Chinese Sewing Box workshop with Erin Sweeney

This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Chinese Sewing Box workshop with the talented (and adorable) Erin Sweeney. I met Erin at the Paper and Book Intensive several years ago and liked her instantly. She’s got great energy and a wonderful creative mind. Taking a workshop with her was an easy sell.

So about that Chinese Sewing Box – if you’ve never seen one before, here’s one for your viewing pleasure:

Chinese sewing box

I was recently directed to the structure’s origin by Rhonda Miller. Although the design of the book we made in the workshop was created by Hedi Kyle, it was inspired by the Zhen Xian Bao, also known as the Chinese Thread Book. The structure was developed by minority groups in southwestern China out of need – these three-dimensional, folded containers held needlework supplies such as thread, needles, patterns, and other paper ephemera (anything flat).

Ruth Smith did quite a bit of research on the structure and included her findings in the book A Little Known Chinese Folk Art: Zhen Xian Bao (WANT). If the book is a out of your budget, you can opt to read her article that was published by the British Origami Society. There’s good stuff in there.

If you’ve never met (or seen) Erin, here she is in all of her pink scarf glory:

Erin Sweeney teaching the Chinese Sewing Box

Hi Erin!

I love making kits for workshops, but I love getting them even more. Our kit included all materials for the project, along with extras to make templates for future reference.

Chinese sewing box workshop kit

Erin recommended using a machine-made Momigami paper for the book. If you look at the first image in this post, you’ll see the paper in use. It’s a nice soft crinkled paper, which likely makes it very forgiving while folding.

The papers we used included Mohawk and Kraft-Tone. Erin told us that we could crumple up the paper if we wished to add some texture to our books. I did it for some of the components – I didn’t have time to do it for everything, which I would have preferred. I had to remind myself that this was my learning book and that the next one could be just as I wanted.

We started by learning how to make the core unit of the structure – the Masu box (you can find a tutorial here). The first one we made was a small square. These fold down flat when you push in the sides.

Masu boxes

Then we moved on to making the thread container, which was essentially a Victorian Puzzle Purse. Erin had us write the directions on our template, which was a great idea. Yes, step one says crazy measuring trick.

So this piece of folded paper…

Victorian puzzle purse in progress

…somehow folds down into this:

Victorian puzzle purse in progress

I’m not entirely sure how that happens. We did it five times and I still don’t get it. My workshop neighbor walked me through it (thanks Becky!). I remember nothing. I’m going to have to repeat this – a lot.

So that paper pinwheel folds down into a square after you tuck in all of the points (thankfully, I understood this step).

Victorian puzzle purses

After that, we made more Masu boxes, this time they were rectangular and in assorted sizes.

It wasn’t long before my workspace became a pile of crazy. I tried really hard to keep it together and not creep into Becky’s space. I have a tendency to expand into nearby spaces – I’m like an amorphous gas.

Messy worktable with Masu boxes

The next step was to create a closure for the book – we made a nifty folded belt that Hedi designed. The “buckle” opened up and you could slide the end of the belt through it. This enabled you to tighten or loosen the belt around the book as needed – it was so cool.

The belt was not easy to make. Erin had belts in various states of completion so we could see each step as we worked. Everyone was crowded around the table, folding and cursing under their breath (okay, that was just me).

Folded origami paper belt in various stages

If you’re interested in making one yourself, you can find a pictorial tutorial (page 14) on the Guild of Book Workers website – unfortunately, there are no accompanying written directions. And I couldn’t write up the directions if I tried. Sorry.

Once all of the components were completed, it was time for assembly. I didn’t take pictures during the gluing process, mostly because I am a very focused gluer – I just shut the world out and glue.

After gluing, all of this…

Masu boxes

…turns into this. Check out that belt!

Chinese sewing box

Here’s what happens when you open it up:

Chinese sewing box

The first layer you encounter is the thread container.

