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Harvesting Fibers

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #72 (October, 2005).

In general, harvesting at the end of growing season or during dormancy will yield the most papermaking fiber, but there are a few things to consider. You might want to let the plant naturally decompose in the field to make processing easier. For example, herbaceous basts such as milkweed and nettles (Urtica lyalli) will start to decompose if left in the field over the winter. Most fibers can be harvested during more than one season. Paper made from fiber harvested in the spring may look different from paper made from the same fiber harvested in the fall. Young nettles harvested in the spring make a green paper, but if they are harvested in the fall, the resulting paper is brown. The age of the plant, soil, environmental conditions such as air quality and rainfall, and geographic location of the plant will also affect the fiber quality and the look of the sheet. Experiment with different seasons and locations and keep records to note ease of harvesting and paper results.

There are three main types of plant fiber used in papermaking: bast fiber, leaf fiber, and grass fiber. What follows is a description and instructions for harvesting each type. From other papermakers, books on fibers, and my own experiments, I have discovered papers made from many plants, ranging from common items such as wheat straw (Triticum aestivum) and hosta (Hosta fortunei, a.k.a. plantain lily), to things I would never think of using such as seaweed. When collecting your first plant fibers for papermaking, I would recommend starting with a plant from one of the lists that is widely known to produce paper. After you become familiar with the processing, feel free to go out on your own.

The fibrous, inner bark of trees or shrubs is called the bast. The bast fiber is located in the stem and branches between the outer bark and the woody core. There are three types of bast fiber: woody, herbaceous, and petiole. Woody bast is found in shrubs like blackberry, vines like kudzu (Pueraria lobata), and trees such as paper mulberry and willow (Salix spp.); herbaceous bast is found in non-woody annuals and perennials such as nettles and milkweed (Asclepias speciosa); petiole bast is found in the leaf stalks and stems of banana plants like manila hemp (Musa textilis).

If you cut a shoot of a tree, shrub, or vine and look at it in cross section, you will find the bast fiber (inner bark) between the outer black bark and the woody core. To collect the bast fiber, choose shoots or branches of trees that are one-half to one inch in diameter. Smaller shoots will have less fiber and larger might be tough to process. Cut the shoots at a forty-five degree angle near the base or just above a bud, leaving the main plant intact so that it can continue to grow. (The angle is important because it will aid later in the stripping process. Where you cut will affect how the plant continues to grow.) Many papermakers harvest bast fibers while they are pruning. Remember that you are only using the inner bark for papermaking, so you need a fair amount of branches to produce a small amount of paper. In order to have enough bast fiber to make paper, you need to harvest at least five or six branches that are approximately five or six feet long. This will yield approximately one pound of bast fiber, which will produce about thirty sheets of paper that are 8-1/2” x 11”. Strip leaves and twigs from the branches.

Herbaceous bast is collected in a similar fashion to the bast of trees, by cutting the stalks at an angle. Annuals like hollyhock (Alcea rosea) and okra (Hibiscus esculentus) can be pulled up by the roots. The roots, leaves, and twigs should be removed.

The petiole of a plant is the leaf stem that is connected to the stalk and supports the blade of the leaf. In manila hemp (abaca) plants, the leaf stalks are often many feet in length and contain long strands of bast fiber that are easily obtained once the stalks are cut from the plant. Many banana plants in the Musaceae family yield this type of fiber, and they usually have fibrous trunks as well. Petiole fiber tends to be very tough and can require extensive processing.

Once you have collected enough plant material, you will need to separate the bast fiber from the woody core and outer bark. In certain plants, the bast fiber can be easily separated from the woody core after harvesting. For example, gampi (Wikstroemia retusa), one of the important papermaking fibers in Japan, is harvested in the spring when it is easy to peel. Willow and elm trees (Ulmus americana and U. pumila) are also easy to peel. With other plants you will need to steam or ferment the stalks in order to recover the bast fiber.

In most cases, substantial, elongated leaves such as the leaves of iris (Iris spp.) or yucca (Yucca filamentosa or Yucca elata) plants are the best sources of leaf fiber for papermaking. A general procedure I follow when determining whether a leaf will yield paper is to check its tear strength--the harder it is to tear crosswise, the better the paper will be.

