My Origami Quest: Travels Through Early Instruction Books

by Theodore Pomeroy
Edited by Jane Rosemarin
My first origami book.

I discovered origami one December on Fifth Avenue in New York City during a family visit to see the delights of Manhattan: Macy’s Christmas windows, Woolworth’s, FAO Schwarz and the Takashimaya department store. There, at last, my parents granted us a chance to choose an item for ourselves, my two sisters and me, as a souvenir of our trip to the city. I chose “Origami: Japanese Paper Folding,” issued in 1959 by the Asahi Origami Club (president, Isao Honda). I still have a copy of this as a precious memento. My son, Jimmy, now has the original book for his children; I found a second one, a long time later, which I keep ready to hand for myself. Now, 60 years later, I am still an avid folder, a member of OrigamiUSA, a former member of the original Friends of the Origami Center of America, and still on a quest to live in the essence of my origami hobby.

My collection of origami books and information began in 1961, when there were libraries, books and magazines, but no videos, no internet. I gleaned models from a variety of craft books whose content sometimes mixed paper sculpture, parlor tricks with matches and coins, and more-or-less pure folding. From library books, I got folds and also information on other books and leads to the British Origami Society and The Origami Center of America, which met in Lillian Oppenheimer’s living room, and which I visited on one occasion.

Instructions for Fred Rohm’s Star of David typed by Alice Gray, a co-founder of the Origami Center of America, now called OrigamiUSA.

One early item I have is the telephone-style directions by Alice Gray for “The Star of David Money Fold by Fred Rohm.” They consist of two typed pages (and no diagrams) — that could be read over the phone — telling how to do the model in ten steps without showing you how. Imagine that.

I enjoyed tracking down references like the 1922 Frederick Starr article in Japan Overseas Travel magazine, which became rare after World War II. It was mentioned in “The World of Origami” by Honda. I secured a copy of the article many years after seeing this reference; I was able to find it at the Widener Library at Harvard University while at graduate school in the 1970s. My copy of the article is bound with my copy of “Kan no Mado,” published in 1845, which may be translated as “Window for Winter Nights,” a title similar to that of another book I own, “Winter Night Entertainments,” a book of parlor amusements including paper folding.

“Secrets of Origami” (Harbin) and “Kan no Mado.” Compare the two sets of diagrams, and you can see how Harbin has clarified some places that gave me a key to working with other pages in the Kan no Mado.

I bought the photocopied edition of the “Kan no Mado” from the Origami Center because it was the subject of Starr’s article. It is still in my possession. While studying the “Kan no Mado,” I noticed that Robert Harbin had included its Dragonfly in “Secrets of Origami,” but with improved and clarified diagrams. A copy of Harbin’s diagrams is also in my “Kan no Mado.” Did comparing the two sets of directions help me understand how to interpret directions and work through difficult places where words and diagrams just failed to convey the actual process of achieving a result? Maybe. In any event, I developed the habit of cross-referencing and likening one author’s technique to another’s or one model to a similar one in another book.

Editor’s note: See an article by David Lister an article by David Lister on the Kan no Mado dragonfly.

Where Have I Seen This Before?

The octospiral family. Upper left: in white, the base for the other three; upper right: Andrea’s Rose by J.C. Nolan from the 1994 OrigamiUSA “Annual Collection”; lower left: Octospiral by Meenankshi Mukerji; lower right: Chrysanthemum by Sok Song.

This comparison also worked at conventions, notably at PCOC 2013, where I took a class from Meenakshi Mukerji and one from Sok Song. Mukerji’s Octagonal Collapse Spiral (Octospiral) and Song’s Chrysanthemum are similar, and having got through the first, I found the second much easier. My belated apology to Sok Song for getting ahead of him in class without being able to verbalize this insight of comparing different models. Did the organizers know these artists’ models were similar in style and development?

At home, I can dig back into my memory and bookshelves for previous convention collections and designs. I found Andrea’s Rose by J.C. Nolan in the 1994 “Annual Collection” from an OrigamiUSA convention I attended. The same opening moves of forming four preliminary bases and then open sinking the corners were there. It was certainly serendipitous for me. as another example of cross-referencing. I remember at times being able to name the author, book and approximate page references. I cannot do this any longer, but the connection between one model and another remains fascinating.

“Winter Nights Entertainments,” pages 24-25, with airplanes. Note that the size of the notepaper is not given.

