6). After Mark Twain’s patented scrapbook hit the market, the practice took off in the United States. The current popularity of this multi-billion dollar industry in the United States was encouraged by Marielen Christenson, who opened the first scrapbook store in the U.S. in 1981 (ibid).
Draw People In With History
Why does this exploration matter? How is it relevant to you and our work within the art supply industry? Honoring the history of paper and papercraft with educational events, demos and sales can engage people and connect them to a deeper history. By noticing these themes of storytelling, memory-making and everyday crafting, perhaps we can create more targeted, effective or intriguing demos and displays, drawing people in and helping them to discover the rich history behind the papercrafting trend.
- Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Penguin, 2014.
- Paper Play, Gingko Press, Inc. Sandu Publishing, 2014.
- “History of Paper: Who Invented Paper, What is Paper Made of, and More.” Krista Childers, Editor, AllFreePaperCrafts.com, https://www.allfreepapercrafts.com/Paper-Making/History-of-Paper-Who-Invented-Paper-What-is-Paper-Made-of-and-More, Accessed January 1 2019
- Bloom J.M. Papermaking: The Historical Diffusion of an Ancient Technique. In: Jöns H., Meusburger P., Heffernan M. (eds) Mobilities of Knowledge. Knowledge and Space, vol 10. Springer, Cham, https://www.thejournalshop.com/thejournal/history-of-paper/, Accessed January 1 2019
- Gildersleeve, Owen. Papercut: An Exploration into the Contemporary World of Papercraft Art and Illustration. Rockport Publishers, Beverly, Massachusetts, 2014.
- Herrera-Sobek, María (2012). Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions.
- What is… Chinese paper-cut art? Michelle Chan, May 22nd, 2015. http://artradarjournal.com/2015/05/22/what-is-chinese-paper-cut-art-art-radar-explains/. Accessed January 6 2019
In our exploration of the history of paper and papercraft, we sought to showcase a wide range of papercrafts with deep roots that are still popular today. Please help us add to our repertoire; feel free to add to our list in the comments.