Paper cones are, or have been, used in many European and Middle Eastern countries as spontaneous, emergency or cheap packaging for small items such as seeds, buttons or candy. Very often they are made with amazing skill and clever design. Oddly, they appear to be unknown in China despite China's early use of paper and tradition of ingenious packaging. Although they now appear to be undergoing a renaissance in western Europe, their use there has, for many years, been reduced to nisch usage as take-away packaging for fried potatoes in England and Belgium.
Usage of paper cones has survived the longest in east European countries such as Russia and Ukraine. Being frequently used in their homelands, paper cones continued to be used by Carpatho-Rusyns immigrants to the United States. In slavic languages paper containers of this kind are called "koolyoks" (Russian: кулёк, Ukrainian: кульок).
"Koolyok" is a homemade English spelling of this Slavic word, to be pronounced about like "cool-YOKE". The "cool" part is pronounced pretty much like "cool" (not hot) and the "yoke" part is pronounced like the thing that is put over the neck of oxen when they pull things. To be really picky, the "L" should be pronounced with the tongue slightly farther back in the mouth than is usual in English.
The material presented here is based primarily on observations made in Russia and Ukraine during the 1990's before the use of koolyoks had disappeared from everyday life, having been replaced by plastic bags. A special effort was made about ten years later to obtain additional documentation before the most proficient and experienced makers of koolyoks disappeared from the scene.
Although now mostly supplanted by plastic bags, koolyoks are still used for special purposes in the Ukraine, Russia and other eastern countries at the beginning of the 21st century. They are still the predominant form of packaging for individual portions of such things as sunflower seeds when sold on the street or in open outdoor markets.
The picture to the left shows a young man and a woman selling sunflower seeds in Ukraine. In front of them are four bags of black shelled sunflower seeds. The boy is tearing out pages from a catalog and handing the pages to the more experienced woman who folds the paper into koolyoks. As she completes each koolyok she sticks it inside the ones made previously. Three stacks of finished koolyoks can be seen sticking out from under one of the bags of seeds in front of her.
When approached by a customer, the seller takes one of the koolyoks and fills it with seeds using a standard measure. One such standard measure (green) can be seen in the bag in front of the boy. These standard measures are always filled in front of the customer to their maximum extent (heaping) in order to demonstrate to customers that they are receiving the full amount. Often, a few extra seeds are then added manually to the contents of the koolyok as kind of a good will bonus.
Among the Carpatho-Rusyn community in America, newspaper and brown wrapping paper were common construction materials for koolyoks. In Eastern Europe at the turn of the 21st century, the primary construction material consists of newspaper or pages torn from old books. Frequently, arks of such paper are torn carefully in half, across the paper's shortest dimension, to provide cones of smaller size. Advertising material or pages torn from magazines is also sometimes used.
The basic method of making a koolyok is quite ingenious and which can result in a sturdy enclosure so tight that even something as fine as salt can be carried about in it without leakage. It is It took a long time for this author to become aware of the fact that there were several basic types of koolyok and that there was often great skill and ingenuity involved in their construction. After this awareness, this author has examined and measured a large number of koolyoks and has even taken lessons in their construction from women in Ukrainian markets.
The basic principle behind making a standard koolyok of this more advanced sort is to make a series of rays or folds from a single point along the edge of a sheet of paper, using all but one of the segments to form the body while using the last remaining one to form some kind of locking tab to prevent the cone from unraveling. Most often the angle of the rays is thirty (180/6) degrees although a few instances of other foldings have been found, either 36 degrees (180/5) or 25.7 degrees (180/7). It is necessary to stick pretty closely to 180/n angles or else the final segment becomes too small for the construction of a locking tab of adequate size. The construction of the locking tab has many variations that show great skill and ingenuity. This author has found this kind of koolyok only in Russia and Ukraine.
