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A Look at Origami Kimono Dolls

origami paper doll

Here at Zusetsu, we're fascinated by the popular paper craft of Japan called origami. In this blog, not only do we want to have a try at making a cute origami lady in kimono with the beautiful papers that we have in-store, but we also want to take a look at some of the history behind origami.

Let's Make an Origami Kimono Doll!

Pictured is my first try at making an origami lady - I'm not sure everything is quite right, but I learned a lot, and she was brilliant fun to make! You can find out how to make a Origami Lady in Kimono with KOKKO Garden here on YouTube! Kamikey Origami has a great YouTube video Origami Kimono Girl too!

The wonder of making origami with YouTube videos is that you can watch the instructions through carefully first, and then begin at the beginning again, pausing every time you need to see the steps. Take your time. Even make an initial trial origami. Then you will be ready to give your second try your best shot!

Origami is fascinating and absorbing. You are focussed on your task in the moment, and so it is a relaxing occupation. I am always deeply impressed by the skill that it takes to invent these shapes!


Ueno Park Temple inside

Paper and the Gods

The Japanese word for paper (kami) is the same as the word for god (kami - although with different kanji), and this led to an association between gods and paper, symbolized by purity, beauty and perfection. The folding of paper became symbolic of prayer.

This photo is taken at the little Benten-do Temple near the Shinobazu lily pools at Ueno Park in Tokyo.

When pure white paper is folded it expresses divine nature, and when it is displayed it indicates the presence of the deity.

The strips of folded paper (gohei) can be seen in the photo, suspended from the sacred Shinto rope made from rice-straw (shimenawa).


Heian Era Origami Paper Dolls

The gorgeous paper doll that we've made is perfect for a little child to play with, and she reminds me very much of the paper dolls that were made for noble children in the Heian era (8th - 12th century). These are the simple paper dolls that were the precursor to the beautiful Hina dolls that are displayed in Japanese households for Hina Matsuri. As paper-folding was a practice in these early times, it is unsurprising that little girls of the household would be made paper dolls to play with.

Simple paper dolls were also used as a representative of the little child, onto which any bad spirits could be transferred. It was a custom to float these dolls away on a river, with the idea that they would carry bad spirits (which were believed to cause serious infection) with them. You can read more about this in our two Hina Matsuri blogs What is Hina Matsuri? and Tea and Hina Matsuri with Mai!

Heian Era Paper

Heian era decorated letter paper

Artisans were highly skilled at making expensive decorative papers. A person was considered highly if they demonstrated the skill of choosing the most tastefully appropriate paper on which to write a communication - often a verse of poetry.

There was much to consider in a letter to a loved one: beautiful calligraphy and appropriate paper:

take a look at the exquisite example of an Heian era letter pictured here. Note the woodblock print decoration, the subtle dyeing, and the scattered plants which may or may not be real.

Heian era lady with a knotted letter

The letter would be folded neatly in an origami-like way, as in this illustration from The Tale of Genji, and if it was Spring, a branch of cherry blossoms might be attached to amplify the meaning of the contents.

The contents of the letter would be a verse incorporating references to earlier (often Chinese) poetry, and references to nature and the seasons.

The thought and artistic sensibility that went into such a letter is light years away from a Whatsapp and some emoji!

Heian Era Origata

Paper was highly valued by the Heian aristocrats. Knowledge of paper-folding (origata) was another of the many aesthetic skills that a Heian aristocrat would be expected to excel at.

origami cranes

The famous Crane origami dates from the Heian era (794-1185)

Origami shapes that were prized in the Heian era include the shape that is possibly the most well-known today (perhaps with subtle modifications): the crane or orizuru (ori = 'folded' and tsuru - 'crane'). Others include the frog, and the crab.

paper Japanese tea ceremony sensu fan

Folded paper was used at this time to create beautiful fans too. Fans are still made in Kyoto by folding thick paper onto thin wooden frames, just like my treasured tea ceremony sensu pictured here.


