Exploring Papermaking

As part of expanding my studio practice for this project I wanted to experiment and utilise handmade papers. So after reading a few books and a hands on induction workshop demonstrating the process I felt I really had to have a go at this at home.

The induction workshop at the print workshop under the guidance of my tutor S. Debney walked me through the process of preparing paper pulp for use, discussed many factors and tips, provided an overview of equipment and setup and demonstrated two methods for creating paper of different sizes e.g. small and large sheets. I also looked at other methods for creating paper such as that adopted in Nepal as shown in the video below. Feeling totally inspired by the process I set about acquiring the necessary equipment and setting up my studio space to dive in and have a go.

Sourcing Equipment & Materials

To get started at home in my studio, I sourced the following equipment:

  •  A VAT filled with water & size to hold the paper pulp

  • Liquidizer to pulverise the paper into pulp

  • Buckets or containers to soak the paper

  • Custom made Deckle(s) to create the sheets of paper

  • Towels/cloths and sponges

  • A flat work / drying area 

  • An iron to help dry sheets quicker

  • Binder & size for the paper

Choosing a VAT to hold and store the paper pulp very much depended on the size of the deckle or the size of the paper I wanted to create.  In this instance I wanted to have a container that could be easily stored and moveable as have limited storage and working space at home. Hence, for the VAT I opted for a 1.8L plastic storage box with a lid which I purchased from the local supermarket. 

Soaking paper for pulp
Liquidized paper pulp in VAT

Custom made Deckles

Circular deckles made using stretched muslin and embroidery hoops

The above shows the muslin stretched over the larger hoop but untrimmed, and the smaller hoop after it was trimmed.

For this project I wanted to create round sheets of paper as circles were to feature strongly in this project, so adopted the use of the embroidery hoops of various sizes with stretched muslin creating a circular sieve to serve as my deckle for shaping and forming my sheets of paper. 

I sourced the muslin from Wilko’s who sell single sheets which are normally used for jam making and the embroidery hoops of various sizes were purchased online. 

Circles were cut from metre square sheets of muslin that were slightly larger than the hoop size i.e. with approximately  3″ to spare all round so that when placed over the hoops there was sufficient material to grip and pull it tightly by hand. The circles of muslin were stretched out flat over the inner hoop before placing the outer hoop over it. The tension screw was then tightened slightly to grip the sheet. This was followed by a continous process of edging around the hoop and pulling the muslin taught and tightening off the screw to grip the muslin firmly till it was taught like the skin of a drum. At this stage the excess material was trimmed off with a pair of scissors. 

Preparing the Pulp

To make the paper I selected a soft back book which was relevant to my chosen topic (which I will discuss later in the project). After removing the cover and gummed binding, I ripped the pages into strips and placed them into a bucket of water which I left soaking overnight (i.e. 24 hours), occasionally agitating the mixture to ensure the paper was separated and had fully absorbed water. 

A portion of the pulp was then loaded into the liquidizer i.e. about 2 to 3 handfuls at a time to which water was added to cover the pulp and was blended. This was then added to the VAT which was about quarter full with water mixed with a binder and size solution. I added about half of the overall paper pulp.

Having a lot of air in the pulp, it floated on the surface of the water when it all settled so before casting each sheet it needed to be stirred using a wooden spoon or stick to ensure the pulp permeated through the vat evenly. Now I was ready to explore options for creating sheets of paper.

 

Exploring options

As a first step I wanted to try out using some of raw pulp (unliquidised) with my custom made deckle(s) so embarked on creating a small sheet by mixing it with more water and pouring it into the deckle to make the test sheet of unblended paper (as shown). This sheet was thick and lumpy once it was dried, despite being pressed, which gave the paper strength (i.e. like cardboard) that had a unique texture. The printed text being partially or fully visible added a sense of layering and dimension along with adding interesting patterning to the piece. However I deemed the surface texture to be too course for my purposes for this project so decided to create a finer pulp, keeping some of the coarse pulp mixture aside to maybe add pieces from it later when creating paper for my final works. I will however keep the piece and may make another to incorporate into other work at a later date.

1st sheet made using unliquidised paper pulp
Selection of handmade papers

The next step was to create a smoother surfaced paper using the blended pulp. In this instance I tried dipping the deckle and pouring pulp into it to see which worked best. For kouching I used washing up sponges and pressed the sheets with an iron by placing the sheets between layers of fibre cloths and kitchen towels to expel the excess water, then finally pressing the sheet between two layers of muslin on a flat baking sheet to give it a smoother surface. Using this process I created 12 small circles, 6 medium circles and one large circle measuring 12 cm, 16 cm and 24 cm respectively.

Lessons learned

Pouring -v- Dipping

I found that pouring offered more control over the amount of pulp and thickness of the sheet, however it needed to be poured quickly and carefully with plenty agitation of the deckle to ensure the pulp settled evenly. Occasionally I ended up with lots of pulp around the edges and a very thin centre as the pouring pushed the pulp out towards the edges. Dipping worked to a point, more so when the pulp was floating on the water in a thick layer, however found that on a few occasions the sheet turned out too thin due to insufficient pulp being captured in the deckle which made it difficult to release the sheet when it was turned out. As a result sometimes I would have  to dip at least 2 to 3 times to get sufficient pulp in the deckle, which occasionally caused ripples in the captured pulp, at which point I had to clear it out and start again. Nevertheless, the experience of these findings could be put to good use at a later date if some of these effects were desired.

Big -v- Small

The process for releasing the sheets using my custom made deckles involved turning the filled hoops upside down onto a towel or cloths and wiping the muslin with a sponge (i.e. kouching it out). A bit like turning a cake out of a tin, the most challenging part was ensuring it all turned out in one piece. This method didn’t lend itself very well to thin layers of pulp as these were more likely to fall apart and tear if the pulp didn’t release cleanly from the edges. This prompted me to try using a knife around the edge however this resulted in more jagged edges. Ensuring enough pulp was in the deckle was key in order to ensure enough weight for the pulp to release and turn out cleanly became an art unto itself. Having a cleaner release of the pulp from the deckle also resulted in cleaner edges to the paper. The largest sheet (24 cm) required much more  effort to release it from the deckle and resulted in a much thicker sheet that was more like thick cardboard than paper.

CONCLUSIONS

This short exploration into papermaking has inspired me to consider doing some further research and exploration into papermaking methods and consider ways of how I might incorporate this into my project, future work and other areas of my existing art practice e.g. making art journals etc.  I am also keen to explore eco friendly paper production methods such as those in Helen Heibert’s book Papermaking with Garden Plants. I do feel though there is so much more for me to learn about the process and findng ways of working that best fit in with my working practice. I would highly recommend it as something worth trying out for yourself.

References:

Traditional Hand Made Papermaking in Nepal, Retrieved 21/03/2019 https://youtu.be/b5Pbbu6rMR4

Helen Heibert, Papermaking with Garden Plants: An Eco Friendly ApproachStorey Books; 1st Pbk. Ed edition (1 Jan. 2006)

 

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