Paper, as we think of it today, is attributed to China around 100 A.D. At some time during the fourth century, the Chinese started to cut paper embroidery patterns. Though these first artists were probably members of the royal entourage, paper cutting quickly became a folk art, one practiced not by royalty but by commoners. Their work served both decorative and utilitarian purposes.
From Asia, the knowledge of paper and cut work spread along trade routes until it reached the Middle East during the eighth century. By the 1500s, Turkey could boast of a guild devoted exclusively to the task of paper cutting. When this guild’s members filed past the Sultan during a ceremony in 1582, one observer noted that they displayed a portable garden made entirely of cut paper flowers.
Papermaking -- and cutting-- eventually filtered into Europe, and by the seventeenth century, paper cutters in Italy, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland were developing distinct regional cutting styles. Much of the early cut work from these countries was comprised of religious themes. Cloistered monks and nuns painstakingly created religious texts by hand-lettering, painting with some examples, boasting elaborate cut designs as well.
By the seventeenth century, German and Swiss Scherenschnitte, which literally means "scissor cuts" in German, had become a folk art form. Cutting techniques varied with some designs created from cutting folded paper while others were cut from flat sheets. The Swiss also developed a method of layering cut paper, though collage was not a predominant technique. Most Scherenschnitte was cut from black or white paper which depended on shape and contrast rather than color for its effect.
Scherenschnitte, continues today with the Dutch paper cutters recognized as some of the finest in the world.
Their work is unique with its spontaneity and variety, rather than by any single regional style. Dutch artists use scissors and cut on flat or folded paper, with as many different forms, subjects, and techniques in cut work as there are cutters.