Papermaking: Process and Experimentation
May 15, 2018
Most books you buy or borrow from the library are printed on machinemade paper. But when you pick up a book and it’s pages feel soft and luxurious or rough and unusual, it’s tactile evidence that there is something special about it. Even if you’ve never thought about papermaking before, we’re so used to flat, smooth, machinemade paper, that it’s immediately evident when we’re holding handmade paper. However, the process of papermaking isn’t exactly common knowledge, so I want to talk a little bit about the basics of papermaking and use a couple examples here at Special Collections to show the creativity and flexibility that artistic papermakers can demonstrate.
When you ask most people what paper is made from they will respond, “trees.” This is true for the majority of paper that we interact with on a daily basis. The paper in your printer, the pages of the novel you’re reading, the receipts littering the floor of your car. But when it comes to handmade paper, the likes of sheets used for fine printing, quality stationary, or artist paper, the material is a different story. Paper can be made from any cellulose-fibered material ranging from linen and cotton rags, trees or bark, and essentially any plant you can name.
How do you turn a living plant into paper? Let me give a basic overview. Firstly you have to beat the rag or plant with water to form a pulp. Historically this has been as simple as rigging what are essentially large wooden hammers with nails and spikes on the end up to a water wheel to make them move up and down, mechanically smashing the material into a pulp. Contemporarily, slightly more modern, electric and metal versions of this are used (see image to the left). The pulp created is too thick to form paper from, so it is added to water that is either agitated by a machine or almost constantly stirred in order to keep the pulp evenly mixed and stop it from settling. The form of the paper is created with a mould and deckle, the mould being a metal screen to catch paper fibers and the deckle a frame that goes around it to define the edge of the paper. If you’ve ever heard the term “deckle-edge,” that’s where it comes from, the natural edge of the paper that was against the deckle. The mould with deckle is dipped into the vat with the pulp and water and removed flat in order to pick up pulp. It is shaken to distribute the pulp and drain excess water. The deckle is then removed and the mould is pressed against felt in order to displace the newly formed sheet of paper, called “couching” (see image below). This process can be repeated to created multiple sheets that are stacked between felt and pressed to remove remaining water. They are then ready to dry. After that, you officially have a sheet of paper!
We have a couple books that specifically address papermaking as a topic and artistic craft. First is probably my favorite book in Special collections, “Paper from Plants” by Peter and Donna Thomas. It is a collection of paper from 30 unique plants sourced from papermakers all around the United States. You can tell this books is special right when you first open it. The “book smell” is just slightly different, and from the moment you touch your hand to the page to turn it, you know this is going to be a unique experience. After a brief two page introduction, the book is comprised of alternating pages. On one side is a paper sample from a specific plant and on the page opposite, written by the creator, is a description of the paper and the experience of making it. The variety of papers in this book is incredibly eye opening and the artistic sense in which they are made truly makes you rethink paper as we are familiar with it. From coconut husk to sweet pea and from spanish moss to mulberry and many many more, there are plants in this book it would never occur to most to make paper from. Out of 105 copies made, I am incredibly grateful to have been able to interact with this one.
I also want to mention Roberta Lavadour’s “Whip, Chop, Mix, Grate, Puree, Blend, Beat?” A short and sweet example description of her experience using a home blender to create paper pulp for her own paper making, this small book includes five examples from paper sheets she’s created. Although nowhere near the scope of “Paper from Plants,” it shows that papermaking need not be a daunting activity.