According to Dard Hunter, the great paper historian, the progress of the human race may be divided into three fundamental stages of development: Speaking, Drawing, and Printing. As interesting and important as the first is, it is the second (in the form of calligraphy) and the third which concern us in these pages; and while printing has been done on other materials, it is paper as a printing surface which was responsible for the rapid spread of knowledge following Johann Gutenberg's pioneering efforts with movable type.

Paper is defined by Noah Webster as "a substance made in the form of thin sheets or leaves from rags, straw, bark, wood, or other fibrous material, for various uses." Hunter qualifies that, feeling that true paper "must be made from fibre that has been macerated until each individual filament is a separate unit; the fibres intermixed with water, and by the use of a sieve-like screen, the fibres lifted from the water in the form of a thin stratum, the water draining through the small openings of the screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibre upon the screen's surface. This thin layer of intertwined fibre is paper."

The date usually given for the actual invention of paper is 105 AD, but experiments in papermaking from disintegrated fibre probably extended over a long period before the process was brought to any degree of perfection and publicly announced. In that year the invention was officially reported to the Emperor by the eunuch Ts'ai Lun, and his name is associated with the invention, although he may have been a court official who became the patron of the discovery. In any case, the Chinese were able to keep a monopoly on the fabrication of paper for over 500 years.

While papermaking went on throughout the Chinese Empire, including Korea, the secret eventually spread to Japan, and later spread slowly across central Asia and Persia by way of the caravan routes, reaching Samarkand about 750 AD. After another 400 years, the first papermaking mill in Europe was set up in Spain by the Moors in the 12th century. By the mid-15th, paper was made in all the principal countries of Western Europe, just in time to supply the needs of the newly-developed printing press. This image shows contemporary paper- and printmaker Lin Hsin Hsin at a workshop in Japan.

The finest handmade papers are made from pure rag pulp, usually linen and cotton, which are washed, boiled and beaten to macerate the fibres. These fibres are then suspended in water where they can be lifted out by the papermaker using a mould and deckle. The mould is such an important tool to the papermaker that Hunter devotes an entire chapter (see Bibliography) to describing their development and differences around the world. Essentially, a mould is a screen of some sort, supported by a frame, which allows the surplus water to drain after dipping the fibres from the vat. A deckle is another frame on top of the mould which keeps the fibres from washing over the edges. Since it is a separate piece, some of the thin pulp inevitably flows under the deckle causing the slightly ragged edges known as deckles.

As a result of the demand for books, and paper to print them on, following the invention of the printing press, the supply of good-quality rags began to dry up and papermakers began to search for new papermaking fibres (ironically, the earliest papers were made from tree bark, hemp, and other plant fibres, as well as from fabric trimmings). Shown here is a spread from a book by Jacob Christian Schäffer, published in Amsterdam in 1770, one of a series of six in which he outlined his research into rag substitutes, including the use of moss, a sample of which is also shown (both from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek).

Another problem to be solved was the speed with which paper could be made. The first papermaking machine was invented in France in the late 1700s by Nicholas Louis Robert and later developed in England by Henry Fourdrinier in the early 1800s. By mid-century, it was discovered in Germany that wood pulp could be used to make paper, but it took two more discoveries, soda-ash and sulphite treatments, to make wood pulp practical. For the last 100 years, wood pulp has been the basis for the majority of western paper, and as we all know, the paper changes colour, turns brittle, and falls apart in a decidedly short time.

Fortunately, through the concerned efforts of contemporary archivists, conservators, and scientists, papers are now being made which are inherently more stable and which satisfy the need for economy. Artist papermakers and private printers however, continue to insist on cotton and linen fibres for quality papers.

Check out the links page for far more info on papermaking.

Samples may also be seen on The Art of the Book '98 and The Art of the Book '03 exhibitions' papermaking pages.

The Book | Vellum & Parchment | Papermaking | Calligraphy | Wood engraving | Typography | Letterpress printing | Paper decorating | Bookbinding | Artists' Books | Conservation | Bibliography
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