A basic procedure for making koolyoks, as described below, was first shown to this author by an old woman selling sunflower seeds at an outdoor market on the outskirts of the city of Volgograd, Russia. Her instructions were more along the lines of "like this..., and like this..., then like this..., and then... so there!" But with some quite enjoyable practice this author has been able to duplicate her technique.
This type of koolyok can be made out of paper of almost any size. Useful cones for small items can be made from sheets of paper as small as 10 x 16 centimeters (4 x 6 inches) with little difficulty. The instructions below apply when making a cone out of a sheet of paper of letter or A4 size. To make cones out of paper of other sizes, the measurements presented in the instructions below can be suitably scaled.
To make a cone out of a sheet of paper of letter or A4 size, begin by placing the paper horizontally in front of you. Fold the paper vertically about 8 centimeters (2 1/4 inches) from the left hand edge. It is of some importance that this fold is exactly vertical. This can be assured by making sure that the bottom edges coincide exactly when preparing the fold.
The next fold is made by folding the lower right hand corner of the paper upwards towards the top of the sheet. That this fold be made at the correct angle is probably the most important step in making a successful cone. Following the procedure below will help assure that this angle is made properly.
Begin this fold by pressing a finger- or thumbnail of the left hand down on the vertical crease at the very bottom of the paper as is indicated by the dot in the first diagram.
When pressure is being applied with a finger- or thumbnail of the left hand, it is possible to keep the edge of the paper at a slight tension while the rest of the fold is being made with the right hand. This will help assure that the fold radiates directly from the point where the vertical fold meets the bottom of the paper. As this fold is being made, try to make the angles "a" and "b" exactly equal. Origamist Kenneth Kawamura has pointed out that you can guarantee that angles a and b are equal if the corner that was initially the lower right corner of the paper comes to rest on a vertical midline (not indicated in the diagram), halfway between the first fold and the right edge of the paper. This is a geometrically exact construction procedure but is never used in practice.
The next fold is made by again bringing up the right folded edge. This time to a position on top of the first, vertical, crease. Making sure that these coincide exactly will, in effect, reduce by half any errors made when attempting to equalize the angles "a" and "b" as described above.
A similar procedure is followed twice more, using the triangular portion already made as a guide. First once...
And then a second time...
The next fold is made by folding the sharp point upwards and down, making the crease at the middle of the small tab that extends to the left of the point. The point should then lie on, or ever so slightly below the point where the upper part of the tab extends from out below the developing cone.
Now the cone is almost complete and only a few steps remain. Make the short fold indicated by the dotted line in the diagram to the left - then push the tab "d" into the little pocket formed by the point that has been previously folded over. This effectively keeps the cone from unrolling.
Naturally, this basic koolyok could also be made in its mirror-image form. The koolyok shown at the top of this page is such a mirror-image version of the koolyok resulting from following the preceding instructions. This author has determined that koolyoks of the basic form as described above and its mirror-image form are about equally frequent. The mirror-image form, however, is slightly more frequent among the most well made examples.
Actually, making koolyoks using the flat, two-dimensional process described above, is seldom used in reality. In real life, koolyoks are make by rolling a 20° cone from a piece of paper with the tip of the cone at a suitable distance from one of the upper corners of the paper, turning the tip of the cone towards the maker and then flattening the point of the cone to produce the locking tab at the correct angle. (A cone with a 19.2° angle becomes 30° when flattened) (video showing construction of koolyok) (requires IE9 or non-Microsoft browser) Market sellers are so skilled at this task that the angles of a long series of koolyoks are all within a few degrees of each other. In one examined case, the angles of a series of koolyoks were identical, surely all within a range of 1 or 2 degrees of arc. Skill of this order, however, is dearly gained and this author recommends the flat folding method described above.
