171: Fans

I’ve always had an interest in folding fans. As a kid, they were fun to play with. It was neat how they folded up (and snapped out!) so nicely. Working in history museums, I got to study them in detail – both their construction and their complex place in Victorian culture. They were used as cooling devices, as a way to communicate, and even to play games. If you are interested in the Language of the Fan, there is a nice little synopsis on the websites for the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA, and at Sotheby’s. As for this month’s post, actually making a laser cut folding fan has been on my project list since the start of the blog, back in January 2014! I’m not sure what made this the month to finally do it, but I’m pretty pleased with the results!

Most of my little fan collection. In the back is a modern leaf style fan I bought one very hot day in New Orleans in the French Market. The rest are brisé style. The blue fan is vintage plastic, the feathered fan appears to have celluloid sticks, and the bottom fan is a very fragrant sandalwood.

Let’s start with a crash course in terminology for those that might not know much about folding fans. There are two main types of folding hand fans you see today. A common one is a leafed folding fan – this is where the sticks of the fan all attach to a “leaf,” or a piece of fabric or paper that covers and connects the upper half. The focus on these types are usually the decoration on the leaf part. Because I wanted the focus to be on the lasered stick parts, a brisé style folding fan was in order. This fan type has no leaf, but is entirely composed of decorative sticks. These sticks, which can be rather delicate, are protected by guard sticks, or “guards”, on each end. The sticks are all held together by a rivet at the bottom which allows them rotate and fan out. The sticks are held in order by a ribbon or thread, even fishing line in the case of my sandalwood fan!

My stick template.

Ribboning the fans seemed the most daunting part of the whole thing. After reviewing my tiny fan collection and the 1978 Book of Fans by Nancy Armstrong, I made up a quick template to practice on and get a feel for ribbon placement. The three-slot ribboning seemed the most straight forward in execution, using a single continuous piece of ribbon, so I put slots at roughly 50 percent, 80 percent and at 90 percent of the length of the stick. I also put a single slot to see if I could make heads or tails of Nancy Armstrong’s description of how to ribbon a single slot, and then the three little holes are to use thread instead of ribbon.

Nancy Armstrong really went quite in depth on how to repair fans in Book of Fans, but only a tiny part of page 110 discusses ribboning them.

On the fulcrum end, since I was was doing so many trials, I thought I’d also experiment with rivet types. I have leather rivets in my craft stock, thanks to making leather bracelets, our third project on the blog! The big hole at the bottom accommodated the tube rivets and solid head rivets I have, and the small hole was to try out metal headpins and eyepins.

Three slot ribbon trials

I’m sure there is a mathematical way to figure out perfect slot placement (both how far apart and relative to the rivet point) to get the stick placement you want, but I decided to just make multiple examples to get a feel for how things fall. The three slot ribboning was the easiest weave, and it kind of felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The one on the left (nearest the fulcrum) caused the sticks to be father apart than I wanted. The one on the right, with the slots close and very near the top, caused the sticks to be too close. (Ignore the fact there are five slots in that row; I thought I’d try a fancy weave that I made up and totally didn’t work). The one that was just right for me was the middle one, with the slots roughly 75% up the stick. Of course, I can see very interesting design possibilities with the closer and farther ribboning, with differently shaped sticks or designs. None of these were failures, but an interesting springboard to other ideas.

Three hole trial with thread

The three hole ribboning worked very much the same as the three slot, but offered interesting possibilities in making the “ribbon” disappear (by using fishing line) or making it a more prominent part of the piece through additional holes and embroidery. The line is continuous across the sticks because I looped them back over each other and tied each section individually. I also really liked that this didn’t have the bulk of the ribbons between the sticks when the piece is folded up!

Single slot ribbon

So, neither of these single slot ribbons are exactly right if we are following Nancy Armstrong’s description on ribboning, but they do offer interesting visual possibilities. I feel the single ribbon approach is stronger construction because it’s made of multiple ribbons, each end glued securely to a larger part of the stick than is available to the 3 slot design. (There are drops of glue holding the 3 slot ribbon in place on each stick, hidden on the back). The ribbons I had available are synthetic, and have a little more body to them than is advisable. These weaves look really cool, but the ribbons have a tendency to dome up a bit. But I really do think the black and white one is striking. I’m excited to keep trying single slot weaves to see what other fun variations I can come up with! I don’t think there actually is a “wrong” way to ribbon a fan (unless it doesn’t open as you intended) so I’ll be keeping these as examples!

Final fan design. Steely gray acrylic, green ribbon, 10 sticks, room for improvement!

So, armed with my practice runs, I decided on a design that would use the 3 slots, roughly 75% up the stick, and I would use the longest capped rivet I had. The size of the rivet dictated how many sticks I could use. I had some 1mm grey acrylic sheets from Project 58: Lasering Layers that were still laying around – perfect time to use it! And my biggest rivet was roughly 12mm deep, so I cut 10 sticks, 2 guards. Normally the guards are made thicker than the sticks, but acrylic is pretty hardy. The design is one that is inspired by the work of Christopher Dresser, and I actually made some hanging lamps with the design (much like the hanging lamps we did for Project 75.)

As always, there are little tweaks I’d like to do to the design before I call it finished (namely: rethinking the outline, adjusting the slot width on the stick, adding more sticks and finding finer ribbon), but all in all, I’m excited about future possibilities. To see the little fan in action, hop on over to my Isette Instagram post and check out the second video. If you’d like to see more historic fans, (and who wouldn’t, they are gorgeous), check out the online collection of brisé fans at the Fan Museum in London!

This book is a bit dated, but has great little nuggets of knowledge and lots of eye candy! The fan on the cover is a cockade fan….maybe I’ll try making one of those some day as well!


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