Many of us are conscious of ways we can use resources sustainably, create things ourselves, and value the objects in our lives by making them with our own hands. But we don’t necessarily think of the paper we use on a daily basis and the huge amounts of energy and water consumed by commercial paper mills. When you make paper by hand with plant fibers from your own backyard, you’ll participate in a long-practiced art and connect with plants around you — just as you grow your own bright, oddly shaped tomatoes and make rich, flavorful sauce from them, savoring every drop.
Tear a piece of commercial, bleach-white paper. It’ll tear easily. The fibers, the stuff from which it’s made, will be barely distinguishable. Handmade paper is stronger, harder to tear; and when you do tear it, you’ll see the long individual fibers that bind it together. You’ll smell the earthy bromegrass or lily leaves that formed its pulp and the chamomile flowers you added to the vat. Handmade paper makes thoughtful stationery, special occasion cards or decorations, and gifts. It’s art; you could even just hang it on a wall.
Making paper from plants will tune you in to the characteristics of your local, native plants or the ones you’re growing in your own yard. You’ll notice which plants around you might make good paper, and you’ll attend to when their leaves or stalks are ready to be harvested. You can plant milkweed to encourage butterflies, for example, and later harvest its stalks or pods for making paper.
Choosing and Harvesting Plant Fibers
How to make paper. To make paper, you’ll harvest your material, dry it, cut it into pieces for cooking, simmer it to break down the fibers, and then process it in a blender or by hand-beating until it disperses into water to form pulp. But first, choose the type of plant fiber you’d like to use.
Types of fibers and harvesting. In this article, you’ll learn how to make paper from grass fiber and leaf fiber. Bast fiber (from the woody stalks of some plants) makes the strongest paper and is most commonly used by papermakers, but it’s also more time-consuming to harvest and process, so you might move on to this fiber after you try grasses and leaves. Not all plants make good pulp strong enough to hold together into a sheet of paper, and some plant fibers are usable but require many hours of beating by hand or with special machinery to break down the fibers. A good guideline for usable material: If the plant stands over 2 feet tall on its own, it most likely contains enough cellulose to make paper. To know for sure the practicality of processing any specific fiber into pulp, you’ll have to read other papermakers’ accounts or rely on your own trial and error.
You’ll need to collect at least 2 pounds of dry plant material to make it worth your while. A pound of dry grass material makes about ten 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheets, and 1 pound of dry leaf material makes about 15 sheets.
Be sure to harvest responsibly. Take only small amounts, allowing the plant to recover, and be aware of the effects you might cause by taking plant material (disrupting insects, for example). Make sure you have permission to forage on others’ property or on public land.
You can experiment with how your harvest affects the resulting paper. Plant fiber and paper often appear different when plants are harvested in fall than when they’re harvested in spring.
Grass. Paper made from grass is usually a bit weaker and more brittle than from leaf fiber, but it can be interesting in texture, it’s easy to find, and you can harvest grass in any season. You’ll use the whole stalk — all but the roots. After harvesting, dry grass completely and then bundle to avoid mold.
Leaf. Usually, long leaves are the best source of fiber. Tear leaves against the grain; the more difficult they are to tear, the more likely they’ll be to make good paper. Iris leaves and lily leaves make strong paper and are easy to process. Thicker leaves, such as yucca and hemp, are more time-consuming or not practical to process by hand. Spring and summer harvest: Only cut individual outer leaves near the base of the plant to ensure continued growth. Fall harvest: Collect leaves as they fall from the plant or when they’re able to release gently. Dry leaves completely and then bundle to store them.
Making and Preparing Pulp
To turn your harvested plant material into paper, you must first cook it — literally, in pots — and beat it by hand, with a blender, or with another machine to break down the fibers into pulp. Keep in mind that these instructions are for grass fibers or leaf fibers.
You’ll cook the plant material in an alkaline solution. Washing soda is the most available alkali — you can find it in supermarkets. It’s not as pure as soda ash, which most papermakers use, so it might leave residue on paper or cause it to decay more quickly, but it’s less expensive and works for most plant fibers.
Supplies for cooking. Scissors; the alkali (20 percent of the dry fiber weight; 3-1/2 ounces of washing soda and 8 quarts of water per pound of dry fiber); a large, nonfood, nonreactive pot (stainless steel, glass, or enamel-coated); a scale; pot holders; nonfood, nonreactive stirring utensils; a mesh strainer; a bucket; and rubber gloves. For beating fiber, you’ll need a nonfood blender.
Safety notes. Besides using nonreactive utensils and pots, use separate papermaking pots and utensils, and, if possible, don’t work in the kitchen. You’ll want to work somewhere you can splash water and get water on the ground. Some plants might give off harmful vapors when cooking, so be sure you know the qualities of the plant you’re using, and cook outside — or under a hooded vent as a last resort. Very important: Add alkali to the water before it boils. Do not add boiling water to alkali or vice versa — it could splatter or explode and burn you.
Wear rubber gloves, goggles, or a face mask when working with an alkali.
Cooking the fiber. First, weigh your dry fiber before wetting it. Remember, you’ll want at least 2 pounds to make enough paper to make this whole task worthwhile.
With scissors, cut the fiber into 1/2-inch to 1-inch strips (if you’re going to hand-beat fibers, cut them into 2-inch pieces) to reduce cooking time and prevent tangling in the blender. As you work, sort out twigs or other foreign material.
