Zhen Xian Bao

Chinese Thread Book To Go

This past winter I submitted a proposal to the National Museum of Mathematics to present a family workshop at their paper folding MOVES conference this summer. Much to my surprise (and non conveyable delight) they accepted my proposal for hands-on workshop in which people would make a Zhen Xian Bao -Chinese Thread Book- made of three expandable origami boxes, housed in a cover with a ribbon closure.

Much more to my surprise I realized that my workshop time was strictly only 25 minutes.

Finally even much much more to my surprise, the workshop worked out great. Here’s why:

  • I created a highly simplified variation of the thread book
  • I made packets so no time was lost handing out materials
  • I included written instructions so people could work independently
  • I made designs on the paper that would help guide the folding
  • I made a video of how to finish at home
  • I relaxed and had fun

Now here’s the shocking part. Everyone finished their project.

Full disclosure, since this was the very last workshop of the day, we were able to run a little over time. But just a little.

Making a video of how to make this structure was key for me to create an good event. When I realized that I could give people a link that they could reference at home everything seemed doable, and we had a great time with no pressure!

This was a family workshop, though most people were solo. I did have three kids in the room, and they were all very good about helping their parents.

So, yes a good time was had by all. As usual, I completely overprepared (something I do when I am nervous) (which, actually, is always) and the good new is I actually HAVE LEFTOVER PACKETS! that already has a video that goes along with them. I AM SELLING THESE ON ETSY.

The packets includes the paper for the boxes, directions, a cover piece that is prepared with slits for the ribbon and double-sided adhesive tape already applies, ribbon, and a link to the video (which will also appear on my Etsy site). Also I’ll be giving you a few paper strips which you can use to decorate the cover.

The finished, closed thread book is about the size of a large cell phone: 6″x 3″.

Here’s the video that shows you how to make this structure:

Here’s the link to buy the kit on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/727815499/packet-to-make-a-three-section-chinese

It’s $15, which includes shipping in USA.

Addendum: The kits sold like hot cakes…they are now no longer available. Grateful to all who bought them!

Book Art · Box · Zhen Xian Bao

Indigo and Suede, with a Pinwheel Twist Box


This continues my posts about assembling different structures based on the Chinese Thread Book, using different papers. I had thought I was going to be doing the same thing over and over again, with no variations other than using papers with different colors and patterns, but it hasn’t worked out that way.wp-1484682930002.jpg

Here’s where I started using the Stardream Metallic for the cover of the pamphlet on the left. More and more I’m liking how the Stardream paper matches the Chiyogami printed papers.  Notice the style of the little box inside of the pamphlet. After trying out many variations I absolutely loved this little twist box with the pinwheel top.

Pinwheel-top Twist box for Chinese Thread Book, PaulaKrieg
Pinwheel-top Twist box

I think it’s something about the pattern of the Chiyogami paper that made other style box I’ve been making look, well, not so good. Am so pleased to have stumbled upon this way of making the twist box.


Here’s the pinwheel-top box, twisted open.


The second layer rectangular tray is made from a soft handmade paper from India. Underneath the tray is a sleeve made of Stardream paper, which matches the pamphlet.


Big box layer is another handmade paper, but not sure where it was made. I have a stash of this from a place that Elisa Campbell wrote about, Creative Papers, which, sadly, is no longer is business.


The biggest surprise for me was the choice I ended making for the cover of this Thread Book. I tried matching the book with other Chirogami papers, with handmade papers from Dieu Donne and elsewhere. I tried my (faux!) elephant hide paper, and tried matching it with all sorts of cloth.  Then I tried it out with this piece of suede, and it just snapped together. I never thought I use this suede for anything, but it seemed perfect for this project.

I just love how I get to use all these odds and ends of materials!

What’s different, besides the suede, about this particular piece is that it doesn’t suggest a use to me. The first one of this group that I wrote about seems like a valentine waiting to happen, the one after that feels like a gardener’s journal, and the next one I will be writing about feels like a holiday journal. But this one isn’t telling me what it needs to be. Hope someone else can figure it out.


