Shop PortfoliosVolunteers

Why Handmade Paper?

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #90 (April, 2010).

Why Handmade Paper? You probably know why you’re doing it, or maybe you have trouble articulating it, but there is something about sticking your hands in a vat full of pulp that is addictively compelling. But how do you explain this to the outside world in 2010, in a world of eBooks and digital documents? “Because I like it” does not even begin to address the implications of what the papermaker does. Every act is political. And while pure joy might be your reason for making paper by hand, there is something to be said for articulating some other reasons for doing so.

A custom product. One can make papers that simply aren’t available commercially. The surface of handmade paper looks and feels different, it sounds and smells different, and it can come in any color one could envision. Wanting such a custom product can, of course, become problematic for the papermaker who incorporates other media with her paper art. Before she can think about what is practical, she has imagined the perfect paper for her print—and it is not something she can find at the store when she is in a rush. The papermaker is stuck making all of her paper, or else settling for less.

Context becomes content. The materials you choose for your paper—a specific local plant, your grandmother’s tablecloth, or surgical towels à la Eric Avery—add meaning to what you do with or add to the paper.

Buy local. By using your own paper, or that of a local paper artist, made from materials at hand, you are practicing environmental responsibility. The buy local approach emphasizes the reduced environmental impact of sourcing nearby materials instead of shipping from afar, as well as of strengthening local economies. (This argument not only helps you justify your papermaking habit, but helps you sell your paper as well!)

Sustainability. The materials you use can have other positive environmental implications, such as recycling or upcycling used or excess materials, using natural materials, clearing surrounding areas of invasive species, or using renewable fiber sources.

Slowing down. In an era when people are losing touch with their hand skills, and the pace of life is ever increasing, the use of old technologies has multiple roles. It allows one to slow down, breathe, and practice something meditative, improving one’s quality of life. A survivalist outlook also values retaining our knowledge of old technologies so that we might live better, or even to ensure survival, should our newer, more complex technological structures fail. The historian values retaining as much of our heritage as possible, including the practice of our crafts as well as the narrative and evidence of the cultural, commercial, and industrial activities encompassed in the history of papermaking.

We see here, simply by articulating why it is that we make paper, that our vocation, and the ways we choose to practice it, has a plurality of implications, from the aesthetic to the cultural to the political. We can practice our craft the most eloquently when we learn to articulate these implications, and further develop our practice in response to them.

by Mary Tasillo