The Grunge Papers       Papermaking


Getting interested in making paper by hand about 15 years ago resulted in The Grunge Papers evolving from a litzine and small press publishing venture to the paper, letterpress and "book arts" orientation that it has today. After falling in love with the materiality and physicality of handmade paper during a short workshop given by Britt Quinlan (The Paperwright) at the Ottawa School of Art, I took several more courses with Britt, and have been making paper at home since then.

A lot of the printing that I do at The Grunge Papers is on paper that I make myself. Letterpress printing on a nice, properly dampened piece of handmade paper makes a great impression (pun intended), and I've found it especially attractive for small poetry broadsides.

Because of my printing orientation, most of the paper I make tends to be relatively simple, smooth, not too heavily coloured and without much in the way of inclusions - flat enough and smooth enough to print on without damaging my type, and without the paper itself being so distracting that the text disappears into the background.

I do occasionally make paper that's just supposed to be "pretty," and I have experimented with gampi, hemp and cattail in some of my papers. Mostly though, I make paper with cotton linter, cotton rag or abaca (or some combination thereof), to which I can add a wide assortment of powdered pigments and lustres, and with which I can use a combination of mixing and paper-pulling techniques to produce paper in many different colours and textures.

Most of  my papermaking efforts with The Grunge Papers go toward fulfilling my own needs, so as with my self-proclaimed status as a private press, I don't take generally accept orders for handmade paper, unless it's for something that I've already made or am very likely to be making soon. As it stands, most paper that I have in quantities in excess of my own needs will get put up on The Grunge Papers' Etsy site, and can be bought from there.

 Talk on Papermaking

The following is an edited version of a talk I gave at "The Page: Material and Visual Literature", the University of Ottawa Department of English's Graduate Student Conference in March, 2014. Special thanks to Cameron Anstee for the opportunity to participate in the conference.

History and Markmaking

I got into papermaking rather by accident quite a few years ago now, when I stopped in at the Ottawa School of Art one summer day just to see if they had any interesting classes coming up – there was a weekend papermaking workshop scheduled just a couple of weeks later, so I signed up for it.

Within a couple of hours of starting the workshop I’d fallen completely in love with the process. When I finally got my batch of paper home after the workshop – because I was already part of the local poetry & small press world – the first question that came to mind was: “What’s the best way to print on this stuff?”

I want to start with that idea, because it’s my view that the thing that is so important about paper isn’t the paper itself – it’s the marks that we make on it.

The impulse to make marks – to mark our ownership, to mark our existence on the world around us, and to tell our stories – is a very old one. Making marks on paper representing something that’s “out there” – bringing that “out there” “in here” onto the paper is the way we create our culture, our stories, and our view of who we are.

Northrop Frye thought of this as the “cultural insulation” that we make to set ourselves off from the world and the nature that surrounds us, that we make our own human-centred world, within the larger world, and that the figments of this creation are what we construct our mythology out of.

I’m noting this because I think this mark-making is at the very centre of human culture. It is how we have come to know what we know, and paper, I think, is important – is only important – because it has been the surface on which we have made so many of our marks....

....which brings us to the second half of the 4th millenium BCE, when the making of marks had evolved into the writing of language.

As with most things, when peoples or societies took up writing, they did it with material and with technologies that were already close at hand. In Mesopotamia they used clay tablets, in Egypt papyrus. Other groups used leather and animal skins, bark strips, bamboo, palm leaves, silk and wax covered tablets.

When Professor Nelles* was talking about wax tablets yesterday, it reminded me that the first reference to the act of writing recorded in Western literature is in Homer’s Iliad, where it (writing) is described as being “murderous signs” scratched in a folded tablet. We can think of these as probably being wax tablets – small boards coated with wax and tied together.

Paper is traditionally said to have been invented in China in 105 AD by T’sai Lun, a high official in court of the Han dynasty. We always have to take attractive stories of this sort with a grain of salt. In this case, it’s clear from the archaeology that there had been experimentation with paper going on in China long before this date. A low quality paper made of hemp had been used there for wrapping and packaging as far back as the 2nd Century BC, for instance, and paper with writing on it has been found as early as the year 8 BC. It’s certainly true though that paper was in official use in China by the 2nd Century AD.

With the value that Chinese culture placed on learning, as well as the needs of the Imperial bureaucracy, demand for paper increased quickly, and so the papermaking industry had to spread and expand to meet these needs. Although the Chinese tried to keep the art a secret, as their influence and territory expanded eastwards and westwards, their paper went with them.

Learning from the Chinese, Korea and Japan were the earliest other peoples to adopt paper, and they had developed their own traditions of making and using it by the early 7th Century AD, if not before.

Some of the “firsts” of Chinese papermaking included toilet paper, which was first made in the 6th Century AD, tea bags by the 7th Century and paper money issued in the 10th Century.

By the 8th Century, the Chinese expanding westward had come into contact with the Arab Muslims, who were expanding eastward. The story goes that when the Arabs defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Talas in 751, they captured a group of papermakers, and learned the art from them.

Again, this is the sort of story we need to be careful of, masking many years of trade and interaction between the Chinese and the Arabs. However it happened though, the Arabs were also a culture of great learning, and once they discovered the art of papermaking, they quickly took it on. Within 50 years there was an extensive papermaking industry in Baghdad, and from there it spread west through the rest of the Muslim world.

This meant that it was the Muslims who brought papermaking with them into Spain, which is how it reached Europe. By 1189 paper was being made in France, by 1230 in Italy, and the first German papermill was established in Nuremberg in 1400, just in time for the invention of the printing press.

Along the way westward, papermaking technology continued to grow: Animal-powered mills for stamping the fibres used in papermaking were developed in the Muslim world – these could beat the fibres being used in paper in a much less labour-intensive manner than the manual method that continued to be popular in the East. Water-powered mills were developed after that, and were operating in Europe by the 13th Century.

By the 17th Century, Holland had become a major centre for papermaking, and it was here that the “Hollander Beater” was developed, which further improved the refining of rags and fibres (modern versions of these Hollander beaters are still used in artisanal papermaking, and there is one in the papermaking studio at the Ottawa School of Art).

The raw material used in making paper was still relatively expensive however, considering the quantities required. The best material would have been recycled or reused textile fibre – cotton, linen or hemp from clothing, sails, rope or other such goods – the supply of which was not unlimited.

By the early 19th Century, the Fourdrinier brothers in England had developed a machine that could make and dry an endless roll of paper. Such mechanization helped to bring down the cost of making paper on a long scale, but it wouldn’t be until the development of wood-based pulp processing starting in the 1840s that papermaking could be carried out on a truly industrial scale. That, however, is well beyond the scope of this talk.

*Note: Professor Paul Nelles gave the Keynote Address at the conference, on the subject "Form, Function and the Mobility of the Page".


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