Learning the ancient Japanese art of paper folding

Teacher: Penny Down

From: Surrey

Lesson: Origami

If it were possible to do so, folding a piece of paper in half 45 times would create a tower big enough to reach the moon. Lunar exploration wasn’t the goal of today’s lesson though. Instead, we were learning how to fold paper into tiny sculptures with one of Surrey’s most generous crafters, Penny Down.

Penny’s retired, but she used to work in schools with SEN children. In addition to tending to her allotment and volunteering as a guide at Polesden Lacey, Penny now spends her time making origami kits for family and friends. She believes it’s something that anyone can get enjoyment from, and a skill that everyone can learn.

Examples of origami shown to teach us

A lesson in how to fold paper being given to the teach us team

This was fortunate for us, as we went to the lesson with no prior experience and a reputation for heavy handedness. Penny eased us into the lesson by showing us how to make paper finger puppets and a whale to put onto greetings cards. When our fingers had warmed up, we moved onto the much more intricate skill of making boxes. After we’d enjoyed the therapeutic benefits of folding paper for a few hours and before leaving our wonderful teacher/host, we took some time to ask Penny why she thinks origami is essential learning for all.

What have you taught us today?

The Japanese art of paper folding, origami.

How and when did you learn this?

I was given a book and kit many years ago, but was too young to pick it up by myself. A little later on in my life, I did a short course in origami with a brilliant gentleman. It was great to see him making things and easier to learn alongside him rather than having to refer to a book.

I started doing a few greetings cards after that course and it just took off from there. I worked in primary schools at one point and used to do it with the children who really enjoyed it, so it’s developed from there.  

What is it about origami that you like?

I think it’s magical that you can just take a piece of paper, fold it up and suddenly you’ve created a butterfly or a little shirt. There are so many things you can make, and they’re all really relaxing – providing you’re not getting too frustrated by something that’s not working out. It’s quite therapeutic to just sit there and create something.

Matt learning how to fold a paper box as part of a teach us challenge

What’s the best thing you’ve made out of paper?

My dragon was rather special. I made a dragon for welsh friends that had to be red rather than green, and it’s now my mission to top that. Normally though, I keep it simple. I love doing all sorts of different designs. I make greetings cards and create little projects for a group of youngsters that I know – children and grandchildren of friends and family. I don’t make anything too complicated, but the simpler the better, in my opinion. It’s very effective and amazing what you can do with just one piece of paper.

Can anyone learn this?

I think so yes. My husband reckons not, but I think he could do it if he really wanted to. The simplest things that I make, anyone can make. All you need is a bit of patience and the willingness to enjoy making something a bit different.

How long would it take us to be better?

The good thing about this is that you can start over again if it goes wrong. The more times you try, the better you get. You’d probably need a few goes to make a good crane, but you’ve done brilliantly today and I think you’ll go on to create some lovely things.   

Group origami in Surrey with teach us

Who’s the most skilled person you know?

My mother used to paint with oils. She did fantastic work, some of which we still have around our house, so I’d probably vote for her.

Is there a skill you wish you had?

I recently tried blacksmithing, which was fantastic. I’d quite like to have a go at stain glass too because I imagine that’s rather lovely.

Can you tell us one interesting fact about origami?

The crane is considered to be very lucky in Japan – every boy and girl can fold one.  A friend of mine once told me a story she’d read in a book about a young boy who wanted to be a samurai warrior. Apart from having to know how to fight and how to be courageous, samurais had to be able to do something as delicate as folding a crane, so this young boy set about folding 1,000 of them. Goodness knows how long that would have taken him, but it was a lovely story.

The teach us team with their origami teacher, Penny Down from Surrey

Examples of fun things to make with paper, as made by the teach us team

Matt from teach us holding his origami creations

What we learned

  • Samurais had to be able to fold cranes. They needed to demonstrate their ability to be precise and delicate, as well as their strength and courage.
  • It’s possible to buy pre-cut kits to make very simple boxes (great for gift wrapping).
  • You can make pretty much anything out of paper, without any need for glue or scissors.
  • It’s easy to become completely absorbed in origami.