Sometimes a koolyok is left open when handed over to the purchaser. This is often the case when the contents are intended to be used immediately, such as candy or sunflower seeds. At other times the koolyok is sealed and there are two basic ways of doing this. If the cone is not to be filled too full and if the contents are something easily flattened like seeds or salt, then a flap can be constructed that will contain the contents. In the diagram above, a flap, "e", can be formed by folding the cone backwards along the line "f-f". This produces the flap which can be pushed down in between one of the layers of paper on the side of the cone to effectively seal it. With more bulky contents, the koolyok is closed by covering the contents using the paper of the cone opposite the flap and then folding the flap down at a sharp angle to prevent the first layer of paper from lifting.
There are optimal dimensions for the paper from which one makes a cone using the procedure above - there is a set of dimensions that reduces the occurrence of loose edges, that maximizes the size of the tab that holds the cone together while producing a flap that tightly seals the top so that even the very smallest items such as seeds or salt will not leak out.
The diagram below presents the paper dimensions and main folds for such a cone.
Here the width of the paper is about 73% greater than the height of the paper. The mathematically interested reader will recognize this as the height times the square root of 3. Measured from the right edge of the paper, the vertical crease is at a point 1.15 times the paper's height - two thirds of the paper's width. The first four folds are at 30-degree angles from one another.
When the cone is made from paper with these dimensions, the sides of the cone largely consists of three layers of paper and when sealing the cone with the flap one has the choice of placing it rather loosely between the shorter outer layer and the second layer or pushing it more securely down between the second and third layers. This cone has a minimum length of paper edge on the inside, reducing the possibility of leakage.
In the description above, all the main angles are at 30 degrees, both the angle of the cone itself as well as the locking tab. Variations from these 30-degree cone and tab angles may arise for a number of reasons. The available paper may not be of suitable dimensions. The maker of a koolyok may also wish to have the outer edges of the cone at an angle greater than 30 degrees in order to increase its volume. Often, too, the maker of a koolyok is forced to work quickly, resulting in inaccuracies in the angles of the folds. Still another reason for departure from 30-degree angles appears to be a desire to have a more symmetric closing flap. For these and other reasons there are often variations from the 30-degree angles described in the procedure above. Slight variations from these angles, however, can result in such large deviations in the relative size and position of the locking tab and pocket that it is not possible to securely hold the koolyok together. The tab near the point of the cone can be too small to prevent the cone from unraveling.
The diagram to the left illustrates this point. It shows the point area of a koolyok just prior to forming the locking tab. The "cone angle" (abc) is the flattened part of the cone itself while the "tab angle" (abd) is that part of the paper which is to become the locking tab.
This diagram demonstrates what can happen if the lower point of the koolyok, "b", is folded upward onto point "a" as in the procedure described for the idealized and carefully measured koolyok. When folded along the dotted line to form the locking tab, the tab "e" is too short to fit very deeply into the pocket "af." Such a koolyok would unroll easily. The author has found one example where this problem has been solved by folding the tab slightly within the cone itself so that a portion of the cone is used to lengthen the tab. This is a somewhat primitive solution and suitable only with rather thin paper.
A more generalized locking-tab algorithm is described below. It is a rather ingenious generalization of the procedure already described and it is totally equivalent to it when the cone and tab tip angles are 30 degrees. It allows a sturdy container to be constructed even in cases where there is rather large deviations from the 30-degree angularity of the cone and tab tip. This generalized procedure begins by making a cone with a angle (flattened) from between 25 up to about 50 degrees. The folding is continued until there remains a flap of paper at something less than 90 degrees. Then a point, denoted by "x" in the diagram to the left, is found on the outer or right edge of the cone. Two red help lines have been drawn in the diagram to show how the position of point "x" is determined. Of course these two help lines are never drawn in actual practice but are shown here merely to show to the reader what a skilled koolyok maker is looking for when determining the position of point "x." The skilled koolyok maker attempts to estimate half the angle "cab," as for example, "cad" or "dab." This estimated angle is then translated along line "ab." Done successfully, the angles "cad," "dab" and "bax", are then all equal. This gives the position of point "x".