The easiest leaves to process come from plants like iris, gladiolus (Gladiolus), and lilies, which can be cut right from the plant and are ready to process directly into paper pulp. These types of leaf fiber can be collected in the spring or fall, producing a green paper in the spring and a brown paper in the fall. To harvest in the spring, cut individual leaves near the base of the plant, removing only the outer leaves The leaves at the core should be left on the plant so that it can continue to grow. You can also collect the leaves in the fall when they drop from the plant--a gentle tug will release the leaf from the tuber underground, where the leaf is connected to the plant.

Leaves from sword-like plants such as sisal (Agave sisalana) and yucca have long, stringy fibers inside that look like fishing line. These fibers are difficult and time consuming to process, and often require specialized equipment. Harvest these leaves as you would the others--removing only the outermost leaves and cutting them near the base. These leaves contain a large amount of fleshy connective tissue that should be removed immediately after harvesting by decortication, retting, or cooking.

With any leaf fiber, you will need to harvest at least one pound of dry fiber in order to have enough leaves to make a small amount of paper. The dry weight is tricky to determine if you are collecting fresh leaves--I usually collect three times more fiber than I think I will need. One pound of dry leaf fiber will yield approximately fifteen sheets of 8-1/2” x 11” paper.

Grass fibers are among the shortest papermaking fibers, but nevertheless they still make interesting papers. You can find them almost anywhere. Tall weeds and wild grasses such as straws, rushes, swamp grasses, and beach grasses are good sources of papermaking fiber. You can even use corn stalks and corn husks. Many grasses can be harvested in any season and are relatively simple to process. With grass fiber, one pound of dry fiber will yield about ten small, lightweight sheets of paper. Collect more fiber than you think you will need to ensure that you have enough. You can always dry and store the rest for future processing.

The best papermaking grasses are the ones that are the most difficult to tear. When you find a good source, collect all but the roots and remove the non-grassy parts of the plant, like cattail spikes and wheat fronds. Some grasses, such as bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), are extremely tough and must be crushed or shredded. To crush tough weeds, some papermakers use garden shredders. You might consider renting one. If you live in an area where sugar is processed, you might be able to obtain leftover crushed stalks, called bagasse, directly from a manufacturer. Bagasse fiber is a good fiber to mix with another fiber since it does not hold together well on its own.

There is a fourth fiber category: seed fiber. Cotton (Gossypium) is the most common seed fiber, and it is one of the most widely used raw materials for hand papermaking in the United States. After cotton has been ginned for textiles, weaker fiber left on cotton seeds is collected for papermaking during a second ginning. This fiber is processed into rough sheets, called cotton linters, which can be processed in a blender or a Hollander beater. Paper also can be made from cotton rags. Your old, ratty blue jeans and 100% cotton t-shirts (no synthetics) can make wonderful paper, but doing so requires a lot of work. The rags must be cut into tiny squares and beaten in a Hollander beater.

There are many fine sources of papermaking fibers that do not fall into any of the above categories. A papermaker in Oregon collects seaweed that washes up from the ocean after storms and makes a beautifully translucent, brown-flecked paper. A papermaker in England uses the skins of fruits like mango to produce lovely sheets.

If you do not want to collect your own plant fibers, you can buy processed fibers (like cotton linters) from a number of mail-order papermaking supply companies (see advertisements in this newsletter). Other fibers such as abaca, Spanish flax, and esparto grass (Stipa tenacissima) are also available in semi-processed sheet form. You can buy the three traditional Japanese bast fibers: kozo, mitsumata, and gampi. Some grass, leaf, and seed fibers such as wheat straw (Triticum aestivum), raffia (Raphia ruffia), and kapok from the Ceiba pentandra tree, are available in their raw, unprocessed form. Fibers like raffia and flax can also be purchased at weaving supply shops. Sometimes you can even find sisal, jute (Corchorus capsularis), and other strong natural fibers for sale at your local hardware store in the form of string or rope.

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

by Helen Hiebert