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by David Thomas February 13, 2023 2 Comments

The Historic Charm of Papercutting Arts

By David Thomas

The first milestone on the path to rudimentary papercutting proficiency starts in kindergarten – with blunt-tipped children’s safety scissors used to snip crude shapes. Add a little Elmer’s paper glue, stick them on a piece of paper and tape it to the classroom wall.

Alpen Schoolhouse Righties Scissors

It's an educator’s well-worn way of testing kids for motor skills, coordination and an ability to focus. And it’s creative. A few years later, you might get a bit fancier with your first paper snowflake design cut from folded white paper.

Louise Firchau Red Riding Hood papercutart

Then we stop – unless you develop into a full-fledged paper craft geek like Louise Firchau. Better known as the Paper Panda, Firchau is well known in the hobbyist paper craft community as a papercutting superstar. Based in the Cotswolds in England, Firchau modestly describes her calling as “working from home all day, every day, eating ice cream and wearing extraordinary pants.”

It must be said we have never seen Firchau’s pants, but anyone who has read Paper Panda’s Guide to Papercutting knows she is also a talented illustrator, cutter and educator.

We’ll get back to Louise in a bit, but we need some more information before we go down this rabbit hole. There are a lot of rabbit holes in the world of scissors – that’s because different scissors play a big role in the various professions represented, whether it’s tailor shears, cooking scissors, embroidery, upholstery, quilting to name just a few.

So, let’s get a few things straight before we get too deep into scissors and the papercutting arts.

How long has this papercutting been going on as a serious art?

Historians credit the Chinese with developing the process of paper making in the first century AD, creating a cheap and preferable alternative to writing on papyrus, wood, clay or parchment. There is evidence of a papercut decorative art from as early as the 4th century (Han Dynasty), with a particularly strong tradition in the Jianzhi style of papercuts, which use a lot of Chinese characters and animals from the zodiac. 

Chinese paper cut rabbit zodiac

READ: Yes, left-handed scissors are made differently

Which cultures celebrate papercutart?

The art form flourished a few hundred years later in Japan, where it became known as Kirigami, and spread to Indonesia, where it developed a cool kind of paper puppetry called Wayang (protected by the United Nations as important Intangible Cultural Heritage). The Philippines also developed a Christmas tradition of decorating Parol lanterns with cut paper designs.

Other cultures have developed their own traditions, with a broad popularity of the silhouette technique (Artland Magazine held an exhibit of contemporary work from global artists). The crafts are often tied to major events such as weddings and New Year’s celebrations.

Paper making migrated through the Middle East and didn’t become widely used in Europe until the 11th century. By the Middle Ages, many paper craft traditions were well established, some with the cuts by scissors and others by knife. Some of the examples include:

Ukrainian paper art by Larissa Pasadena
  • Papel picado is popular in Mexico, where the artist cuts tissue paper into motifs for use in decorative banners.
  • Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, where it is called Vytynanky, often use designs of roosters, flowers, and other symbols, which were used to decorate the home (including picture frames and mirrors).
  • In Sweden, the tradition of decorative paper covered Christmas crackers to hold candy.
  • The Jewish culture developed its own style of embellishments (hiddur mitzvah) of the Talmud’s lessons and other decorative uses.
  • Germany has its own folk art of Scherenschnitt, which usually involves the detailed cutting of folded paper. In French parts of Switzerland it is known as decoupage.
Is there a more complicated way to describe the art of papercutting?

Of course there is. This is fine art and we can use big words, such as psaligraphist. A psaligraphist describes a master silhouette paper crafter. For example, Karen Bit Vejle is a contemporary Danish-Norwegian psaligrapher. And you can see her work in travelling shows or at the Museum for Paper Art in Hune in Denmark’s northern Jutland. Another, more famous Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, was also a psaligraphist.

karen bit vejle papercutart

“I cut paper because I just can’t stop myself,” Bit Vejle says. It’s worth your time to dig into this, so here is a Ted Talk write up on her art. Like intricate lace, her work is jaw-droppingly beautiful and nothing like any of us did in kindergarten.

