Back to basics: lockdown papermaking

By Florence Watson, Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies, specialising in Books and Library Materials

What do you do when you’re stuck inside during lockdown? You make paper out of old denim in your Mum’s blender, obviously.

I have recently been inspired by Jim Croft’s method of making books from raw materials. He runs immersive workshops and gives talks on all aspects of hand bookmaking – making bookbinding tools, processing flax for thread, hand papermaking, and even splitting wood for boards. Seeing as I am currently separated from the high-quality equipment and materials in the West Dean workshop, I thought I’d take the opportunity to get back to basics and see what I could learn from the experience of making paper from scratch.

Before starting on the paper, I had to make a mould and deckle. There are plenty to buy online, but in these times of Covid-19 I thought it would be better (and more educational!) to make one with materials I had at home.

A Western mould and deckle is made from two wooden frames of the same size. The mould has a screen attached so that the water in the paper pulp can drain away, and the deckle sits on top of the mould and forms the edges of the paper.

I had some small oak blocks which I cut to fit together in a square. I then made a second square of the same size. Afterwards, I sanded and oiled the frames with teak oil to protect the wood. The oil has the added bonus of making the frames look glowing and beautiful. It almost seemed a shame to do anything else to them!

For the screen layer on the mould, I stapled down some wire mesh (for strength and tension) underneath a layer of nylon mesh (to allow the water to drain away without losing smaller fibres of the paper pulp).

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Fig 1. The frames after oiling.
Fig 2. The finished mould and deckle.

Now – time to make paper!

The highest quality paper is made from cotton, linen and hemp rags. The cellulose fibres in these rags are long and form strong attachments to each other, so rag papers are strong and chemically stable.

With this in mind, I went on the hunt for rags. For my first batch, I used an old pair of 100% cotton denim shorts. For a second batch, I found some 100% cotton white denim jeans that I’d got dirty after two wears (we all know the pitfalls of white denim…) and mixed them with some used artist’s paper. For anyone who’s big on recycling, this is a great way to reuse old clothes and paper.

Western rag paper was traditionally made using a Hollander beater, which is a machine that beats the rags into pulp. Surprisingly, I don’t own my own Hollander beater, so I had to make do with my mum’s blender. I boiled the rags first to start breaking down the fibres, and then I blended them until they turned into a pulp.

Next, I dispersed the pulp into a large bowl of water, dipped my mould and deckle in, and started making sheets.

Fig 3. The paper pulp after blending.
Fig 4. Couched sheets drying on the windowsill.

Overall, I’m amazed that my pared-back papermaking method produced the results that it did. The first batch, which was purely cotton rags, produced a fluffy, 'felt-like' paper that was fairly strong and flexible. Its surface is uneven, partly because of my improvised pressing process and partly because the blender method leaves lumps in the paper pulp. The second batch, made with recycled paper and denim jeans, was stiffer and less flexible, but stronger.

Fig 5. Paper samples.
Fig 6. More paper samples.

The experience allowed me to follow the process of papermaking through from the beginning. It was interesting to see how much I could accomplish with only a small amount of raw materials and equipment, especially after spending the last six months in the wonderful West Dean workshops, which are well-stocked with materials and equipment. Next, I’d like to bind them into a small book – maybe I’ll even make my own sewing thread!

Fig 7. Variations of paper samples.

Study Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies: Books and Library Materials

The Graduate Diploma provides the theoretical and practical knowledge and experience necessary to start your career as a conservator and to begin to develop an area of specialisation.

Find out more about specialising in Books & Library Materials at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation here.