Daily Archives: December 24, 2020

Timeout for Art: Papermaking


My methods for making paper are not the same as those who make fine art papers. Though I envy people who have the money and space for a Hollander beater, and who can then mash up organic cotton linters for fine sheets of artist quality paper, my methods and materials are much more basic. The up-side is that the way I make paper is open to anyone. Equipment is easy to come by; materials are free.

I taught myself the process that I use to make paper many years ago, from instructions in a small book I found on the sale table at Young & Welshan’s book store in Flint. I decided my blender, which I’d purchased to be able to impress my family with Brandy Alexanders during our Christmas holiday, was better suited for pulverizing paper pulp. I pulled embroidery hoops out of my craft basket to serve as papermaking molds. Always interested in turning scraps into something wonderful, I was enamored with the results.

As often happens in my world, I soon had a half-dozen books on papermaking. I learned various techniques for special effects. I studied the history of paper. My old friend, Bill, a fine craftsman and boat-builder, guided me through the cutting and joinery involved, and I made two dozen paper-making molds, and several deckles. Then, I started teaching the process.

I have taught papermaking to adults and children of all ages. The youngest was a group of 30 three-and-four-year-olds, my grandson’s “Head Start” class. My teaching methods vary only slightly based on the age and dexterity of the students.

I begin with a little history of the development of writing; I explain how there was a need for something like paper long before we had it. The main purpose of many ancient monuments was to act as a message board, telling of momentous victories or extolling great rulers. Roman soldiers going into battle often engraved their last will and testament onto the metal scabbards of their swords. Students wrote on clay tablets or slabs of slate.

Native Americans wrote on birch bark; silk scrolls were used in the Orient; and papyrus was developed in Egypt from a plant that grew along the Nile. Important documents were written on parchment, made of animal skin, or vellum, which was a finer product made of calf, goat or sheepskin. Though it was a lengthy process to prepare and cure the skin, it was in use through the Renaissance. One copy of the Gutenburg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep! To this day, we often refer to a diploma as a “sheepskin.”

Paper was invented in China, in 105 A.D., by Ts’ai Lun. He watched fishermen dragging their nets up from a river that had much debris floating in it from overhanging trees. As the nets dried out on the riverbank, the debris would come off in sheets. From this, Ts’ai Lun developed the process of papermaking. The first papers were made of old rags, tree bark, hemp, leaves and fish nets. The sheets were crude, but cheaper and easier to mass-produce than anything else to that point. For his efforts, Ts’ai Lun was awarded the title of “Master” by the emperor.

The process of papermaking is virtually unchanged in two thousand years: Fiber is macerated, mixed with water, and lifted from the water on a fine-mesh screen. The lifting motion draws the fibrous pulp onto the screen, forming a sheet of paper. It’s that process that differentiates sheets of paper from other things, like egg cartons, that are molded of pulp rather than drawn up onto a screen.

Papermaking companies have large machines that do the work of breaking down fibers into pulp, and equipment that will turn out a perfectly smooth, even sheet, but the process is still the same. Though commercial operations often use wood fiber to make pulp, any cellulose fiber will work to make paper.

In my classes, I show samples of papers I’ve made from banana peels, flower petals, grass, vegetable parings and grape skins. It becomes obvious that things with long, stringy fibers make the sturdiest sheets of paper. Though we use these items and many other things to add interest to our sheets of paper, for at-home or classroom papermaking, the basic pulp is made with recycled paper. Next week, I’ll go into the equipment and materials needed, and how to prepare for making your own papers at home.