Hand Fans: A Critically Endangered Craft

Hand Fans: A Critically Endangered Craft

The Art and Elegance of Fan Making

Fan making, an art steeped in history and tradition, is a craft that involves the intricate assembly of wooden sticks (known as montures) and the mounting of the of leaf created from numerous fabrics such as cotton ,silk and paper. This craft, which has been refined and passed down through generations, not only represents a rich artistic heritage but also a fascinating intersection of culture and fashion. 

A Journey Through Time: The Historical Significance of Fans

Hand fans date back to around 3000 BC, with their origins traced to both Europe and the Far East. The earliest fans were fixed, non-folding types, and it is believed that Japan was the birthplace of the folding fan, which later spread to China and eventually to the West. In Europe, the initial folding fans were luxury items, reserved for royalty and the nobility, inspired by Eastern designs. These early fans were not just functional items; they were opulent works of art. Crafted from luxury materials like ivory, mother-of pearl, and tortoiseshell, these fans were often intricately carved, pierced, and embellished with silver, gold, and precious stones. The leaf, typically made of paper, was painted by skilled artisans, transforming each fan into a unique masterpiece. 

The evolution of fans continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While fixed fans were still prevalent in the early seventeenth century, by its end, folding fans had become the norm. The eighteenth century saw a significant democratisation of this accessory with the advent of printed fans, making them accessible to a wider audience. The nineteenth century and the early twentieth century witnessed a diversification in fan types, ranging from affordable brisé and printed fans to luxurious feather fans for the high society.

In contemporary times, although fans are not a necessary accessory, they still hold a special place as commemorative items for special occasions. The Fan Museum website offers an extensive history of this fascinating accessory.

Diverse Types of Hand Fans

● Fixed Fan

● Folding Fan: Features a pleated leaf, usually made of paper, affixed to sticks.

● Brisé Fan: Composed solely of sticks, often linked at the top by a ribbon.

● Cockade Fan: Opens fully in a round shape, resembling a lollipop.

● Fontage Fan: A type of folding fan typically used for advertising purposes.

The Craftsmanship Behind Fan Making

The process of making a fan was traditionally divided among specialised craftsmen. Stick assemblers, leaf folders, and fan painters each played a crucial role in creating a single fan, ensuring that each part was made with precision and artistry.

Sub-Crafts Integral to Fan Making

Stick Making: A meticulous process involving the shaping and decorating of the fan's framework.

Painting: Artisans adorned the paper leaves with intricate designs, often telling stories or showcasing exquisite scenery.

Mounting: The final step where the painted leaves were carefully attached to the assembled sticks.


Current Challenges Endangering the Craft

Changing Tastes and Market Issues

In contemporary society, the hand fan has largely lost its status as an indispensable accessory. This decline in popularity has led to a significant reduction in demand, posing a substantial challenge for artisans who specialise in fan making. The market for hand fans, once buoyant and diverse, has now shrunk, making it increasingly difficult for craftsmen to sustain a living from this traditional art form. 

The Cultural and Artistic Value of Hand Fans

The hand fan is more than just a tool for personal comfort; it is a symbol of cultural and artistic expression. Throughout history, fans have been used as status symbols, fashion accessories, and even as mediums for artistic expression. The intricate designs and craftsmanship of fans reflect the cultural and artistic sensibilities of their times and regions. Fans have been featured in art, literature, and have been part of significant cultural rituals and ceremonies across the world.

The Role of Fans in Modern Society

In today's world, where the practical need for hand fans has diminished due to technological advancements like air conditioning, fans have taken on a new role. They are now seen as collectible art pieces, nostalgic remnants of a bygone era, and are still used in certain cultural practices and ceremonies. Their aesthetic and historical value make them cherished items for collectors and history enthusiasts. 

The Path Forward: Preserving the Craft of Fan Making

It is important to encourage new artisans to take up the craft, and to raise public awareness about the historical and cultural significance of fans. Educational initiatives, exhibitions, and public engagement activities can play a crucial role in reviving interest in this exquisite craft.


The art of fan making is a beautiful, yet critically endangered, indeed, fan making is on the HCA Red List of Critically Endangered Crafts.Crafts classified as ‘critically endangered’ are those at serious risk of no longer being practised. They may include crafts with a shrinking base of craftspeople, crafts with limited training opportunities, crafts with low financial viability, or crafts where there is no mechanism to pass on the skills and knowledge. The hand fan is a symbol of artistic ingenuity and cultural heritage that deserves to be preserved and celebrated.