Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

20 April 2015

Making Islamic-style paper

The British Library Centre for Conservation recently hosted a professional course on Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World, organised by The Islamic Manuscript Association, in association with the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation.

The top half of the watercolour depicts two men with pulp in a sheet and a hammering machine to make pulp. The bottom half of the watercolour shows the pulp in a vat, a man with a screen, sheets of paper drying, and various tools used in papermaking.
Add Or Ms 1699: A 19th c. watercolour from Kashmir shows the preparation of the pulp and papermaking. (Add Or Ms 1699)

The week began with a day of presentations covering every aspect of traditional Islamic hand papermaking, including early descriptions of the process, bibliographies, the characteristics of papers manufactured in different eras and different parts of the Islamic world, and the materials and tools used. We looked in some detail at the raw materials (mainly flax and hemp) and at the construction of the mould and screen on which the paper is formed. The process has continued in India into modern times, and we viewed films of traditional workers either squatting to work or standing in a pit.

Katharina stands holding a papermaking frame: a wooden frame with a screen made from grass, reed, or split bamboo. To the right of Katharina stands Tim who is speaking.
Katharina Siedler shows the screen and supporting frame while Timothy Barrett explains the paper-making process

For the next three days the small group of participants made paper – though fortunately using smaller vats, so we could stand at a table. Two excellent instructors, Timothy Barrett (Director, University of Iowa Center for the Book) and Katharina Siedler (historian and papermaker, who has her own studio in Berlin) guided our efforts. The hemp and flax pulps had been prepared in a Hollander beater at the University of Iowa in both long and short fibred versions to give a sense of the characteristics of each. In addition, participant Jacques Brejoux (Moulin du Verger, France) brought linen pulp, prepared with a medieval-style stamper at his mill.

Timothy holds the screen with a sheet of paper attached above a plastic tub of water and paper pulp.
Tim makes the first sheet of paper

Islamic-style paper is made on a flexible screen made of grass, reeds or split bamboo held together with horsehair (think of a much finer version of a sushi rolling mat.) This is placed on a wooden frame, and removable side-pieces hold it flat. The mould is dipped into the vat of fibre suspended in water. It can then be floated, and gently moved to aid the formation of an even sheet of paper. The mould starts to drain as it is lifted from the vat. The side walls are removed and the screen lifted. The sheet of new paper can then be rolled onto a flat board (couching).

A piece of paper is laid on a piece of felt--the paper is placed on the felt from the screen. Next to the couching process a green plastic shallow tub has water and a screen soaking in it.
Katharina couches newly made paper.
Gavin pulls a screen from the water and pulp bath, and a sheet of paper rests on the screen, made from the pulp.
British Library conservator Gavin Moorhead has a go

The next sheet is usually placed directly on top, though we interleaved with Reemay®, because of space and time limitations. When a good stack (post) has built up, another board is placed on top with weights to squeeze out more water. In warmer countries, the sheets are brushed out on walls to dry. We used a drying rack.

A man dressed in a black beret and black dungarees stands on top of the stack of felt, sandwiched between boards, to press them. A while plastic bin is there to catch and excess water. In the background and to the right, another participant has dipped his screen into the paper pulp and water.
Jacques Brejoux presses the post while John Mumford (Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation) makes linen paper

By next day, our papers were ready to continue the processes of sizing them, allowing them to dry again, then flattening and burnishing them.

Tim lifts a piece of paper from the stack.
Tim separates the post of paper for drying

Everyone was able to take away some sheets of paper they had made themselves, plus good reference samples made by our instructors and, equally important, examples of common vat faults, so that we learn to recognise these when we find them in Islamic books.

Kristine has a sheet of paper in front of her, which she is added size to by added size with a ball of white cloth which resembles a large cotton ball.
Kristine Rose (Chester Beatty Library) sizes paper
Katharina stands at a table and burnishes a piece of paper: she uses a tool and rubs it around the paper. Behind her pieces of paper hang on a line to dry.
Katharina makes burnishing look easy

On the final day a much larger group assembled for a symposium, summarising many of the topics and themes we had discussed in previous days and setting them in context. Librarians, conservators and historians introduced recent work and research in collections as diverse as the University of Michigan and the British Library. Those who had not been present the whole week stayed for a demonstration of paper-making at the end of the day.

The week was most enjoyable, but intensive and with serious purpose. Those of us who work with oriental collections now feel more confident to explain the marks or flaws in the paper that we encounter. We better understand the history of such items, and can use compatible materials and techniques if we have to treat them.

Ann Tomalak


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