This article is part of the series “How to make a medieval girdle book“. A girdle book is a special type of book which was in vogue about 400-600 years ago. After that time this book type vanished, except for a handful of still functioning books. While they weren’t so rare back in the times (as you can see on contemporary artworks), worldwide only about two dozen of those books remain in museums.
Papermaking doesn’t require too many ingredients as you can see in the picture below. First of all I weighed and prepared the required ingredients. The lion’s share are the woodfree fibers. Of course you may use newspaper or used writing paper, also old egg cartons are fine.
But… the hand-crafted paper made from newspaper or recycled paper looks grayish. That’s mainly because of the printing ink even if you boil the paper slush beforehand and scoop the color pulp off the surface. Really white papers can only be made from virgin white pulp out of unused material.
For the girdle book I wanted to have more authentic material, so I experimented with cotton fibers (called “Linters”). The result was super soft and cuddly, unfortunately also very absorbent and little tear-resistant. Incorporating regular writing paper made the paper more suitable for my purposes, but also less “original medieval”.
After a few attempts (and a broadly grinning LARP player who happily accepted my “failed” papers) I ended up with a hemp-cotton mixture which provided stable but not rock-hard papers.
Other ingredients were mineral fillers (to make the paper more suitable for writing on), vegetable starch and animal glue. I’ve tried both the medieval variant bone glue and the modern form of gelatin. Because of the odor I preferred the gelatin of course, even if it is not quite authentic.
Working with the paper pulp
The whole mixture was soaked and allowed to soften for a while so that the plant fibers could be torn apart more easily. In former times old rags (which often were used for papermaking) were soaked for several days. That was called “maceration” – which actually means they let the damp rags rot for a while.
Now, contrary to medieval times, nifty electrical equipment came into play.
- Food processor?
- Or an immersion blender?
For larger quantities the food processor is better. There are limits of course, it’s better to work with smaller batches.
In the end the paper pulp should have the consistency of puréed baby food.
Turn the pulp into a sheet of paper
Now it’s time to turn the paper pulp into paper. Scooping the paper pulp onto a framed sieve is the mainly used method.
A flat scooping frame with a sieve is vertically dipped into a vat of paper pulp, turned horizontally, shaken slightly and lifted out of the vat. The fibers then have collected on the sieve. The sieve needs to drain off before it is placed onto an absorbent material, pressed (called “cooching”) and dried. I’ll describe that process down below.
There are plenty of instructions on the net on how to use the scooping method for papermaking as well as useful videos, for example on YouTube.
The downside of this process is the decreasing and changing concentration of plant fibers in the paper pulp. The medieval papermakers had years of experience with this and were able to produce evenly thick and strong papers. But I was absolutely not happy to get varying paper qualities with the scooping method. So I had to come up with something else.
Or maybe not…
… for there already was a second (albeit slightly more time consuming) method which (to my knowledge) mainly was used in Japan. The fibers are not scooped out of the paper pulp but the paper pulp is poured onto the sieve at the bottom of a box-like frame. This makes it possible to achieve a more even thickness and quality for each sheet of paper, for example on YouTube.
Before I started papermaking I constructed a high wooden box out of waterproof plywood. Velcro strips keep the sieve tight in place on the bottom.
As next step I prepared a basin with warm water. I’m not sure but I think the paper pulp distributes more easily in warm water than in cold. Besides that: working with warm water is much more pleasant…
I placed the box into the basin where it floated in the water. Then I measured a certain amount of fibers for each sheet of paper. For each sheet of paper I poured the exact same quantity of paper pulp into the box and distributed it evenly with my hand. When I couldn’t see any thin areas or even holes any more, I slowly lifted the frame and let it drain for a bit.
When no water was draining from the wooden box any more I placed it on an absorbent material (old towels or felt) and detached the frame from the sieve.
After this process the wet sheet of paper looked like in the picture above. The mass still was soft and squishy. Now would’ve been the right time to sprinkle potential additives such as petals, fibers, herbs, etc. on top of the wet mass. This was not an option for the girdle book though.
Next, the sieve was turned over onto another (dry) felt, briefly dabbed dry with a sponge and lifted off the paper.
I combined frame and sieve again and secured with the velcro strips. Then I repeated the pouring process and in turns added more wet sheets of paper and more felts to the stack.
Press the wet sheet of paper
Adding a last felt and topping off the stack with a sturdy board, it was time to get rid of all the remaining water with a press. Really heavy books will also do the trick. Or just step onto the stack and try to balance on it for a while… 😉
When it didn’t drip any more (I put some old towels under the press to prevent a mess), the resulting sheets still were damp and sensitive but looked much more like a piece of paper.
Drying the sheets
Then I had to find a way to dry my damp sheets with as little fuss as necessary. First I treated them like laundry and hung them on a clothesline. The result wasn’t convincing enough though.
So I placed the damp sheets on towels to let them dry. After that they still were wavy but looked much better than with the clothesline mark.
The best would’ve been a combination of pressing and drying at the same time though. But the result was good enough for me.
Mess around with bone glue…
To make the sheets more suitable for my purposes, I had to soak them in a mixture of starch and bone glue, then press and dry them like before.
However, the medieval papermakers did not use a paint roller to “glue” the sheets like I did. In a separate room they had a large tub filled with plenty of warm, liquid (and very smelly) bone glue. The workers held the dry and unglued sheets with wooden tongs and dipped them into the “aromatic” bone glue. After that they had to press, dry and smooth out the papers.
I tried it that way first. But… after I managed to tear half of the sheets in a smaller-scaled action, I decided to use the somewhat more time-consuming but foolproof paint roller method. My family certainly was also very grateful that I didn’t use an open vat with smelly bone glue…
After a few hours and a final smoothing process I called a stack of suitable papers my own, ready for my girdle book… Where were my paint brushes?
Have you ever tried papermaking at home? If so, did you get your instructions from a teacher/friend or a book? Or did you watch a video on the internet? Was your project just as messy as mine?
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