Chinese sewing box

The thread container is attached the side of a square Masu box.

Chinese sewing box

The square Masu box is attached to the side of a rectangular Masu box.

Chinese sewing box

And the thing just keeps on going like the Energizer Bunny of books – the rectangular Masu box is attached to another similarly-sized, rectangular Masu box. Then that rectangular Masu box is attached to the side of a larger rectangular Masu box which acts as the cover.

I love this thing. I want to make more. Lots more. I’m thinking of trying it with reversible Unryu – the combination of colors and texture would be interesting.

In my tradition of saving quotes of awesomeness from workshops, here’s a gem from Erin:

There’s no trick to this. That’s a lie.

14 Responses to “Chinese Sewing Box workshop with Erin Sweeney”

By daria wilber - 29 March 2016 Reply

Hi Elissa,

A Little Known Chinese Folk Art is a lovely book, (it is actually available on Amazon at the moment for 58.00 USD, when I ordered mine a few years ago I had to order it directly from Ruth, I don’t remember the price but the postage was astronomical). Ruth’s instruction booklets for the Chinese Thread Books are super as well. If you order any of of the instruction booklets I would say Booklets 1 and 3, (though just ordering book 1 will give you a ton of ideas and all the dimensions).

These Chinese Thread Books are one of my favorite things to teach.
Students come into the class and are astonished by the models and I assure them that they will leave with a finished book, and they do, much to their amazement!

Experiment with paper! You can make them from almost anything, (which is what the folks in Guizhou Provence do). I have made them from my own handmade papers, hand made and machine made Japanese papers, handmade cotton rag from Shizen Design, (I tend to use this in class, it folds well and there are a ton of patterns that can be coordinated), Astro Parch, as well as reversible Unryu. Holiday Season 2 winters ago I made small ones as greeting cards with the greeting inside the pop-up box from brown Kraft paper tied with waxed red hemp cord.

Not sure if you have seen this…Folding Didactics E Ruth Smith

I’ve gone on enough…hope you make more of these lovely books. They are little treasures!

By Elissa - 30 March 2016 Reply

Daria –

Erin told us that she has made the structure using fabric and an iron (instead of a bone folder). It does seem like options for materials are endless. I plan to dig through my flat files and play with different papers to see what works best.

About Folding Didactics…do you mean this website? Or is it something else?


By daria wilber - 30 March 2016 Reply

Hi Elissa,

Try this pdf, I am not sure why the link didn’t work, (for some reason the pdf is at the bottom of the e mail, if you don’t see it let me know and I will send it under a separate cover).

In her booklet, Ruth gives instruction for covering the Zhen Xian Bao with fabric or paper. Below are the instructions for making the cover I hand out to students. I adapted the instructions with Ruth’s permission.


Making the Cover

When I teach a Zhen Xian Bao class I use fusible webbing with paper, (I have made some with fabric covers as models), for the cover, primarily because almost *none* of my students in these classes have any experience in book making/ book binding! This is the least difficult way for people not accustomed to covering a book/making book cloth, etc., it is almost *impossible* to screw this up),

I recommend *not* folding your book closed until you attach the cover unless you are careful when attaching the cover, getting all air bubbles or fusible webbing kinks out.

Using Fusible Webbing: There are a couple ways to make a cover for your Zhen Xian Bao. The neatest, way is to use paper or fabric and fusible webbing such as Heat and Bond. Follow ironing instructions provided by manufacturer. Do not use a steam setting unless directed to do so by manufacturer! To use the webbing technique cut your cover material and the webbing slightly larger than your book. Iron the fusible webbing onto the wrong side of your cover material. Then clip your corners and fold your edges in and carefully press the edge only. Now you’re ready to cover the book itself.

Covering the book: Place your book box side down, (so that the bottom of the large box is face up), making sure that it is smooth and there are no buckles or bends. Remove the backing from the webbing. Align the cover on top of the book and iron the cover to attach it to the book. Trim excess cover material as needed.*

*Hemming the cover: You can run a hem on a sewing machine or hem with glue.