Inside a Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao post #7

Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Detail of a painted Twist Box from a Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins

I can’t believe my good luck.

I’ve been reading about the Chinese Thread Book, devouring anything in print that I could find about it, scouring the internet then just thinking about and trying to make sense of this structure. It didn’t even occur to me that I might actually get my hands on an authentic Zhen Xian Bao.

Front of  Zhen Xian Bao, from the Collection of Ed Hutchins
Front of Zhen Xian Bao, from the Collection of Ed Hutchins

This is how it happened. I wanted to share what I’ve been studying with book artist Ed Hutchins. When he told me that he wasn’t familiar with what I was talking about I drove to his house and dropped off Ruth Smith’s book on the subject. then received this mysterious message a few days later. Ed wrote: ” LOVED THE BOOK. I devoured it cover to cover. I’m going to try to find my zhen xian bao before you get back. keep your fingers crossed…” then a day or two later “You won’t believe this: I found the sewing kit book–AND you are going to love it!”

Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
First Opening, Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins

Turns out that even though Ed had no idea of what I was talking about, once he saw the Ruth Smith book those memory gears kicked in, and he suspected that something he had in storage, might be of interest to me. Turns out he had, many years ago, bought this item on Ebay, without knowing what it was. When he asked the seller about it, well, the seller didn’t know anything much about it either. Ed suspects that this thread book was part of an estate that was being sold off.

Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Two kinds of origami on the top layer of the Zhen Xian Bao (grey strip of paper has been placed in the open box on the right, to hold it open for the photo)

Here’s a variation of boxes on the top layer that I hadn’t seen in all of my perusing: this Zhen Xian Bao features both twist box, and a masu-type box on the top layer, in an alternating pattern.


Looking under the flap of the square boxes with the star on top readily reveals that this box is an embellished masu box.

Edge of Masu-type box
Edge of Masu-type box

There are a few things about this masu box that I’ve deemed particularly noteworthy. The first is that the green and red backgrounds of the star shapes are not hand colored, rather, these are colored papers that are adhered to the masu-box paper. The star motif is also decorated with collaged bits of colored papers. The other detail that I thought was interesting is that the masu boxes were made from a lighter weight paper than all the rest of the boxes in this thread book.

Second Layer, rectangular domino proportions, under each set of twist box and masu box Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Second Layer, which are boxes (or trays?) that have rectangular domino proportions; Gray paper strips placed in the boxes to hold them open for photo-op

Okay, so there’s 16 square boxes, each two of which reveal a box underneath, so, between just the first and second layers there’s 24 boxes.

not origami
not origami

There’s some precise folding going on with these rectangular trays, but it’s also clear that it’s not what we think of as origami. Its been my impression that the rectangular trays traditionally are more like simple folded templates, but I will continue to make mine with origami methods for the reasons I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The decision mostly has to do with the paper. Oh, and it’s the paper in this book that makes it most convincing to me that this Zhen Xian Bao was made in China. The paper is thin, strong, and has an uneven texture. It’s certainly handmade paper, and it’s not like paper I’ve seen. Actually, this paper’s closest counterpart in my paper stash is the common grocery bag (though I am sure that this similarity is purely cosmetic!).

Next layer down, from Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Next layer down, from Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins

Next layer down! Here, each set of four top boxes pull away from each other. Now the count is up to 28 boxes.

Next layer, tray under eight boxesChinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Next layer, tray under eight boxes Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins

Please excuse the purple straw holding the next layer open. Now we’re up to 30 boxes. If you are confused by the count, remember that each set of boxes has a symmetrically placed counterpart, so this open box on the right side is mirrored, but currently hidden, on the left.

The Big Box of the Zhen Xian Bao
The Big Box of the Zhen Xian Bao

Finally, here’s the Big Box layer. There are some major tears in the part of this box that articulate the spine. With the big box, there;s a total of 31 individual compartments in this book.

A secret is revealed on the big box layer that I loved seeing…. one thing that bothered me about this structure was the cover. Although there are no rock-solid rules for the cover of the Chinese Thread Book, I found the cover of this one to be somewhat out of place. But at the edges of the material that covers the big box there’s a hint of something different.