Then, soak fiber in plain water overnight to fully hydrate before cooking and processing.
When you’re ready to cook, fill a pot with water to cover the fiber, about 2 gallons per pound — you’ll want enough so the fiber can move around while cooking. Wearing gloves, measure the washing soda or other alkali, 20 percent of your dry weight, or about 3-1/2 ounces per pound of dry fiber.
Heat the pot of water and add the washing soda before it boils. As the washing soda dissolves, add the soaked fiber and stir. Bring to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer.
Every half-hour while simmering, stir the fiber and test it for doneness. Take a piece of fiber, rinse it, and pull it in the direction of the plant’s growth. If the fiber pulls apart easily, it’s ready.
Turn off the heat and remove the pot from the stove. Pour the cooked fiber through a strainer into a bucket (not down the drain yet), and rinse the fiber until the water runs clear. Make sure you remove all the washing soda at this point.
If you’re not dumping the water into a water-treatment system, or you plan to dump the water outside, mix the plant juices with vinegar to neutralize the solution, or you’ll introduce a toxin into the environment.
Beating the fiber. After the fiber is cooked, you’ll have to beat it to further break down the material into the soft pulp that you’ll use to make sheets of paper. Papermakers often hand-beat fibers, which generally results in the strongest paper. Others use large equipment specifically for papermaking. The easiest and quickest method at home is to use a nonfood blender.
Add a handful of your cooked fiber to a blender (make sure it’s fully hydrated; soak overnight if using stored fiber) and fill the blender about three-quarters full with water. Put the lid on, and then beat at a medium or high speed. If the blender sounds strained, check to make sure fiber isn’t wrapped around the blades (which is why you’ll want to cut it into smaller pieces before cooking). The blender also might strain if you’ve added too much fiber. It’s better to err on the side of less fiber (and more blender batches) because if the fiber isn’t beaten enough into uniform pulp, you’ll pull less-uniform, clumpy sheets of paper. The length of blending time depends on the fiber. Try about 20 seconds at first and then increase in 20-second increments. You’ll know you have pulp when the fibers don’t clump and look very fine, almost cloud-like dispersed in the water. If you still see strings of fibers and they’re clumpy, you’ll need to blend a bit longer.
See the next section to set up your papermaking studio. You’ll add pulp directly to your vat or pour it into a bucket and transfer it to the vat as needed. Follow the step-by-step instructions in the photos above to learn how to pull sheets of paper.
Basic Equipment for the Papermaking Process
You probably already own most of the equipment you need, could improvise with what you have, or could find inexpensive items at a local thrift store. You’ll need a flat work surface that can get wet and can be easily dried and cleaned. Water will splash onto the floor and on surrounding surfaces, so setting up in a garage or outside is ideal.
Mould and deckle. This is the screen and frame that holds the sheet of paper you’ll pull out of the vat. Many professional ones are made from hardwood (which resists warping from water), but you can make your own out of cheaper wood, such as pine, or even staple a screen to an old picture frame. Instructions for making a mould and deckle are easily found online.
Vat. This is a tub larger than your mould and deckle. You’ll fill it with water and pulp and pull up sheets of paper from it. Use a large storage tub, dish tub, a freestanding plastic vat with a drain and plug on the bottom, or even an old secondhand sink.
Felts. Not actually felt, these materials are what you’ll lay, or couch, your wet, formed paper onto after you pull it from the vat. Any quality wool material would work — old blankets, nonfusible pellon from a fabric store, or papermakers’ felts. These must be cut approximately 2 inches wider than all sides of your paper (or your mould and deckle).
Plastic buckets with handles. These will hold pulp and help in draining vats. Papermaking uses a lot of water. Because you’ll be working with natural plant fibers and few other elements, you can set up a water-collection system to use the water for other purposes around your garden or homestead.
A press or sponges and brayer. You can use sponges to remove excess water from your pulled paper, or you can assemble a simple press to squeeze out much more water and reduce drying time. Search online for examples; people have found creative solutions. A brayer or similar rolling tool is helpful for smoothing paper and releasing more water.
Drying equipment. This could be sheets of Plexiglas or even a clothesline, depending on how you’d like to finish your paper and leave it to dry. You may want to experiment. Drying on Plexiglas will make one side of the paper very smooth; drying on a line will be easier to set up but could lead to more rippling in the paper, though this can be smoothed with a bit of water later. You could also dry between sheets of corrugated cardboard with a fan nearby. The corrugations in the cardboard will allow air to flow.
Storing pulp. Drain the vat through a mesh strainer lined with a fine mesh bag (such as a “brewer’s bag” used by homebrewers) into a bucket, squeezing out as much water as you can. Form pulp into a ball. The pulp will last in the refrigerator in a container until it begins to mold. You can also dry it completely and store it in a cupboard.
After you practice, experiment; try blending different plant fibers together, or add tea leaves, oatmeal, or other inclusions into the vat before you pull paper. As you watch plants transform from their original color to the hues and textures they’ll take on after cooking, then into pulp, and finally to the look and feel of the final paper, you’ll see your plants anew.
Kristi Quillen is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Much of this information is adapted from Helen Hiebert’s Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds and The Papermaker’s Companion. Thank you to Jeff Hansen of Kansas Native Plants and Tonja Torgerson of the Lawrence Arts Center for contributing their expertise.