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Vegetable and Tamale Papyrus

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #73 (January, 2006).

Egyptian papyrus is made by overlapping pieces of the stalk of the papyrus plant and pounding or pressing the pieces together. A similar technique can be used to make vegetable papyrus using common household vegetables or corn husks. These are not true papers, since the fibers are not beaten to a pulp and made into sheets of paper on a mesh surface.

Vegetable papyrus is made by cooking sliced veggies until they are tender, and then pressing them, which can reveal intricate and beautiful patterns in the resulting papyrus. You will need a strong press for this project, preferably a hydraulic press.

Use vegetables that are firm when raw but soften when cooked, like zucchini, peppers, onions, beets, carrots, parsnips, squash, and turnips. You can try cutting them in rounds, lengthwise, or even grating them. Use a sharp knife to cut the slices so that they are 1/8” – 1/4” thick. The pressing will make them paper thin, so don’t worry about cutting them too thick. Remove carrot tops, apple stems, and other inappropriate parts if desired.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and drop the sliced vegetables into the water. Cook the rounds until they are soft to the prick of a fork. Softer vegetables (zucchini or squash) will need only a couple of minutes, but firmer ones (carrots or beets) may require up to 10 minutes. When done, remove the rounds from the water with a slotted spoon or strain them. You can use a vegetable steamer to cook the vegetables, particularly if you want to keep track of certain pieces since they will stay put rather than floating around in a pot of water.

Don’t use good felts for this project--some vegetables (like beets) stain. Arrange the vegetable rounds on your felt or other couching material, making sure they overlap by at least a quarter inch. Place a second felt on top. Since the vegetables are still quite thick, either press the sheets individually or stack several felts between the layers. Press the sheets.

Remove the sheets from the press and transfer them to dry sheets of interfacing. I recommend placing them between sheets of interfacing and drying them in a stack dryer or a press--vegetable papyrus tends to be sticky and difficult to remove from blotters or boards when dry. If you air dry vegetable papyrus, it will shrink, resulting in wavy potato chip-like pieces.

Tamale Papyrus is a type of pseudo-papyrus which resembles the traditional papyrus in look. Materials required are one package of tamale wraps (available in grocery stores), wheat paste, glue brush, interfacing, and newspaper.

Purchase a package of tamale wraps or collect the husks of several ears of corn. Trim the pointed tops off of the corn husks or tamales. Soak tamales or husks in water for a couple of hours. Heat 1-1/2 gallons of water in a non-reactive pot (stainless steel, glass, or enamel) and add one cup of soda ash just prior to boiling. Add the wet tamales and simmer for 30 minutes. This quick, harsh cook will make the corn translucent and soft. Rinse the tamales gently by dunking them in buckets of clean water--the tamales are fragile at this point, so handle them carefully. Keep the tamales in clean water as you work.

To make the papyrus, take a few tamale pieces and pat them dry in between sheets of newspaper. Lay the tamales on a dry piece of interfacing--notice that one side of the tamale has ridges and the other is smooth. Place the side with the ridges towards the interfacing, and the smooth side is up. Lay five or six pieces next to each other, so that they just touch each other.

Brush wheat paste onto the layer of tamales. Place another layer of tamales perpendicular to the first, this time with smooth the side down (smooth side touching smooth side). Place a layer of newspaper and then another sheet of dry interfacing and continue to build a stack of up to five sheets.

Place your tamale papyrus in a press or under the weight of some books, a bucket of water, etc., and keep them under pressure until dry. Interleave with newspaper to wick away moisture as the sheets dry and change newspapers daily. It will take a couple of days for the sheets to dry. You can also dry these between blotters in a drying system.

by Helen Hiebert