Look, at the head of the box there’s an indigo pattern on material that is underneath the red cover paper.

img_0535There it is again, at the tail edge of the box. The red cover was somehow added on, over the original indigo cover, which is a color that makes more sense for this book. Maybe the original cover was damaged and a seller thought to recover the book to make it more sale-able?

Decoration on a twist box of  the Zhen Xian Bao,
Decoration on a twist box of the Zhen Xian Bao,

I kind of plan on kind of replicating this book using my own methods. Using the measurement methods I’ve been writing about, the only measurement I will need to replicate this book is the diagonal measurement of the square that is made with the 2 x 2 square of the top-tier of boxes.

Chinese Thread Book, Zhen Xian Bao, from the collection of Ed Hutchins
Back cover

That’s it. Now I better get this book of boxes back to Ed before I get too used to having it here.

geometry and paperfolding · Zhen Xian Bao

Zhen Xian Bao, Post #five-and-a-half

Zhen Xian Bzo in progress
Zhen Xian Bzo in progress

Last spring, when I saw Elissa Campbell’s posts about the Chinese Thread Books that she was making, they reminded me that this was structure that I had been intending to explore. Elissa expressed, in her posts, that she just couldn’t stop making them. I didn’t understand what she meant by that at the time, but, wow, I get it now.

img_0513Before finishing my posts on how to make this structure I thought I’d take a step away from making the models and put together some of these thread books, experimenting with different papers. It was much harder to make a completed Zhen Xian Bao than I could have ever imagined, but not for the reasons that are obvious.

img_0537My problem was that at each and every step of the constructions I had to stop and admire the way everything looked. The geometry of the  each piece, as well as how they looked together, just blew me away.

Click on this picture to see the pattern on the paper up close. It’s worth the look

Not only that, but, also, I got to use papers that I have never been able to find uses for, like this delicate paper embossed with a spiderweb motif. It’s like I was holding on to it for all these years just so I could use it now. Not only did I like the way it looked, but the spider web pattern seemed to be completely appropriate for a thread book.

img_0528At each step, shapes and patterns emerged. I would have to just pause and look at everything over and over again. This is no way to work if you want to get something finished.

img_0547Even the pieces that I was cutting away to discard caught my attention. It was a bit ridiculous.

img_0555I also got to use this nearly sheer blue, fiber filled Japanese paper that I had stored in my flat files for many year. I love flat files.

img_0554It felt painful to attach the boxes together in the proper way. I wanted to be able to look at all pieces of the thread book at once.

img_0541I took way too many pictures.


One of the hardest decisions I had to make was what to use for the covering material. Traditionally the Zhen Xian Bao is covered with indigo cloth. I happened to have, tucked away in my flat files, a large sheet of sturdy,handmade indigo paper. It wrapped nicely around my boxes. Have I mentioned that I love flat files?


When I was finished I decided I needed to make another thread book immediately. This one was smaller because I had some beautiful orange paper that was 21 inches wide, so I started with 7 inch squares so as not to waste paper.


In fact, I just kept raiding stashes of gorgeous papers that I have collected over the years but could never find suitable projects to use them in. Part of the adventure of making these books is seeing how all these lovely papers work together.


My favorite papers to use were thin, strong, textured papers. All my models that I’ve made in my previous posts were made from smooth, machine-made, standard weight (about 24 lb) papers. I liked using them for demonstrations and practice, but enjoy that more unusual papers for finished pieces.

img_0602As soon as I finished the second Thread Book I wanted to make another. I was thinking of using paper bags from the grocery store, to see how they worked. Actually, I want to try out so many different papers and combinations of papers. This feels like such an adventure. But I stopped here, as I actually have to do other things in my life.

img_0605My final decision about these books is still not made…what to use to keep them closed? I have many ribbons, but they all seem to slick.  For now, I have them secured with this pale lavender ribbon that is water stained in a way that seems to go with the wrappers, but I’m not convinced it’s perfect.  In any case, enough of this for now. I’ll be turning my attention back to the final bits of construction soon. The big tray part of the Zhen Xian Bao is what’s up next. And it’s awesome.