Origata Archive

origata archive

Models of Paper Folding (Origata tehon)1697

In the Met Museum Online I discovered an archive of Origata dating back to 1697, which appears to be a record of paper folding techniques. By this time in Japanese history, the art of paper folding was taught at several schools, most notably the Ogasawara School. Origata was popular amongst everyone - paper had become more affordable and less exclusive. This is the foundation of the origami that we love today.

The Met Museum writes:

This scrapbook album is accompanied by several loose samples for calligraphy items.

According to the inscriptions, this set of models served as the initiation into the art of origata

for Kikuchi Fujiwara no Takehide by an Ogasawara master, and is dated the third month of 1697.

The album and examples predate the woodblock-printed wrapping manuals by several decades,

and serve as important physical evidence of the tradition of paper folding.

Hokusai ukiyoe

Hokusai: Daikoku distributing sheets of paper, (1798).

This illustration by renowned Japanese artist Hokusai is dated within a year of two major books compiling basic origami shapes: Sembazuru-origata and Chushingura-origata. Then, in about 1850, another major book called Kan-no-Mado compiled documents of paper-folding reaching back to the time of The Tale of Genji. Kan-no-Mado means 'Window for the Cold Season', suggesting activities to occupy long winter evenings.

woodblock print of lady making origami

This lady (pictured on the left) from the Edo era is absorbed in folding origami. It was a popular pastime.

During the reign of Empress Taisho (1912-1926) the use of square coloured paper became widespread and teaching of origami began in schools.

Yukki made origami at school sometimes if it was a wet lunchtime and play had to be indoors :)

And this black origami dragon was made by Yukki's brother!

Origami at Zusetsu

hina matsuri origami

Japanese paper (washi) is pliable and forgiving; it retains its fold lines which act as a step-by-step template for the creation of each origami object.

We are thrilled to stock origami in our online store. It is a joy to work with: the more that I try making origami shapes the less shy I am of attempting complex shapes. Because, with a good teacher, like the YouTubers we mentioned at the beginning, you are in safe and competent hands!

furoshiki and origami pack

Our Chiyogami pictured with our Snowflower furoshiki

We stock beautiful Chiyogami in Small (8.5cm square), Medium ( 12cm square), and Large ( 15cm square). The patterns are varied an random, but always complex and beautiful. Many of the designs are run through with golden ink.

origami papers

And we stock the beautiful origami papers of Suzuki Shofudo (pictured above and below), which are made by repeat dyeing of vegetable inks over bean-starch resists. Again, the papers that are included in the beautiful butterfly-wing packs are varied, but the papers stem from a long tradition of paper-making in Kyoto, and many of the designs are based on kimono designs.

Kyoto origami papers

Their Kyoto Origami is a fascinating set of illustrations showing different aspects of the wonderful city of Kyoto. Each of the 24 designs is repeated twice in the pack, and designs include the Aoi Matsuri, the Spring Geisha dances, and ninja!

origami papers

Origami is central to Japanese wrapping culture: it is synonymous with furoshiki folding and the folding and wearing of kimono and obi. You might enjoy our blogs that explore Japanese Wrapping Culture, and also Gift-wrapping: Creative Ideas from Japan, too!

We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog about some of the history of origami, and that you have a go at making origami too! Do send us your photos as we love to see them!

If your would like to buy origami the links are below :)

Thank you for reading, and see you next time,

Cathy and Yukki xx


Met Museum Online Origata photo and text.

Atsukawa Shunsen, Woman Holding an Origami Lily and a Book, Edo era HoMA.

Hokusai: Daikoku Distributing Sheets of Paper, 1798, Chester Beatty

Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics) - illustration of knotted letter.

Dominique Buisson, The Art of Japanese Paper, (Terrail), p.153-155.

Thank you to KOKKO Garden for the YouTube video: How to Make an Origami Lady in Kimono

Kamikey Origami has a great YouTube video Origami Kimono Girl too!


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