For example, the same paper airplane appears in both “Fun With Paperfolding” (1928) and “Winter Nights Entertainments” (1933), and by comparing the slight difference in the directions, a difficult pair of rabbit ear folds can be grasped. In the latter book, it is not quite clear how the nose of the plane comes into shape. The earlier book, dedicated entirely to paperfolding, is a bit better.

“Fun With Paper Folding and Origami,” page 10. Note the lettered landmarks.

It was “Fun With Paperfolding” that helped me get a mental framework for making origami. One technique in these early 20th-century diagrams is the lettering of various locations on the paper. “Bring A to F” is a typical instruction, and the diagram would be labeled accordingly.

Beginning from bases and progressing by steps and sequences is a different way to mentally picture the process of folding. I categorize a model by the base used at the start and the sequence of steps to finish the model. For example a “rabbit ear” or a “petal fold” is a sequence repeated in many models and contexts. This is different from the use of crease patterns to describe a model all at once. I am afraid I am seldom able to reconstruct models from crease patterns, which to me are like a skeleton of a dinosaur and are not enough to really “see” the animal it corresponds to. Oddly enough I can sometimes create a model from a photograph. One time I did this was for the reindeer in “Origami Made Easy” by Kasahara. This highlights another characteristic of many origami books: beautiful photographs of models that are not explained or sometimes not even named in the text. They are the tantalizing chimeras that keep a folder up at night thinking “How did they do that?”

A “Rule of Three”

I advanced my studying with the rule of three: The first try at folding a new model is to understand what the author says; a second try is for finishing a model correctly, as the author intended; and the third is to make the model as I feel is best, given what the author has shown me and my own ideas. The first run was often tossed into the wastepaper basket. And some models require many more than three tries, so the wastebasket or my desk might have a pile of errors or variations. This encounter with written directions is always a conversation between you and the author. What did he/she mean by “fold” or “crease”? Which way should I hold the paper? Can I really put point D on top of point A?

What is a blintz anyway? Or a diaper fold? Is that line dotted or dashed? Or both! There were not any conventions in English for what words to use or how to make a diagram prior to the efforts of Akira Yoshizawa and several other folders in the 1960s and ’70s. Just look at the books. There was a vast improvement in clarity and consistency of both words and images. The older books are more like jargon or regional idioms. They can confuse as much as enlighten, until one understands how to look at the diagrams as a flow of ideas and fill in any missing parts or “correct,” or translate any misleading parts. I have learned to see these gaps in diagram sequences and also sometimes the errors. Books translated in a hurry produce some interesting language — usually English words in the grammatical arrangement of a foreign language and vice versa.

How I Learned to See Origami and Who Taught Me

“Origami: Japanese Paper Folding, Sakura Book.” Note the finished model provided as an example. These always arrived very flattened.

Robert Harbin’s earlier books had only diagrammed models, but later books had photographs of models and displays. Japanese children’s books sometimes included several finished models glued to the page to show the finished item. These helped me to get an idea of how to shape a model, but gave me no hint toward going beyond the traditional shapes. Later books developed a theory of the art of origami. My favorite creative theorist is Kasahara, who wrote a very good essay on seeing in origami at the end of “Origami Made Easy.” Kunihiko Kasahara clearly diagrams and explains most of what he presents. He includes his thoughts as a self-aware folder and artist. He also includes photographs of models that are not mentioned in the text or diagrammed. This is one of the delights of origami books, those tantalizing photographs of an unexplained models.

In the early days, I would tell a person:

“Go to the library and get one or two books. See if you can relate to one or another. It is not you, it’s the book. Some directions are easier to follow than others. Think of it like tying your shoes. You know how to do it, you can show me how, but could you write it in a letter for somebody to read? Writing a good book of directions is hard.”

I hoped that people, especially young people, would not be too hard on themselves if the directions didn’t click. Reading and understanding directions is a skill one learns. It has worked for me: When people ask how I know something, I tell them I read the directions. And it’s true, I like reading directions, good ones and bad, to try to get to the point where I can understand what is meant, even if it isn’t what is said. This has helped me understand the sometimes cryptic or awkward instructions with electronic devices. My favorite example of a step that is discouraging goes something like, “Step 100: Now unfold the paper carefully and lay flat.” Yes, that’s right, 100 steps in, and now undo all the work! Of course the creases remain, and if one is careful and does not overreact in despair, the remaining 30 or so steps come together because of the creases of the previous steps.