Glue technique: Place your cover right side down. Clip your corners, carefully crease and fold in ¼-½” all the way around. Run a small bead of glue under the fold and gently press. Remove any glue that “escapes” with a dampened cloth. Using a bone folder or bone folder alternative press all the way around to secure the glued edge. Cover the book as instructed above.

Stitched technique: Place your cover right side down. Clip your corners, carefully crease and fold ¼-½” all the way around. Hand or machine stitch the hem. Cover the book as instructed above.

Using Glue or Paste: An alternative, (and traditional) method to make book cloth is to use glue or paste as an adhesive to make your book cover.
Cut your book cover and non-fusible webbing as instructed above. Working from the center of the webbing evenly apply the glue or paste brushing outward from the center. Do not brush the glue from the outside edge to the center. You will wrinkle your paper or fabric. Holding your cover material right side up align your cover material over the interfacing and gently affix it. Working from the center out smooth the cover down onto the glued webbing. By working from the center out you will smooth away any air bubbles.. Place your book under pressure: Under heavy books, bricks or book press. By doing so you will avoid buckling. Leave the book under pressure until it is completely dry.

Hope you have fun!


By Janet Hickey - 29 March 2016 Reply

Elissa, This is FABULOUS! I have a Pinterest board dedicated just to the Chinese Thread Book. I have most of my templates, dimensions and papers ready to attempt one of these. The only book I could reasonably get my hands on that has any type of instruction is Shereen LaPlantz book Secret Compartments & Hidden Messages. You are the absolute best at documenting your adventures and instructions. Your blog is my favorite. Thanks!!

By Elissa - 30 March 2016 Reply

Janet –

I just tried searching for your Pinterest board and dangit – there are quite a few Janet Hickeys on there! Could you share a link to your board?

It’s so funny that you mentioned the LaPlantz book – not only do I have a handmade copy of Innovative Bookbinding: Secret Compartments & Hidden Messages, but I also worked with her husband David on the reprint (you can read more about that here). I totally forgot that the book included a section on the Chinese Sewing Box – thanks for the reminder!


By daria wilber - 30 March 2016 Reply

I have a handmade copy of *Innovative Bookbinding…* as well! It is one of my treasures!
Janet, I can send you dimensions if you like…dww

By Amy - 29 March 2016 Reply

Sounds like such a fabulous class! Thanks for the overview and all the lovely links 🙂

By Elissa - 30 March 2016 Reply

Amy –

The workshop really was so much fun. I’d take another workshop with her in a heartbeat.

I forgot to mention that Erin also gave us another kit to make a smaller Chinese Sewing Box – it was really helpful in helping me remember the different folding techniques.

That Erin is a smart cookie!


By Anita Gangi Balkun - 25 April 2016 Reply

Where was this workshop? I’d love to meet and work with Erin!

By Elissa - 26 April 2016 Reply

Anita –

The workshop was hosted by the Book Arts Guild of Vermont and took place in Burlington, VT. You can check out Erin’s upcoming workshops on her website.


By alice simpson - 26 July 2016 Reply

Thanks for bringing so many of your friends to my website as a result of the Victorian Puzzle Purse link. I love seeing what artists do with this treasure of a structure.
Alice Simpson

By Elissa - 26 July 2016 Reply

Alice –

I’m so glad that folks have been checking out your tutorial – it’s pretty fantastic. Thanks for offering it to all of us!


By Paula Krieg - 22 October 2016 Reply

Elissa, thought you might like to see this Zhen Xian Bao that Ed Hutchins has in his collection!
I’ve totally loved reading your posts about this structure!

By Elissa - 28 October 2016 Reply

Paula – That book is amazing! 31 compartments is total insanity.

Glad you enjoyed the posts and thanks for sharing that link!

So what do you think? I'd love to know!

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