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Selecting Source Fibers

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #97 (January, 2012).

When explaining hand papermaking to a non-papermaker, one often hears: “so, I assume you use wood to make paper.” I recently heard Frank Brannon tell a great story about stripping inner bark on his front steps, opening himself to numerous inquiries from those passing by. One person asked him, “well, can’t you just get paper at Walmart?” Frank replied, “If you were going to buy someone a special gift, would you go to Walmart?” Fortunately, her response was, “I guess not.” If you’re going to the trouble of making paper by hand, how do you select fibers that ensure a specialty product? The papermaker has many options besides gathering these raw plant materials and processing them from scratch.

The earliest experience most of us have with papermaking is creating recycled paper from pulp created in the blender. It stands to reason that the quality of the finished paper depends largely on the quality of the paper going into the blender. I made my first paper in my mother’s kitchen from recycled newspaper. That is the saddest paper I’ve ever made, because of the poor quality (i.e., short, acidic wood fibers) of the material making up the pulp. One can dramatically improve the quality of finished sheets by recycling better paper, e.g., 100% cotton rag papers, or scraps of high quality handmade papers.

The blender is not the ideal pulp preparation machine—it cuts the fibers rather than beating or fibrillating them and has low power and capacity—but it has the distinct advantage of being affordable, accessible, and portable. (Do not use the same blender for paper and food.) In addition to processing recycled paper pulp, the blender can be used to process cotton linter and abaca half-stuff (partially processed fibers available from a papermaking supplier). Proper pre-soaking of the fibers, patience, and a high ratio of water to fiber is key. The blender can also be used to process gathered plant and vegetable fibers. (See “Beginner Topics” by Helen Hiebert in Hand Papermaking Newsletter #71 [July 2005] and #72 [October 2005] for columns about harvesting and processing plant fibers.) Beating inner bark fibers by hand with a mallet retains optimal fiber length for Eastern sheet formation methods.

With access to a Hollander beater, one can process longer and tougher fibers into pulp, e.g., flax, hemp, and cotton. Paper is by definition composed of cellulose fibers from plant materials. Thus, rags of natural fibers (cotton, including denim; linen; hemp; ramie) will make the best paper, as opposed to synthetic materials, which do not break down the same way in the beating process.

Papermaking is about experimentation, so don’t let these guidelines keep you from trying something. But understanding some basic principles of creating quality pulp (the quality of the ingredients affects the outcome; certain fibers are better suited to certain processing methods; and paper is composed of cellulose) will aid you in more successful experimentation. In the next column, look for a discussion of documenting these experiments.

by Mary Tasillo