Papermaking: A brief history
The creation of paper is arguable one of the most important advances in human history; the advent of the thin, pulp-pressed sheets allowed our ancient ancestors to communicate, invent and plot - without it, much of our history would still be a mystery, and many scientific and cultural progressions would not have been possible.
Paper was cheaper to make, easier to store, and and lightweight and durable enough to transport, and quickly became favoured over papyrus and parchment. The invention of paper is first credited to Cai Lun, a Chinese dignitary who began producing the first sheets of what we would recognise as paper in 105AD from rag scraps. From China, the process moved to the Arab world when who Chinese papermakers were captured and set up the first paper-mill in Uzbek city in 751AD. Paper didn't reach Europe until the 11th Century, with the Arab conquest of Spain and Sicily.
The popularity of paper rose steadily from there (despite efforts from the Roman Emperor Fredrick II, who banned its use for public documents) and the move from rag scraps to wood pulp saw an explosion in the use as the cost of paper made a dramatic decline. In Britain, paper output rocketed from 96,000 tonnes in 1861, to 648,000 tonnes in 1990.
Modern Day Papermaking
Nowadays, paper is mass-produced in automatic mills. However, there has recently been a resurgence in people exploring paper making in their own homes, using the archaic methods which have been long-forgotten in industry. This rise in popularity has come alongside the decision of more people to consciously reduce their environmental impact - 'going green' - and producing your own paper from scraps of unwanted print material is a fantastic way to recycle. It is also a simple and inexpensive process, and during the months of COVID-19, has become a satisfying craft project for many.
What You Need
You don't need much to start making your own paper; and only a very few specialised pieces of kit:
- Papermaking Mould & Deckle
- Blender (a cheap one; use an old or second-hand blender)
- Couching Cloths (absorbent thin fabric sheet, usually made from felt)
- Water Tub (big enough for you to easily submerge your mould and deckle and scoop upwards in the water)
- Scrap Paper
- Fill your water tub with enough water to allow you to sweep your mould and deckle under the water at an angle and bring it up flat.
- Cut or rip your scrap paper into squares, roughly an inch wide. If you are using a particularly thick paper or cardstock, you might want to then leave your paper squares to soak in water for a few hours, or even overnight. I don't tend to pre-soak any of my paper up to 300gsm; anything over that I will soak for around 4 hours.
- Add a loose handful of scrap paper to your blender, add some water (around 1/4 to 1/3 of your blender capacity) and blend until your paper has become pulped. Add another loose handful, and blend again. It should now be quite a thick, squishy consistency. I added peach pigment to mine to create a light pink paper.
- Tip your paper pulp out of the blender into the water bath, and then repeat step 3 again. This should provide you with plenty of pulp to get started - as you make paper more often, you will get a sense for how much pulp you need to make the quantity of sheets you want.
- Mix it all together - use an old spoon, or just stick your arm in! You want to give the water a good stir to make sure the pulp isn't starting to settle at the bottom of the water, or clump together.
- Hold your deckle mesh-side up, and place your frame on top of it; the mesh needs to be 'sandwiched' between the two wooden layers. Get a good grip on the sides.
- Sweep your mould and deckle into the water at an angle, and then bring it out of the water flat. It might take a bit of practice, but you'll get it! The water will pour, and then drip, out of the mould leaving behind the pulp. Gently tilt the frame around in all directions to encourage as much of the water out as possible, and give the corners a good hard squeeze.
- Slowly lift your mould off the deckle. You should be left with a pulp rectangle a few mm's thick.
- Turn your deckle over so that the pulp is pressed face-down against your couching cloth. Don't worry about the pulp sliding off mid-flip, it is surprisingly good at staying put!
- Remove as much of the water from your pulp as you can with your sponge, pressing firmly through the mesh. Once your pulp is as flat and dry as you can get it with the sponge, slowly lift the deckle away - lift from a short edge or corner and gently 'peel' it away from your sheet.
Congratulations - you've got your first sheet of home-made paper!
Keep going until you have the number of sheets you want (or start running out of pulp!) and leave them to air dry.
Tips & Tricks
- If you want to use pigments, glitters or other inclusions with your paper, add them into the blender unless you are making paper with seeds or petals in - then you'll want to add these into the water bath and stir in with the pulp before pulling your first sheet.
- If you find that you have loads of pulp left over and don't want to use it all at once, tip the water from the tub out through a strainer - you can then collect the pulp into a ball, squeeze the water from it, and freeze it in a freezer bag to reuse later!
- You can use any sort of absorbent sheeting as couching material; I usually use felt whilst the paper sheets are particularly wet, and then transfer them to a J-Cloth to continue drying. However - remember that whatever material you use to couch directly onto will have the pattern of that material pressed into the paper.
- You can flatten your paper in a number of ways - such as placing couching on both sides and leaving them to dry under something heavy (which won't be affected by the water - no books!). You can also use a rolling pin to very gently squeeze out water and really press those fibres together. I prefer to leave my sheets to just air dry and curl, then heat press them flat later. You could do this with an iron, and the paper underneath a cloth, for example.
Are you going to try to make your own paper? Will you be experimenting with colours and inclusions? Let me know!