The Lister List

Cloth folding and paperfolding

The connection between cloth folding and paperfolding

From an email by David Lister to Laura Rozenberg.

You mention the article i sent you with the title, "Did Origami Exist in Medieval Europe?" I came across this on my computer by sheer accident only a few days ago. I completely forget the context in which it was written, or its date. I don’t even know if i posted it to Origami-L. However, I did post a similar article with the title "Really Old origami" which covers much the same subject, some years earlier and it may have been this earlier article that you have seen. It is in the Lister List on the BOS web site. Perhaps I ought to combine the two articles into one.

Having mentioned several preliminary matters, I will now try to answer your main questions about the connection between cloth folding and paperfolding.

You should remember that Gershon Legman was very much a pioneer in the study of the history of paperfolding. In fact, he can be said to have invented the subject. It all started in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, when he broke his ankle and was immobilised for a period. To pass the time he started folding some of the paper models he remembered from earlier years and became inflamed with a fascination for folding. He was used to doing research in libraries in connection with his work for the Kinsey Institute and as soon as he was able he added paperfolding to the areas of his research. I understand that he worked in the big libraries of the east coast of the United States. These might include the New York Public Library, the Library of Harvard University and the Library of Congress. He made many discoveries and a list of them appears in his "Bibliography of Paper Folding" which was printed in 1952. It had, however only a very limited distribution. He discovered Gieger’s "Li Tre Trattati" and Haarsdorfer’s work. He was naturally most mpressed by what he found. In contrast he found nothing of such an early age written about the folding of actual paper.

I have, myself, on many occasions traced the folding or pleating of cloth for clothing from ancient Egypt, through ancient Greece and Byzantium. It certainly existed. But whether there was any connection between this and napkin folding, I do not know.

Legman had a bright idea, namely that paperfolding was derived from napkin folding and he put forward this idea on several occasions. I corresponded with him for several years and he stated it to me. However, we must remember that Legman was a pioneer and the process of scientific investigation is to propound ideas, which are then subject to subsequent analysis and possible modification.. So Legman’s theory must be taken as no higher than this. He may be right, but he could be wrong. But if he was wrong, he must not be criticised for formulating a theory that was 9or could be ) wrong. This is how historic investigation works.

It is often said that paper was not available for folding in the late middle ages. But paper making came early to Spain and Italy and there was a considerable trade in paper in northern Europe before paper was actually made there. So it would be wrong to say that there could be no paperfolding becasue there was not yet any paper.
In my article, "Did Paperfolding Exist in Medieval Europe?" I referrred to the discovery in the Netherlands of two illustrated manuscripts dating from the early 15th Century and which showed pictures of what was undoubtedly paperfolding. This discovery was passed on to me by a lady who was not a paperfolder. I have been remiss in not forwarding on the discovery to the origami community. But the discovery does change the picture and shows that even before Gieger’s book there was folding of actual actual paper, So it weakens Gershon Legman’s argument. As I have said, Legman was a pioneer and he was formulating theories from the facts known to him. But since he was working more information has come to us (indeed, not so much as we should have liked) and it is for us today to make our own evaluation of the information available to us and to reach our own conclusions - or perhaps I should say, tentative conclusions.

Legman was also fond of referring to the Levantine origin of paperfolding. I once asked him what he meant by this, but he didn’t answer the question. I suspect that, in fact he had no basis for it. Generally speaking, "The Levant" means the countries bordering the eastern end of the Mediterranean, such as Syria, Lebanon and the Holy Land..
I hope you have seen my reply to Anne Lavin about Oku Shunboku and that it answers many of your questions. From your original posting I confess that i didn’t recognise the words "Oku Shunboku", although I found several references to early Japanese books which sounded much the same and might have been relevant. You say that Oku Shunboku was mentioned by Legman, himself. Where was this? We know that he acquired a copy of Ramna Zushiki, but I have never previously heard about this, Nor Have I heard him mention it. I should be most grateful if you would let me have a copy of what he wrote. You also mention "A Brief history of Origami" by Gershon Legman. Presumably this is from the archives of the Origami Center. Can I please ask you to send a copy of this also. Unfortunately it is a fact that Legman wrote very little about paperfolding (except in letters) and everything that he wrote is pure gold. I gather, too, that there are also some letters written by Legman held by origami USA.

David Lister
August 4, 2012

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