Shop PortfoliosVolunteers

Sustainable Papermaking Practices

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #85 (January, 2009).

Green living is increasingly on the mind, especially in the post-industrial countries that have, on the whole, forgotten how to do this. My art practice is the one area in my life where I will make all exceptions. I will waste as much paper as I need to in order to get a print to the right quality and shape; I will, as one friend put it, easily spend more money on book cloth than on a pair of pants; and I will happily order my fibers from distances across which I would never source my food.

Recently I have been thinking that there is no reason to leave sustainable practices out of this area of my life. While I deeply value artistic production, and even the production of multiples, this practice does not take place outside the ecosystem upon which we depend. Further, what we might consider to be good for a piece of paper, e.g., the longevity of its color through pigmenting, might not be as good for our health or the environment’s. I tended to be rather casual about my contact with commercial pigments, until I was at Penland School of Craft, where any water containing pigment is disposed of as a hazardous material. I’m a little more likely to wear gloves while pigmenting these days.

Papermaking is a medium with substantial opportunity to develop an environmentally responsible art making practice. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Washington DC-area artist Patterson Clark about his papermaking process using fibers and fuel from local invasive plants. Thus, not only is he making paper from local fibers, but he is also removing non-native species that threaten the balance of the local ecosystem. Clark has developed a working system that might spark some ideas for your own process.

To cook the bast fibers that he harvests, Clark burns the woody leftovers from the plants (Paper and White varieties of Mulberry, Tree of Heaven, English Ivy, Rose of Sharon) on a portable wood stove.

The fibers are cooked in rainwater, collected in a barrel, with potash lye made from wood ash from the stove. When the fire dies out, Clark allows the fibers to steep for ten hours in the cooking liquor, wrapping the cooking pot in two thick wool blankets to conserve heat as the bast completes its cook.

Some bi-products of this process lend themselves to other parts of Clark’s art making. The black cooking liquor can be neutralized with vinegar and rendered into a pH-neutral potassium acetate ink for printing or drawing. Charcoal from the woodstove can also be used for drawing or ink. The downed weed trees that Clark sometimes uses as firewood can also be milled into lumber for printing blocks, picture framing, or bas-relief carving. Wiry bast fibers from some plants, once cooked, can be used to make brushes, as well.

If local plant fibers are unappealing or inaccessible (i.e., you live in the midst of urban concrete), consider what materials you might recycle. Printmakers and book artists produce plenty of scraps of cotton rag that can be re-processed into new papers. In fact, are you re-processing scraps and junk sheets of your own papers? Quilters and sewers also produce scrap fibers, which are often natural fibers suitable for papermaking. How can you tap into these supplies and make use of the waste of other creative practices? Also investigate industrial sources. If you are anywhere in the vicinity of a paper or fabric mill, can you access their off-cuts?

How can you conserve your water and electricity use? I suggest re-using water that you’ve strained from your vats or your beater when you can. Cut a little off your electricity usage by adding torn and cut fibers to the beater before starting the beater rather than tearing linters as the beater circulates.

Finally, know what you are putting into your paper and in contact with your skin. Material Safety Data Sheets should be available for any additives you purchase to put into your paper. These can help you determine how to properly handle and dispose of chemicals, polymers, and pigments. And as Monona Rossol, a materials safety expert who conducted a fantastic training I had the opportunity to attend, says: “remember, Mother Nature is not on your side.” That is to say that using natural materials does not mean you should abandon all precaution. This statement was made in the context of discussing citrus-based cleaners, which do have toxins that will sit in your liver. There is nothing wrong with using vinegar, baking soda, and water when doing some serious scrubbing in the studio. I know a papermaker who experienced a severe reaction when making paper from green gingko leaves. So, experiment—one can’t innovate without bold experimentation—but proceed with at least a little bit of caution!

And finally, build on the knowledge of your fellow papermakers. The Yahoo Papermaking group, for example, is a great resource for finding out about local plants that are good for papermaking in your area. Incorporating some of these ideas into your art making will put you on your way to incorporating your art practice into a more sustainable life.

by Mary Tasillo