Sometimes, I abandon the words and use only the pictures, guessing at the intermediate stages, when one picture does not seem to be the result of the previous one. At other times, the wording is crucial; an author cannot draw the detail, but can describe in words what manipulation or landmark will produce the result. It was in working through problem steps that my knowledge of folding increased; it was like practicing scales or arpeggios on an instrument that teaches the fingers how to proceed smoothly. Repetition and forward and backward practice through the steps improve insight into the limits and behavior of the paper. Next, if you want to know you know a model, teach it to somebody. It is sometimes difficult to put into words how you make the folds required to get a model from step to step. In teaching it is important (but difficult) not to jump ahead, especially at a place that is hard to describe but easier to show. “Do it like this,” works well enough if you are teaching one person, but in a group it gets a bit harder.

That leads me to the two years I was the “origami master” in a day treatment program. I had an ad hoc group of patients for one hour, one afternoon a week for origami. My goal was to keep it simple and finish in 40 minutes. That allowed for those new to paper fun to catch up and for some time to talk and explore. I learned in that class that there are no wrong moves, only variations. I was surprised by one individual who mirror-imaged the model in a way that did not really look like the fish or horse we were working on, but it was a nice model nonetheless. And for a beginner, it was really a big step in expressing the origami techniques his own way, and I told him so. Origami models are often abstract and not what Americans expect as representations of some animal or object.

It does take an artistic eye to see what a model is meant to be. My most challenging day was the day a blind woman joined the class. It was a “teaching moment” for me as I shifted to tactile directions and the clock for naming points and directions. I do think I switched to a traditional and basic model like the samurai helmet or drinking cup for that session. But we made it, and the extra help for one person led the others into thinking about how to see and feel the paper, too.

So, sometimes the old books are awkward, or wordy. Some steps get missed as the author jumps ahead. But when I could learn from a book in any language, as long as it had pictures, I was on my way. From my English language books of various levels of difficulty, I could always translate the pictures and words into my language of origami. I fold my way, but accept that others do things differently. Some books are too difficult for me to enjoy, but I will try a model now and then. I accept some failure. Especially as I age, I cannot be as quick or precise as before, but there are some traditional models and favorites that I can still fold to a high level of precision and crispness. Folding still activates a special, spatial part of my brain, and this is pleasing and meditative. The repetitions in folding are quieting and reassuring, like waves lapping the beach.

Sequencing and Sequences, My Mnemonics

Some see a crease pattern and see the finished model, whereas I prefer seeing a finished model and imagine, if I can, the folding sequence. I learned the bases and a few traditional models as examples of what base makes what shape model. Fish base for fish, dragons and snakes. Bird base for the crane, birds in general, humans and some objects, like a teapot or a vase. Preliminary fold for coasters, flowers and stars. This also allows me to have the model “in mind” to show others and perform for an audience of one or many. Origami is a lot like musical performance. I do enjoy showing a fold of whatever complexity to a person who is interested. But first I have to practice, use the book of directions to get the sequence down and be able to proceed from memory.

My Original Library, Circa 1975:

Asahi Origami Club (president, Isao Honda), Origami: Japanese Paper Folding, Sakura Book (Japan Publications Trading Co., 1959).

Abraham, R. M., Easy To Do Entertainments and Diversions (Dover, 1961). Originally published as Winter Nights Entertainments (London: Constable and Co., 1933).

Brossman & Brossman, A Japanese Paper-folding Classic: Excerpt from the “Lost” Kan no Mado (The Pinecone Press). Via The Origami Center.The original manuscript is from around 1845.

Campbell, Patricia, Paper Toy Making (Dover, 1975). Originally published in London by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons in 1937.

Harbin, Robert, Secrets of Origami (Dover, 1971).

Harbin, Robert, Origami: The Art of Paperfolding (Harper Collins, 1969).

Harbin, Robert, Origami: Step by Step Guide (The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1974). Purchased from the Origami Center at “out of print” price in 1975.

Honda, Isao, World of Origami (Japan Trade Publications, 1965).

Murray, William D. and Rigney, Francis J., Fun With Paperfolding and Origami (Dover, 1960). Originally published by Fleming H. Revell in 1928 as Fun With Paperfolding.

Sakoda, James M., Modern Origami (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1969).


I like to see the glimpses of your travel trough the realm of origami, and notes on how you understand and learn origami.

You mention the use of "finished models glued to the page". Does your first book, Origami by Honda, 1959, have this? I ask because I have "How to Make Origami - A Complete Guide to Japanese Paper Folding" by Isao Honda, 1959, with a similar jacket design style, and that book has a sample of every model glued into the book.

I fully agree with you on Kasahara. His "Creative Origami" was - along with Honda's "World of Origami" - among the first "real" origami books I had (from a public library); and Kasahara's origami is by far more creative and elegant.
Best regards,