How to Make Paper

By Allie Moulton and Sam Guenther

Paper first became popular in Europe as a cheap alternative to parchment. The process of making paper has historically been time-consuming and arduous. Although some people saw paper as a flimsy alternative to the more robust parchment, paper rose in popularity in large part thanks to the introduction of printing in Europe.

Paper mills require large amounts of running water and were much more common in mountainous areas like Northern Italy than they were in England. The sporadic placement of paper mills across Europe made paper one of the most expensive aspects of book making. Depending on how far a printer was from a paper mill, it could cost lots of time and money to ship paper. The ability to make one’s own paper, or close proximity to a paper mill, made printing works easier and cheaper.

Traditionally paper was made of flax, often found in scraps of clothing and other worn-out linen products of the era. The linen had to be ground down and treated with lyme and then reformed into sheets using mesh frames. Most paper makers also chose to include watermarks in their paper to identify where it was made. These watermarks were formed using wire chain lines than ran across the frame.

We wanted to create paper using a combination of medieval and modern techniques. To accomplish this, we used contemporary materials to try and replicate traditional paper making processes, such as the ones illustrated by Tim Barrett. We used his video on traditional paper making as our primary visual guide. Check out the results of our project below!

On paper, the process is not complicated. First, a pulp is made. Historically this would be done using linen scraps and lyme. The lyme would break down the fibers so that they could be reformed into new sheets. For our project we used newspaper instead of flax. Newspaper is cheaper and easier to breakdown without the use of lyme. After ripping up newspaper into bite sized pieces, we blended it with water to create a pulp.

Newspaper was ripped up into small pieces to prepare it for blending. Pictured right is the tub full of mostly water with some pulp added to it.

After that a frame is dipped into the pulp. The excess water in the solution drains out of the bottom and the pulp sits on top of the mesh of the frame, forming what will eventually be the sheet. Traditionally, frames are two separate wooden frames. The mesh sits in between the two so that the paper can be easily transferred from the mesh by removing the top layer of the frame and exposing the paper. They also have very carefully laid chain lines evenly across the front. This method would have required more woodworking than we were capable of on our small budget.  For our frame we tried to replicate this with items that could easily be found. The main frame was a wooden picture frame with the glass and backing removed. We used duct tape to connect a plastic mesh to the back of the frame. Originally we had tried to use copper wire for chain lines, but they got in the way of the removal process and yielded very few results. Our final frame looked like this.

The mesh frame we used in our second and third attempts.

On our first attempt, we made quite a few mistakes. The first one was with the concentration of the solution. Traditionally the pulp would be sitting in a large tub, and the frame would be dipped in to catch pulp. We tried this. Unfortunately we could not make nearly enough pulp and the solution was mostly water. Also, the pulp we had was not liquefied enough. The product looked lumpy and you could read sections of the newspaper that hadn’t been blended up enough. Here is a video of our attempt to remove the sheet from the frame. We had left it to dry on the frame in the hopes that it would dry as a full sheet. But as seen in the video, the chain lines got in the way, and the paper had to be removed in scraps. We dried the scraps on felt sheets, and here is how the largest of the scraps turned out:

A chunky scrap of dried paper and a look at its width from the side.

After a first failed attempt, we changed our frame and our approach to the pulp. We removed the chain lines and switched the side that the mesh was on. This made it easier for a full sheet to form and then be removed. We also stopped pouring the pulp into a larger solution. We instead decided to pour the blended pulp directly into the frame and spread it around. This way we could make sure we had an even sheet. After this, we placed the sheet out in the sun to begin the drying process.

On the rocks…                    And the much smoother second sheet.

Once the paper was dry enough to transfer, it was placed between two sheets of felt to dry. This process took about four days, but once it was done we had our first sheet of paper! We decided to test out MJ and Jonah’s homemade Medieval ink on our paper, and it worked pretty well! The ink transferred smoothly and the paper absorbed the color well.

Our much more successful second batch of paper, with Medieval ink!

After our success with the first sheet, we decided to take things a step further by adding a watermark. Medieval watermarks would have been part of the frame. The pulp would gather a bit thinner where a wire design was placed. When the paper dried, the mark could be seen faintly in direct light. Initially, we tried to recreate this. We made a watermark of a fish with electrical wire and place it on top of our chain lines.

Our rudimentary fish watermark.

Unfortunately the pulp ended up pooling around the mark so we had to adjust. Once the sheet was set we stamped the design into the pulp. Admittedly this is far from the medieval recipe but we thought it might work to embed the design. However, once again we came up short. For fear of disrupting the watermark, we did not smooth and even the surface of the pulp while it was on the frame like we had with the previous sheet. This made the resulting sheet much thicker, and due to that thickness, the watermark did not show up. We did end up with another working sheet of paper, albeit one that is thicker than the first one. One humorous caveat of this third attempt is that our paper is surprisingly durable. On the day that we laid the sheet out to dry, it was very windy, and the paper almost became dust in the wind…Luckily, Allie caught it before it found its way to Johnson pond, and the paper came out of the ordeal unscathed.

The barely visible imprint in the wet pulp, compared to the dry paper with no visible imprint.

Although we didn’t replicate every part of the traditional paper making process, we learned a lot from our endeavor. Perhaps one of the biggest things we learned was how important having a proper frame is. Because our frame was made from cheap wooden picture frames with window screen mesh stapled to it and copper wire haphazardly wrapped around it, we couldn’t get the refined details of the chain lines in the paper’s pattern. Also, making a watermark requires the paper to be just the right texture and consistency. Above all else, our process shows just how difficult it is to make one sheet of paper, let alone the hundreds of thousands required to produce books. It makes sense that paper was the most expensive and volatile aspect of the publishing process.


Literature Cited

Calhoun, Joshua. The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper. PMLA, Volume 126, Number 2, March 2011, pp. 328.

Dane, Joseph A. What Is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012, pp. 49-50.