The Miao women of southwest China are renowned for their embroideries and lavishly decorated festival costumes and as a needleworker and former fiber artist I am awed by their work. But it was one of their ordinary everyday sewing accessories, called Zhen Xian Bao, that really riveted my attention. Zhen Xian Bao means “sewing kit” or “thread book” and it is a book-like paper portfolio used to store their needles, embroidery threads, braids, and paper patterns. The pages of a Zhen Xian Bao are an amazing layered affair of collapsible boxes, trays and folding pockets. It’s an ingenious feat of paper engineering. The first time I saw one I felt my little child self leap inside, the self still thrilled with magic boxes, secret pockets and hidden treasures. I was hypnotized. It was very difficult to find authentic examples of the paper needle books, since they were little known or collected in the west and the making of them is dying out with modernization. Ruth Smith’s article for a British origami journal got me started on the trail but her book, A Little Known Chinese Folk Art: Zhen Xian Bao, which is considered the definitive guide to the subject, listed at Amazon for $271- a tad out of my price range.
Left: Fifteen compartment Zhen Xian Bao by Rita J. McNamara. Right: The book opens to facing pages of four small boxes. One box shown partially open.
Then I stumbled across a posting by Paula Beardell Krieg on her website bookzoompa.wordpress.com. Paula is a book artist and origami fan. She had a copy of Ruth’s book and, like me, she was on the hunt to find the real thing. She showed the book to another book artist friend, Ed Hutchins, and though the needle case idea didn’t ring a bell he took the book home, read it cover to cover in one night and went rummaging through his stash of collected paper. Lo and Behold! Ed unearthed an old thread book which he thought he probably bought at an estate sale somewhere.
Left: The bottoms of the four small boxes act as lids for four larger boxes underneath. Right: The four larger boxes open into four trays. Cardboard inserts hold boxes open for photographs.
So now Paula had an old thread book and she carefully photographed the thing, layer by layer. I pored over Paula’s photographs like Indiana Jones studying the cryptic map for The Well of Souls. Noting the fundamental structure and construction, the folding, the types of paper, the hinges and corner joins. When I thought I had a grasp of the basic design, I fabricated a prototype from grocery bag paper to work out the kinks. Meanwhile I’d also found some examples of reproduction Zhen Xian Bao made of layered twist pockets and origami masu boxes. I tried that, too, but found that all the folded paper bulked up the spine and made the book impractical. In the traditional examples I was studying, small twist pockets and/or small origami masu boxes are common features in the first layer of a Zhen Xian Bao but underlying boxes and trays were cut-and-glue boxes made of thin cardboard or sturdy paper which reduces the layered paper bulk considerably.
Left: Two paper trays open into one large box. Right: The two large boxes open into the last and largest box which also serves as the cover. Cardboard inserts hold boxes open for photographs.
My exploration of Zhen Xian Bao has been an experiment in design and engineering, testing out one thing and another, finding the most practical and workable solutions. My final designs (which can be adapted to create any size and compartment capacity desired) vary only slightly from the traditional thread books I studied. In the old thread books the first layer of boxes is the only decorated layer. The boxes and trays underneath are usually made out of ordinary thin cardboard and completely hidden by the top layer of twist pockets. My own design allows edges of a layer or two of underlying boxes to be seen, adding contrasting color and pattern and more visual interest.
Zhen Xian Bao have a magical aura. They make wonderful gifts and keepsakes stuffed with snippets of poetry, pressed flowers and leaves, old photographs and notes, paper souvenirs and other paper treasures. Sign up for a summer workshop and learn how to make one yourself. Email me at email@example.com and I will send you a program flyer as soon as I settle on a date.