Did I mention that my second book is coming out next month? I did? In the course of writing it I interviewed a whole host of people involved with the arts and crafts that go into making books, and the run-up to the publication of The Book seems like an apt time to share some of their experiences and knowledge.
But where to start? We could go all the way back to clay tablets and cuneiform in Mesopotamia’s Middle Bronze Age, or to the invention of papyrus in early Pharaonic Egypt (and I do, in The Book!), but for modern books, paper is the be-all and end-all. Without paper, there are no books. And so, way back in November 2013, I visited a Scottish papermaker named Chrissie Heughan at her studio in Edinburgh, where I asked her to take me through the process of making paper by hand. This is what I learned.
Paper as we know it, as opposed to laminated, papery materials such as papyrus, starts with pulped plant fibre.* Most paper today is made from wood, but the earliest Chinese paper was made from a mix of bark, old fishing nets and beaten rags, while for a long time, in both East and West, old linen rags woven from flax were the favoured source of fibre. For her part, Chrissie specialises in paper made from two other traditional papermaking fibres: the feathery inner bark of the kozo plant, the staple raw material of feudal Japan’s papermaking industry (seen above), and short cotton fibers called “linters” that yield the clothlike paper used for banknotes.
Having chosen a source of fibre, the next step is to pulp it — that is, to beat, rip, or otherwise render it down into individual fibres suspended in a bath of water. Historically, pulp for mass market paper was made by pounding the fibrous matter by hand or machine, but things have moved on since then. Nowadays, wood pulp for the low-grade paper found in cheap paperbacks is made by mechanically grinding up wood chips; longer-lived acid-free paper is more often made from wood chips “cooked” in a stew of chemicals until they break down into individual fibres.
To produce the pulp for her handmade paper, Chrissie uses a downsized version of a machine called the Hollander beater (shown above), invented in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and once used in countless paper mills. In a Hollander beater, a metal paddle wheel drives a watery mixture of kozo, cotton linters, or other fibre around a circular trough, teasing out the fibres as the suspension circulates past its metal blades. It’s a simple solution and an elegant one, scalable from sink-sized devices like Chrissie’s all the way up to giant industrial versions.
This is where I came in. Chrissie had a basin of cotton pulp standing at the ready when I arrived, and we prepared to transform it into paper.
“So, um, what do we do now?” I asked.
First, Chrissie told me, you have to choose a mould. The essence of papermaking, the very centre of it, is the act of sieving out a matted sheet of fibres from the vat of pulp, and to do that you need a flat, porous mould. For handmade paper, moulds come in two basic forms: “Wove” moulds, like the one I tried out, are simple sheets of fabric or other mesh fixed to a wooden frame. The more expensive “laid” moulds, on the other hand, start with a similar wooden frame but are completed by a removable, flexible mat assembled from strips of dried grass, wooden skewers, or metal wire. In both cases, a second frame called a “deckle” sits atop the first and defines the edges of the sheet of paper. (You can see a laid mould above and a wove mould below.)
Next, you take up the mould by its edges and dip it vertically into the pulp before straightening it out and bringing it up out of the murk. It brims with water and fibre, contained by the deckle, and you must give it a gentle shake to drive off the excess water and even out the fibres at the same time. As with anything worth doing, this “shake” is easy to learn but hard to master, and the vatmen employed in the old handmade paper mills took great pride in theirs. To lose one’s shake after an accident or a prolonged absence from the mill was a career-ending disaster.
How did I do? Put it this way: an afternoon spent in a papermaking studio is emphatically not long enough to gain a decent shake, never mind lose it.
So: you’ve taken the mould out of the vat and expelled the excess water with a gentle shake. Left on the mould is a thin layer of felted fibres — a sheet of paper in the making. Getting the sheet off the mould is called “turning out”, or “couching”, and this is where laid moulds come into their own: their flexible screens can be lifted off the frame and the damp sheet of paper rolled gently onto a flat surface, but things are a little more tricky when using a rigid wove mould, as we were. Couching the paper was, in fact, very nearly as difficult as sieving out the fibres in the first place; difficult enough, in fact, that in paper mills of old a vatman would hand the mould to his counterpart the “coucher”, whose job it was to turn out the felted mat of fibres in preparation for pressing and drying. Without a coucher to do the work for us, I followed Chrissie’s lead to gently roll my wove mould across a convex wooden board to leave behind the sheet of fibre.
The final stage in our abbreviated tour of the papermaking process was to press out the bulk of the water that remained in the fibres. Chrissie layered my sheet of paper between protective felts and used a small screw press to squeeze out the remaining water, and we were finished! Chrissie wrapped up my misshapen, damp sheet of paper in some paper towels (of course!) and gave me instructions to let it dry out for another day or so. Back at home I laid it on a sunny windowsill, but papermakers over the centuries have dried paper in a huge variety of way: on brick walls heated by fires lit behind them; hung over clotheslines in the rafters of their mills; or, in mechanised paper mills, run between great metal cylinders powered and heated by steam.
After these relatively simple steps — after obtaining a source of fibre, pulping it, sieving out a sheet, couching it, pressing it, and drying it — what comes out at the other end is something like the sheet of paper you see below. Being made from cotton linters it has more in common with a banknote than the pages of a paperback book, but even then it’s a far cry from the crisp tenner you might withdraw from an ATM. More than anything else, what this extremely humble sheet of paper illustrates is exactly how skilled papermakers had to be in order to turn out ream after ream of handmade paper smooth enough for printing and writing, and on which the running of the world depended. Simple it may be, but easy it is not.
I must thank Chrissie Heughan for showing me how to make paper, for answering my incessant questions with good grace, and for waiting patiently for almost three years for this article to appear! You can learn more about Chrissie’s work at her website or her Facebook page, and you can view all my pictures from my day at Chrissie’s studio in this album at Google Photos.
Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this article, why not buy a copy of The Book? It delves into the fascinating stories behind the invention of paper and much more besides, and it’ll be published in both the UK and the USA in August 2016.