Chinese sewing book

I’ve been fascinated by the Chinese Thread Book, or (zhen xian bao) since I first found out about it several years ago.  It always seemed too complicated. Today, I followed the tutorial here on how to construct it.  There are other tutorials, but this is the one I chose to follow.

The results are not ideal.  The paper I used is really cardstock, and too heavy for this purpose.  It does make it less likely that you’ll rip the twist boxes in the course of opening and closing them, but all in all the book turned out nicely despite being made of paper scraps from my collection of leftovers from other paper projects.

By and large, the most difficult piece of the work is folding the pieces that become the twist boxes.  This involves cutting an A4 piece of paper to the correct size, measuring it, folding it into fifths and halves, and then folding it in a series of diagonals to produce the twist.  All in all, though, an elegant design.
This book contains seven compartments, but I missed an opportunity to add at least two more, if not six more. No matter. I was following a tutorial, not designing my own box from scratch. I do see, from museum examples, that there are some ways of adding more complex compartments to the book — one large one the size of the whole cover, another two on each side, and another pair opening underneath the two compartments on the right-hand side.  Plus there’s maybe space for a couple of ‘envelope’-like pockets under the left and right side compartments.

Here’s the second thing I like about it, despite the heavy paper (or perhaps because of it).  It’s clear that this is a thing with a specific purpose — thread. You’re not going to be storing cauldrons and alembics and elaborate machinery inside of this.  It’s for thread.  Maybe some needles.  I saw a museum-quality example once, really from southwest China, that was large enough to store pattern pieces for sewing shoes in it.  This one is not that big, as you can tell by my hands.  But it’s still a thing rooted in geometry (even if I used a ruler and was measuring in centimeters to make this particular example.  The people who built the originals did so using geometry for the most part, not measurement with measurement-units like inches or centimeters.  They made these things according to geometric rules, which I started to get a handle on as they made these beautiful objects.

Third — as some of you might guess from the paper choices for the twist boxes — there are potential uses for this book of boxes in magic.  I can see Gordon populating this with some of his sigils, for example, or maybe treating the paper as sigil-surface.  It can certainly be decorated, far beyond what I’ve done here.  Or sigils could be secreted inside the various compartments.

This one, I’m going to use in my bimonthly roleplaying game as a prop.  It’s a little too rough and weird and heavy to use as a regular-use object, and I don’t really have a use for it (yet).  But if I make some counters or things to put in the compartments, then maybe this is a wizard’s spell book, or a special-purpose version of something like a deck of many things, or a similarly special-purpose bag of holding. (Just because the compartments can’t hold cauldrons in our world, doesn’t mean they can’t in another world…)

So, that’s the basics of it. Not complicated, really, though it looks intimidating.

5 comments

  1. That is one wicked smart design. A clever mind indeed came up with that – makes me want to rabbit-hole on the history and origin of them and waste my morning…

    Thanks man, you present the coolest stuff!

    • I don’t know the history of them except that they come from southwest China — which is (I think) the region where women invented their own system of literacy and developed a matrilineal culture.

      I’m in the process of making a second one, out of much larger paper (30×30 cm). But two of the sheets are A4s, trimmed down. So I’m going to have to do some fancy proportioning to work out what size those sheets need to be for the larger twist-boxes. My plan is to make this second project a much larger one, maybe 12-20 pockets, and turn it into an art-book of poetry… maybe.

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