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Finding Plant Fibers

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #71 (July, 2005).

You do not have to go further than your own backyard to find a number of plants suitable for papermaking. Many common garden plants make lovely papers, such as the leaves of iris, gladiolus, and day lilies, the stems of okra and hollyhock, and the stalks of corn. Even in your kitchen compost, you can find papermaking plant parts such as onion skins, artichoke leaves, and corn husks. If you do not have a backyard, there are many other places to find papermaking plants. I sometimes collect onion skins from the bottom of the bin at the local grocery store and get corn husks at the neighborhood farmer’s market. Nurseries and flower shops often have plant waste laying around, and roadside weeds, such as cattails and phragmites, are abundant and suitable for papermaking. Be creative. One papermaker I know uses all of the plant material left over after she harvests her vegetable garden. Another collects the leaves of the banana tree at her local bank after it has been pruned. In Chicago, a papermaker has her students collect milkweed that grows wild along the train tracks. The possibilities are endless.

The main ingredient in papermaking plants is fiber. Fibrous plants have been used for ages to make items such as cloth (cotton and flax), rope and sackcloth (hemp stems, New Zealand flax leaves, sisal), and other products such as baskets, mats, brushes, and hats. These plants, and many others, have also been used to make paper, and they will often suffice as the sole ingredients of your sheets of paper.

When foraging for plants, be aware that some plants are poisonous. If you familiarize yourself with their appearance before you go into the field, they will be easy to avoid. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are common plants which can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions. To protect yourself from inadvertent exposure, wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. Apply insect repellent to prevent bug bites and stings. It is a good idea to change your clothes and rinse off when you return from collecting.

Respect the property of others. Many wild or overgrown places may seem inviting to forage, but you might not be welcome, so it is important to get permission before gathering plants from private property or public parks. If you ask, you might even get help. Friends of mine are so intrigued that I make paper from plants, that they save their gladiolus and day lily leaves for me. A landowner will most likely be curious and maybe even grateful that you want to make paper out of his annoying weeds.
In addition to being sensitive to the people who own or tend the land, it is important to be sensitive to the life of the plant. While getting permission to forage, you may be surprised to find that picking a certain plant will disturb a natural ecosystem, create erosion problems, or interrupt the life cycles of insects or animals. During the late summer and early fall, monarch caterpillars form their cocoons and feed on the milkweed plant. By simply delaying your harvest for a few weeks, you can avoid disrupting their habitat. In some cases the plant you want might be endangered or near extinction. It often takes a lot of plant material to make a few sheets of paper, so in the case of a struggling plant population, your harvest may not leave enough plants for the population to recover. As a rule of thumb, ask before you pick.

There are a few simple tools you need to collect papermaking plants. If you are a gardener, you probably have them in your shed. Take a pencil and a notebook along for notes, and a camera if you wish to do visual documentation. A jackknife or a pair of hand pruners will be useful for cutting stems and branches. Don’t forget to bring a knapsack, bag, or string to tie up your cuttings and carry them home. Bring a pair of gloves to protect your hands from scrapes and scratches. If you plan to wade into a swampy area to collect grasses, its a good idea to wear waterproof boots.

How to Find Papermaking Plants...

1. Take a walk: Vacant lots, roadsides, riverbeds, swamps, gardens, farms, and train tracks are just a few locations in which you might find papermaking plants.

2. Do some creative research: Historical accounts of how people have used plants for papermaking and other crafts can be found in books on papermaking, textiles, and basketry. Early Chinese papermakers used hemp, fish nets, tree bark, and old rags for their fiber. American Indians used tule (Scirpus acutus), a soft-stemmed bulrush, to make mats, baskets, walls, and roofs. Lime tree bast (Tilia) was used to make shoes and brushes in Russia. All of these materials and many others make fine paper.

3. Study a field guide: Although at first glance nomenclature may appear baffling, it can help you focus your search for papermaking fibers and help you locate what grows in your region. Plants in the same botanical family often have similar physical characteristics, so by paying attention to botanical orders and plant family names, you can identify potential papermaking plants. For example, paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera, a.k.a. kozo), which is one of the predominant papermaking fibers in Japan and also grows throughout the U.S., is in the Moraceae family. True hemp (Cannabis sativa) and breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) are also in the Moraceae family and are good papermaking plants.

4. Study papermaking manuals: there are a few books in print that provide lists of papermaking plants and paper recipes: Plant Fibers for Papermaking, by Lilian Bell, is an excellent guide to over 80 plant fibers; Winifred Lutz's appendix in Japanese Papermaking, by Timothy Barrett also contains recipes and detailed information.

5. Take a class: there are a number of papermakers working with plant fibers who teach classes at art centers specializing in book and paper arts and at community colleges. There are papermaking courses offered at some colleges and universities.

6. Ask an expert: If you have trouble identifying or locating a particular plant, call a local botanist or horticulturist. You can find these experts at local colleges or university extension services, plant nurseries, botanical gardens, or horticultural societies.

Okay, now that we have an idea of where to look for fibers, let’s get out our garden tools to prepare for the next column!

To be continued in the October Newsletter.

Portions excerpted from Papermaking with Plants, © 1998, by Helen Hiebert with permission from Storey Publishing. <>.

by Helen Hiebert