Point "b" is then folded up and oriented directly towards "a" and the edge segment "xb" is superimposed along the line "ax." The tab "adf" remains. This procedure guarantees that when this tab is folded across the cone along the line "af" there remains sufficient paper, "ade" to be pushed down behind a sometimes incomplete but deep pocket "afx." When the cone and tab angles are exactly 30 degrees this more generalized procedure in identical to the method first described.
The bottom of a koolyok has two corners. The angles of these two corners are uniquely determined by the "cone angle" and the "tab angle," that is the angle of the flattened cone and the angle made by the bottom edge of the tab of paper that extends away from the cone and from which the locking tab is constructed. If "a" is the "cone angle" and "b" is the "tab angle" then one corner at the bottom of the koolyok is 112.5+a/2-b/4 and the other corner is 67.5+a/2+b/4. If, as in the first koolyok-making procedure described above, a and b are both 30 degrees then the two bottom corners are 90 and 120 degree. Measurements taken from a number of koolyoks obtained in markets show that the cone angle is typically about 35 degrees while the tab tip angle averages close to 40 degrees and have bottom corner angles of 95 and 120 degrees. Another source of variation is the selection of the point on the edge of the paper which is to become the very tip of the cone. By varying the location of this point, the length of the pocket and locking tab can be made shorter or longer, in some cases extending the entire length of the koolyok.
As noted previously, the two bottom corners of the completed koolyok are normally unequal. This author has, however, come across a variant fold being used by someone in the Ukrainian city of Lviv which results in a more symmetrical koolyok, a koolyok having equal angles at the bottom.
The picture to the left describes this variant fold producing a koolyok having equal angles at the bottom. During the completion of the koolyok the bottom fold must first be identified. This bottom fold is to have equal angles with the sides of the completed koolyok. This bottom fold is indicated here by a dotted line and the final and the equal corners are indicated by thick yellow angles. Before actually making this fold, however, an additional fold is made (indicated here in green) extending downward from the point "x" to "c" at the bottom of the paper. In other words, the point "b" is lifted up and a fold made along the green line. This fold is made in such a way that the two angles "f" are equal and determined by the angle between the line "ax" and the desired bottom fold indicated by the dotted line. Thereafter, this variant koolyok is completed as before. The folded edge "cx" is superimposed along the red line produced the pocket and the extended tip is folded into the pocket. Although this extra fold may strengthen the pocket, the purpose of this variation appears to lie entirely in the esthetic qualities of the added symmetry.
With these sources of variation, and with the repeatability achieved from frequent repetition, East European merchants create koolyoks with the individuality of written signatures.
Spices are valuable and it would be a source of great irritation if a koolyok full of spices leaked or unraveled, wasting the contents. It is likely this that underlies the fact the most expertly-made koolyoks found so far by this author were those produced by a spice merchant in southern Ukraine. The koolyoks made by this spice dealer were both made with particular care and used more advanced construction techniques than those encountered elsewhere.
In almost all previously examined koolyoks a 180/6=30 cone angle was used. This spice merchant's koolyoks, however were based on a 180/7=25.71 degrees. The narrower angle and increased number of folds means that the walls of the koolyok are double-thickness over their entirety thus providing greater stiffness. The inside edge of the paper is tucked away inside a crease to reduce the possibility that the contents will wander into the walls Additionally, the long locking tab is hidden away and shielded by the vestigial wall fold, reducing the chances of unraveling. The result is a high-quality koolyok entirely adequate for the needs of both buyers and sellers of precious spices.
This video shows the construction of the spice merchant's koolyok (video showing construction of spice dealer's koolyok) (requires IE9 or non-Microsoft browser). As in most other instances of koolyok construction from "the real world", the koolyok is being made from a cone rather than from the simplified flattened-triangle method described above.
