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Moroccan Purses

A subscriber to the Origami Internet List, Origami-L wrote on 25th May, 2003 to say that he had to give a presentation on Moroccan culture and wondered if there was any Moroccan origami, whether of Moroccan origin or representing Moroccan items or culture.

I wrote a reply in two parts, the first part of which discussed whether there were any Islamic folding and if the Arabs and Moors were paperfolders. I have separated the two articles and my first article may be read as an introduction to the present article which is specifically about the twisted leather purses which are often known as Moroccan purses. It raises questions which cannot be foully answered.

For some thirty years, I have been collecting the small leather purses which are closed with a twist. They need not be made from leather. I met my old friend John Cunliffe (the founder of the Envelope and Letter Fold association) at the recent convention of Origami Deutschland). For many years he has cut an open-topped cube from the bottom of a waxed cardboard milk carton. By making a diagonal crease in each of the sides of the cube, he has created a twist fold to close. It has formed an excellent purse. As soon as one wears out, he makes himself another from another milk carton. By coincidence) twisted purses were the subject of an informal discussion at the German convention this year. John Cunliffe produced his own and someone else (I regret that I cannot remember who it was) explained how he put a centimetre of water in the bottom of an open-topped cube and put it in the freezer until the water was frozen. He could them fold sharp creases on all four sides along the top line of the ice. Then he put in the usual diagonal folds above this. Having formed the creases he let the water melt and when the container had dried out he had an excellent twist-purse with a centimetre unfolded compartment at the bottom!

But what we generally know as "Moroccan Purses" are made not from cardboard or plastic, but from leather. An open-topped cube is made by gluing the leather sides and bottom together. The construction is obviously not origami in the strict sense of the word. But when the open-topped cue has been made, diagonal creases are made on all four sides and the purse is twisted to close it. This may be one of the very earliest examples of twist folding of which we know. It certainly antedates Yoshihide Momotani’s and Shuzo Fujimoto’s modern uses of the twist fold.

The question arises: why are these called "Moroccan” purses. One reason may be that they are made of leather and because the leather manufactured in Morocco is famous. It has been used for binding books for centuries. (Remember how, in the film, “The Road to Morocco”, like Webster’s Dictionary, the travellers were Morocco bound?). If ypu ever visit Morocco, you will probably be offered and opportunity to visit a traditional leather tannery and see the messy process in operation. (Remember to take a clothes peg for your nose!)

On the other hand, leather is made in many other countries, so leather purses could be made elsewhere. Is the Moroccan purse so-called because it has another association with Morocco? I do not know.

Turning to my own collection, the first Moroccan purse I bought was in a tourist bazaar Majorca, in the Spanish Balearic Islands in the 1970s. They were usually small, cheap things in green or brown leather with gilt designs on the four flaps when the purse was collapsed. Then I found them in mainland Spain in souvenir shops on the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol. By now I had discussed them with other origami friends. Eric Kenneway discovered that the Moroccan purse could be related to the traditional "puzzle purse" and he published his findings as a "Pinwheel and Puzzle Purse" in his little book, "Origami in Action" (Dryad Press, 1972). The problem was to fold from paper a cube that would be strong enough to collapse by twisting. A square may be subdivided into nine smaller squares (as for a Puzzle Purse or Tato) and it is then quite easy to lift the sides to form a cube, with four squares at the corners which can be creased and locked in several ways. Unfortunately none of these methods of locking the corners makes for a very stable cube and Martin Wall’s Moroccan Purse was his response to the problem. He solved it by turning over a double thickness round the top of the cubic box as shown in the diagrams on the BOS web site. This made a strong cube which could be used to form an effective twist purse. It was, however, Martin Wall’s own design and not a traditional one.

Mick Guy sent me a "Moroccan purse" he had bought in the Channel Islands, although in all probability it had been made elsewhere. I later obtained more examples by post from the same bazaar. Roberto Morassi sent me a beautiful purse from Italy, which bore the Florentine fleur-de-lis as decoration. It was presumably made in Italy. Then I found another example made in India in a charity catalogue selling local crafts. It, too, was beautifully made and greatly extended the regions of the world from which the purses were known. I later found examples made in a somewhat different style in Greek islands. Then, when I visited Kyoto on Japan, I found examples in gift shops there, too. They were made from a beautiful Japanese "brocade" paper, not leather. It was impossible to tell whether these represented a Japanese tradition or whether knowledge of folding them had spread eastwards from the West in the past century or so.

However, only two months or so ago, I found this very same purse in a recently- published Japanese book "Origami, Imagination and Tradition" by Yoshihide and Sumiko Momotani. (Hotline, 2003) It is described as "traditional" and is made from a folded paper cube. The cube is made in a manner resembling that of the
traditional Japanese "Masu " box. The big distinction is that the paper is first "blintzed" before dividing it into nine smaller squares. It is then folded much in the same way as the masu box. The cube so formed is very stable, although the double thickness of the blintzed paper makes it harder to twist the purse flat neatly.

My regret after all these words is that I can still not say whether there is any actual paper folding in Morocco nor even that the so-called Moroccan Purse is really Moroccan. Maybe someone else can add information that will help to fill in another gap in our knowledge of the history of origami.

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.
28th May, 2003
Corrected 19th March, 2005.

[Note: 19th march, 2005: I am continuing to research this subject and when I am ready, I will.add a further note abnout these twisted purses.]

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