Students of Ethnobotany: Where does paper come from?

This enthusiastic and detailed edition of Students of Ethnobotany was contributed by paper-themed rabble-rouser, So Young Chang.

Where does paper come from?


Figure 1. Think paper comes from trees?

The answer might seem obvious – it’s common sense that paper comes from trees, right? Not exactly. It depends on what kind of paper, what part of the world, and what historical time you are talking about.  Before the commercialisation of paper production, paper was mostly made from cotton or grass. In Asian cultures, bamboo, wheat, rice, and hemp were also popular source materials. See the long list of Oriental papermaking materials here.

But it’s safe to assume that the stacks of letter size paper we get at Staples are made from cedars, firs, and spruces, right? After all, the paper and pulp industry is one of the biggest consumers of lumber in BC. Well, this may be true in the simplest sense, but even within the commercial paper industry, there are differences in how the pulp is prepared, the two main categories being the chemical method and the mechanical method. Read more about it here. And just saying that paper comes from trees isn’t quite accurate since it’s specifically the cellulose fibres in the wood that are used. This means that paper doesn’t necessarily need to come from trees; it can be made from practically any fibrous material – if you are prepared to bend your definition of what ‘paper’ should look and feel like. See examples of paper made with chili peppers, bottle brush petals, celery, andbougainvilla flowers here.

See the blog post by Paper-ya for photos of some wicked handmade paper. Paper-ya is a specialty paper store based in Vancouver, BC. Gin Petty’s article in the Hand Papermaking magazine talks about making paper from invasive species and features some exquisite paper art.

So with this emancipated definition of paper, I set out to make paper from scratch. Growing up in Korea, I’d visited a hand papermaking site and was familiar with the importance of hanji in Korean traditional art and cultural identity. Curious about how I’d fare as a papermaking artisan, I decided to use the same material, paper mulberry, and follow the traditional method as closely as possible. Spoiler alert: it didn’t quite turn out like the real thing.

Paper mulberry, called dak in Korean and kozo in Japanese, was favoured in papermaking for the high quality of its fibre. Its scientific name is Broussonetia papyrifera and as so happens with common names, it doesn’t actually belong to the same family as mulberry trees. It is native to East Asia (around mostly China, Japan, Korea) and it began its worldwide spread as an ornamental tree in gardens. Its current areas of distribution include southern Europe, the United States, and around the Pacific. Ironically enough, this highly important tree has become an invasive species in some parts of the world such as Australia.

Pest it may be to some, but paper mulberry was hard to come by in Vancouver. There was talk of a silk artist who planted them around Vancouver for her silkworms, but I ended up getting mine sourced from VanDusen Botanical Garden. The Education Director there (and my former boss) was kind enough to supply me with prunings from four different species of mulberry trees.

So without further ado, the actual papermaking process went like this:


Figure 2: Steps to make paper (Photo credit: So Young Chang)

Figure 2. Clockwise from top left corner

  1. Harvest the wood. Traditionally, this would happen in December once the trees have shed their leaves and reached mature growth.
  2. Boil the branches for about an hour. You’ll start to see the outer bark separating from the inner bark.
  3. Peel off the outer bark while the branches are still soaked and moist.
  4. Gather all the peeled bark, and scrape off the outer brown bark with a dull knife. It comes off relatively easily. Then dry them overnight.

And the rest of the process:

  1. Put the bark in a pot, with just enough water to cover them and have it over medium heat. You need to mix in an alkaloid solution of some sort to help separate the fibres. Lye was recommended, but I ended up putting in dried up chunks of laundry soap instead. Once you start to see the fibres separating, take them out of the pot. .*Make sure that the fibres don’t turn all gooey – the fibres need to be intact to make the strong, durable, high-quality paper!*
  2. At this stage, the bark should be mollified enough to be handled. Massage it into a ball and start beating it with a stick to lengthen and strengthen the fibres.
  3. Have a tub full of lukewarm ready and deposit the beaten pulp ball in there. Now, in traditional papermaking, they mixed in hibiscus roots or paper mulberry roots as a thickening agent. I substituted in a boiled flour mixture which is often used as natural glue.
  4. Start separating the fibres by hand and once you reach a cloudy mixture with pulpy bits floating around, you are ready to make paper.

    paper making 3

    Figure 3. Example of a mesh-screen wooden frame used to gather pulp.

  5. There are various traditional methods for sifting up a layer of pulp using special wooden frames. Watch this video on the Japanese technique and this video on the Korean technique. I used a sushi rolling mat instead. After gathering a thin coat of pulp on the frame/mat, transfer it onto a drying surface of some sort. Allow it to dry for a few days.
papermaking 4

Figure 4. How the frame would be used.

And voila! Paper is made!


Figure 5. I was able to make a 20cm x 20cm sheet of paper from two full-length branches. For serious papermakers, I’d recommend harvesting a lot more wood, since it’s a pretty long process to begin with. (Photo credit: So Young Chang)

This project made me think about how important paper has been to human history, with the invention of writing and recordkeeping coinciding with a diversifying economy in early societies, thus giving way to urban development, as well as the invention of the printing press opening the floodgates to the Enlightenment and democratization of knowledge, among many others. Paper is monumental. It was there, serving as both the impetus for social change, and also as the messengers of those historical accounts so that we can learn about it all, centuries later.

All this makes me wonder the environmental concerns and strong activism against using paper these days. A part of me feels sad that paper itself has become vilified. But maybe, what we all need is a papermaking revolution! If everyone had to harvest their own wood and make their own paper, we’d learn to appreciate and value it more. It’d be like growing your own food, but with a bit more bad-ass pzazz. The Slow Paper Revolution. Make paper, not war! Don’t make paperwork; make paper work. I could go on, but I’ll stop here.

Special thank-you to the Education Director and gardeners at VanDusen Botanical Garden for supplying me with the mulberry prunings!

Further Reading

Andrews, E.A. 1940. Hardiness of the Paper-Mulberry Tree. Science. 91:44.

Csurhes, S. 2012. Invasive species risk assessment: Paper mulberry. The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Davis S. and M. Nesbitt, M. 2011. Broussonetia papyrifera (paper mulberry). Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

Orwa C. et al. 2009. Agroforestree database : Broussonetia papyrifera. World Agroforestry Centre.

2 thoughts on “Students of Ethnobotany: Where does paper come from?

  1. Pingback: Students of Ethnobotany: Where does paper come from? | Erba Volant |

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