It may be noted that this koolyok is being constructed from a point close to the right edge (so-called right-handed version) rather than the left edge as it the first description. As mentioned before, koolyoks are made in both right-handed and left-handed versions, though the left-handed versions appear to be slightly more prevalent. It is also worth mentioning that there are no geometric aids to assist making these 25.71 (180/7) degree angles as there are for 30 degree angles. Making such angles must rely solely on skill.
Being such everyday, commonplace and utilitarian things, koolyoks don't seem to have any recorded history. Even dictionaries don't provide a accurate definition of koolyoks in the forms described here - "paper bag" being the over-simplified definition found in reference books. The only clear description of a koolyok found in an internet search in 2010 was the following:
This definition was provided by an anonymous contributor in answer to an inquiry, "What is a koolyok?" on a question-and-answer site.
Both the Russian name "кулёк" and the Ukrainian name "кульок" are diminutives of the more general Slavic word, "куль". Куль can have a number of meanings but if one attempts to find some common denominator of these various meanings, some concept the joins together so many of these meanings as possible, one can imagine a cone-shaped basket, made of reeds or straw. A sheaf of threshed straw or reeds, bound as one end and made conical though the use of a few strategically woven spacer reeds could easily be used as a makeshift container.
It is the author's belief that the name "koolyok" derives from such cone-shaped straw or reed containers. Thinking that the special folding techniques used today may have had their origin before the more general availability of paper, this author has attempted to find some middle stage between reed cones and paper koolyoks. It appears to be possible to make koolyoks out of linen cloth using slightly modified but similar folds as those used for paper koolyoks. It is within the realm of possibility that kerchiefs were at one time used to made temporary or makeshift containers and that the folding procedures developed there were transferred to paper when it began to be commonly available.
Cones have previously been in use in most western European countries, although with local names (German: Tüte, Swedish: strut, French: cornet, Polish: tutka). Their use in in most of Europe seems to have come to an end during the period 1930 to 1950. But even today one can find candy sold in cone-shaped containers, although these cones are machine-made, held together with glue and employ none of the ingenious folding techniques of the original handmade versions.
There are other methods for making cones. None of them as well-thought-out or cleverly-made as many of the koolyoks found in East European countries. Such roughshod cones are quick, and used when there is no particular need to prevent leakage or loss of contents - more or less a temporary extender for cupped hands. Such cones can be made by simply rolling a cone from a rectangular sheet of paper and then hinder it from unraveling by inserting one hand into the cone to provide counterforce and then using the other hand to pinch the point of the cone, force it inward about one centimeter while at the same time twisting it a quarter or half turn. Another variation of this roughshod variation is to fold a 45 degree angle at the corner of a sheet of paper, then to lock in the open edge with a series of folds and putting an additional fold at the tip. Such cones unravel easily but can have large volume. Cones of this type are frequently made from half or whole sheets of newspaper. It is cones like this that have survived in England and Belgium as wrappings for take-away fried potatoes.
Additional video documentation
Among the video sequences below is one showing a flat-folded koolyok made by a grain dealer at Sevastopol's 5K-market. This is the only instance this author has encountered where a koolyok is made flat rather than from a cone. This method requires a flat work-surface but is otherwise easier than the cone method. Some of the sequences show varied constructions of more primitive twisted-point cones similar to the kind used in some west European countries for carry-out fried potatoes.
Although the main theme of this documentation is paper cones of the kind once prevalent in Slavic countries, paper bags, used commonly in other areas of the world, are worthy of mention. In the following videos, made at the Chai restaurant, an establishment serving traditional Thai cuisine on the corner of Merthyr and James in Brisbane, Australia, Jibb demonstrates the making of paper bags by hand. Though marred by traffic noises and telephone interruptions, a second video with similar content, may provide some additional detail and clarity.
Material for documenting the making of kooljoks was obtained from a number of people in open air markets in Volgograd, Russia and the Ukrainian cities of Lviv, Odessa, Sevastopol and Simferopol.