READ: The truth about stork embroidery scissors

We are here for the scissors.  Tell us more about paper scissors!

I thought you’d never ask. There are a lot of styles of paper scissors. Often they are called general purpose, which means you keep them handy for paper, cardboard, string, envelopes, scrapbooking and various household tasks like cutting wrapping paper. There are paper hanging scissors, often with a long blade ideal for cutting wallpaper.

Ernest Wright paper hanger scissors

Another long-bladed style for paper is a banker’s shears, which were kept on hand for bankers to clip bond coupons when one used to do that sort of thing. Their shape and style echo a much older activity when caligraphers used them to cut scrolls. With all the artistic flair associated with calligraphy, the scissors were also often embellished with metal lacework and ornate flair. You can see many of these beauties, many of them from Turkey, in museums like the Metropolitan in New York.

Can you use other kinds of scissors for cutting paper?

Yes, but only if you want to go to jail or suffer an even worse fate. So, in other words … NO!

All the additives in paper actually are quite tough on scissor blades, so there is an unspoken rule that the “good scissors” (for tailoring and embroidery etc) are kept apart and are never to be used to cut paper. We actually did a whole story on why cutting paper with nonpaper scissors is a crime.

fennek tessuto fabric shears

It’s worth a reminder that when we call the tailor shears “good scissors”, that doesn’t mean paper scissors are of lesser quality. Ciselier seeks out artisanal makers who use top-quality steel and hardening processes, and make everything painstakingly by hand – no matter which style they are making.

Paper scissors are designed for their specific use, with a blunter angle that delivers more power to the cut and helps the blades stay sharper longer despite the dulling impact of lint and fibre buildup on the blades. (It’s still a good idea to wipe the blades regularly.)

            READ: Why handmade scissors are worth every penny

Are the papercraft arts having a comeback?

Hobbyist activities are always there, whether it’s quilting or embroidery or psaligraphy. There is an ebb and flow to them. Just when you think they are dying out, your cousin gets hooked and drags in a few family members and they tell two friends and pretty soon you’re in a New York Times trend feature about old-timey stuff making a comeback.

Every year, the NYT style section also seems to predict all men will soon wear dresses. That trend has yet to play out. But their 10 years of predicting the rise of pickleball finally paid off, so don’t lose faith. In a future story we will prove to you that embroidery remains a big hobbyist thing – including for men, whether or not they wear dresses. (Meanwhile, we are very evangelical about the magic of using artisanal scissors and suspect they too are going to have a much bigger moment... as soon as people find out how amazing they are. We are working on that.)

READ: We haven’t been written up in The New York Times yet, but the whole heritage scissors thing Ciselier is supporting has garnered quite a bit of media in our first year. Here is a run-down of where we have been featured online, in print, radio and TV

Are there any great songs about papercutting?

Good question. We have no idea but this seems super important. Some lyric references pop up on a Google search but we reserve the right to ignore Duran Duran and Rush – even though we covet Geddy Lee’s wine cellar, which is closer to our heart. 

But Ciselier are big fans of the band Papercuts! So much so that they turned up as my top played artist a few years ago when Spotify dropped my year-end listening data. So, have a listen now to their song Future Primitive.

If you want to have a go at some papercutting, Youtube is full of tutorials. And in her Panda Bear book, Louise Firchur includes some templates to guide you along. 

Finally, if this has whet your appetite to geek out deeper on the subject, we can strongly recommend the American Guild of Papercutters for more history, art and inspiration.

2 Responses

Ciselier Company
Ciselier Company

March 31, 2023

Hi Karla, we do – we’d recommend the 7" Robuso Klassisches or the 5" WASA Scroll, depending on the length you prefer!

Karla B
Karla B

March 31, 2023

I was wondering if you carry particularly pointed and sharp scissors good for for Scherenschnitt/papercutting.

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