Modified Japanese Papermaking: A Quick Explanation
by Catherine Nash
I have studied in Japan twice and out of respect for my three Japanese teachers who taught me traditional sheetforming, I am quick to call my version of Japanese papermaking an “adapted” method. Although I still practice and teach the traditional techniques I have learned, sometimes I need my own paper to be finished more quickly, and also sometimes while teaching a weekend long class I want my students to have the wonderful satisfaction of thin translucent sheets, albeit rustic. Many contemporary paper artists love rustic!
Basic equipment differences:
Traditional Japanese mould is made of a hinged wooden support frame/deckle called a keta and a separate, flexible, finely split and knotted bamboo mat called a su. Many non-Japanese papermakers use a contemporary Western mould and deckle with heat shrink polyester screening in lieu of a Japanese su-keta. My experiences teaching in Europe and elsewhere have led me to realize that not all polyester screening allows this kind of Japanese formation. Sometimes it just slides off the screen, so experimentation is key. I have great luck with the heat shrink screening sold by Carriage House Paper in Brooklyn, NY.
Traditional pulps are from gampi, kozo (mulberry) and mitsumata barks: the first two of which are readily available outside of Japan, at least in North America, thanks to various suppliers who import these fibers for us. But contemporary papermakers also use many varied plants for their pulps with great variation and success.
Neri (also known as formation aid) is traditionally plant based...some usage of synthetic formation aid can be found in Japan. Although many non-Japanese papermakers use a readily available synthetic formation aid, we also use okra, prickly pear cactus, kiwi branches, hibiscus root, etc...as well for plant derived mucilage. Neri is used to slow the drainage down during the sheetforming process and does not, as sometimes thought, act as a “glue” that helps bind the fibers together.
Although perhaps there would be close parallels here with the actual sheetforming motion (dipping into the vat numerous times to slowly build up a very thin sheet), in Japan, each sheet is couched directly on top of the next to form the post with a fine thread or slice of plastic... or very traditionally, a blade of grass between each to help with separation later.
Experiment with simply pulling (no shaking) a western screen without a deckle up through the vat six or seven times. One learns to discern visually the least amount of pulp needed on the screen. This is a modified technique that is far from traditional, not as strong or smooth, but yields lovely, thin sheets that contrast thicker Western style paper. Couch on pieces of cotton sheeting rather than Western felts as the sheets are too delicate for the rougher texture of the felt.
The post is pressed extremely slowly with a gradual build up of weight, using a lever press...I observed hydraulic presses in action in Japan as well. It can take several days to press traditionally.
Leave a cotton sheet between each “modified” sheet, and press each sheet by hand with a rolling pin, or an entire post lightly in a screw or hydraulic press. (I emphasize lightly because there needs to be some moisture left for brushing onto boards while restraint drying.
We may have cut some corners off the traditional techniques in our home studios, but don’t be mistaken in believing that our sheets equal those done by masters in Japan! Fourteen hundred to fifteen hundred years of continuous papermaking in Japan led to some very explicit methods of harvesting, cooking and processing the plant fibers, extremely refined sheetforming motions (many of which were completely lost during the industrialization of Japan) and carefully observed pressing and drying techniques.