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Review of European Hand Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques

Winter 2019
Winter 2019
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Sylvia R. Albro is a senior paper conservator with the Library of Congress. She received her master’s degree in art conservation from the New York State University College at Cooperstown, New York in 1982. Albro is the author of the book, Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking published in 2016 by the Oak Knoll Press, and has long had a special interest in Italian paper and paper history.

European Hand Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques Timothy D. Barrett, with an appendix on mould making by Timothy Moore. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press, First printing, 2018, hard cover, includes 3 paper specimens. 352 pages, 10¼ x 7 x 1 3/8 inches, 394 illustrations. Second printing, 2019, soft cover, $55.

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When respected papermaker, author, and teacher Tim Barrett—well-known to subscribers of Hand Papermaking—embarked upon his career as a young craftsman in the early 70s, he searched in vain for a book in English that would describe the practical side of hand papermaking from start to finish. He eagerly read historical overviews such as Dard Hunter’s iconic Papermaking: History and Techniques of an Ancient Craft, but found they included little of the hands-on instruction needed to actually make paper today. Now, from the standpoint of a lifetime spent immersed in the craft, Barrett has written the very book he was looking for almost 50 years ago, and more. In European Hand Papermaking: Tradition, Tools, and Techniques, Barrett thoroughly investigates the craft as it was practiced in the distant past and in the present, covering all aspects of the work and generously sharing his findings and hard-earned expertise with the reader. Comprehensively illustrated and eminently readable, the book has appeal not only for papermakers, but also for allied professionals, including conservators, historians, artists, woodworkers, and engineers. It will even prove engaging for those individuals who may never practice the craft, but are simply curious about the details of how paper is still made by hand today, along with its varied path throughout the ages.
It is often noted that, historically, specialty craftsmen showed reluctance to share their secrets, territorial of their own expertise. Yet in his book, Barrett takes the opposite approach. Although he states outright that one “cannot learn any craft from a book” this volume is practically encyclopedic in its how-to content. It begins with thoughtful reflections on the information found in historical texts written in many languages, and follows with an overview of what Barrett has learned through years of trial and error in his own practice beginning with the raw materials required for pulp and going through every step of the process of preparing the sheets. Results of scientific investigations conducted while at the University of Iowa Center for the Book on subjects such as gelatin sizing and fermentation of “furnish” materials provide added dimension. Observations from Barrett’s travels and interviews with successful practitioners from around the world enrich his storytelling. Specific instructions on how equipment can be purchased, modified, or constructed is included, along with a special appendix by woodworking specialist Timothy Moore that provides step-by-step directions on making both laid and wove papermaking moulds. The wealth of material presented in this book gives any aspiring new papermaker a huge leg up in entering the profession.
In Chapter One, “Traditional European Papermaking,” Barrett expands upon a 1989 essay he wrote for The Paper Conservator (volume 13), adding new information taken from translated texts originally written in Italian, French, and Dutch from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, exposing the reader to a variety of practices from both Northern and Southern Europe. This chapter discusses the importance of water quality, fiber sources and preparation, mechanical beaters, sheet formation, felts, sizing, and drying in historical European papermaking.
In Chapter Two, “Contemporary European-Style Papermaking,” Barrett explains to the reader, with all modesty, that he has never been obliged to make his living solely from the profits of production hand papermaking, and that anyone evaluating his experiences for that purpose might wish to take that into consideration. Nevertheless, having stated this, Barrett immediately begins to draw in the reader with clearly outlined ideas, tips, caveats, and creative examples regarding how a dedicated craftsperson might indeed embark upon a successful hand-papermaking career today. Barrett advises the aspirant to identify a viable niche market, develop a well-thought-out business model, and most importantly, to obtain the necessary craft skill set. Barrett discusses raw materials available today, and a variety of workshop practices currently in operation, and addresses important financial, environmental, and human considerations. He sprinkles the text with anecdotes and advice (often humorous), drawn from his own experience, as one who has tried his hand at every aspect of the craft, from growing the fiber, to mixing the pulp, to making the moulds, designing watermarks, building equipment (beaters and loft dryers), and carrying out technical experiments to test his theories. In one aside he cautions the beginner to avoid working enthusiastically with the Hollander beater if distractions prevail. Anything that might interfere with the concentration necessary—like falling in love, or too little sleep the night before—can negatively affect the outcome, and risk injury.
In one section, Barrett explains how very different papers can be produced from the same pulp, as a result of varying the length of beating time and adjustments to the mechanical settings of any given beater model. Balancing the effects of beating times is clearly a fine art as exemplified in a complex chart provided in the book, correlating times and outcomes using the same raw materials. Excellent photographs and precise line drawings illustrate the procedures and equipment described throughout the text. Though dense with detail, the tone of the book is collegial, encouraging readers to try their own hand at the craft. Barrett warns that the road is long and that aspiring craftspeople might find themselves on a path for life, looking for that “perfect” sheet of paper. Chapter Three covers traditional watermark production, requiring considerable technical skill with wax moulds, electroplating and/or metalworking, along with various non-traditional techniques for creating watermarks including one innovative 3D computer-assisted design method.
In the fourth and fifth chapters covering tools, equipment, and suppliers, Barrett presents the pros and cons of various materials, tools, and equipment necessary for performing high-quality work, particularly the currently available models of the Hollander beater, but also knotters, deckle boxes, moulds, and drying equipment. He gives their sources and methods of fabrication, even their cost. He practically has done the readers’ homework for them.
A succession of appendices add sound advice on a multitude of miscellaneous topics of interest such as coloring sheets, flattening or smoothing paper after it has been made, and trouble-shooting problems that may occur along any part of the process. The richly illustrated contribution by colleague Timothy Moore is really more of a chapter than an appendix, as it gives considerable information on the historical as well as modern reproduction of paper moulds. Aimed primarily at craft workers of considerable skill in wood and wire, the detailed mould designs Moore presents are also of interest to paper historians as they provide clues to why paper looks the way it does after sheet formation. The illustrations here are especially descriptive. Appendix A is a treasure chest of online information, accessible from a UICB webpage that provides references to over 176 URLs and additional videos. These resources open the door to a tantalizing universe of information that one can easily get lost in. For this review, I perused a selection of links, clearly seeing their advantage in understanding the great variety of papermakers, procedures, and machines out there. I intend to investigate as many as possible in the coming months. So far my favorites include YouTube videos of papermaking at Fabriano, Hayle Mill in England from 1976, and at UICB from 2013.
In the end, this book leaves the reader in awe of the comprehensive compilation of expertise amassed in fifty years of working at the craft of hand papermaking. For a conservator such as myself, it underscores the importance of understanding the phases of manufacture that give each paper its individual qualities, so critical when tasked with treating the enormous variety of papers held in libraries and museums. For the artist, new respect for handmade papers that are available, and the complex procedures that are employed to make them, may enlarge their creative uses and make their costs seem quite reasonable.
Throughout the book, credit is given and acknowledgement is made to the many assistants, students, papermaking colleagues, illustrators, translators, authors, and technical experts in related fields, of which there are a great many. The footnotes and bibliography are full of enticing tips, titles, and directions to investigate further. The author gives full credit to book editor and publisher Cathleen Baker for her admirable organizational skills and the high-quality production values of The Legacy Press. If you were lucky enough to have ordered one of the first-edition books for $65, you would have received a special insert of three paper specimens made by the author. The publisher did a second printing of the book, a softcover edition at $55 per copy, which is completely worth the price, but I do hope that the publisher will consider a second hardcover edition because it will hold up longer in a workshop environment.