Collection Care blog

27 June 2020

Paper Express! A Hand-Made Tale

Heather Murphy

Recently, within the conservation studio of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership, watermarks have been a theme. Throughout the months leading up to lockdown, my colleague Camille and I began developing a project based around some interesting examples of watermarks we discovered in a series of IOR Ship’s Journals dating from 1605-1705 being digitised by the project.  We have since been developing various aspects of this, one of which has been to create a (very) short instructional video on how to make paper, complete with personal watermarks, and the delivery of a paper-making workshop to the BLQFP team. (Another aspect of which has been the remote collaboration with Jordi Clopes-Masjuan and Matt Lee from the BLQFP Imaging team to develop digital tools for the viewing and analysis of watermarks in the collection). 

Having begun our research into watermarks, it was decided that we should attempt to make our own in the hope of learning more about their construction, and to demonstrate to the wider team how they are made. This led to the conclusion that, logically, we would also need to make paper to trial these watermarks. Researching how to make a homemade paper-making mould and deckle, we enlisted some expert carpentry skills, sourced the finest conservation grade chicken wire B&Q had to offer, some mesh, and some metal wire which we combined into a mould and deckle.

Homemade papermaking mouldMould and deckle

Home-made paper-making mould and deckle with watermarks attached.

This was taking place in September, during which was also scheduled the annual BLQFP away day, a chance for the team to both review the progress of the project so far and discuss possible future steps. However, as is happily a common ethos within the project, this is also a time where colleagues are encouraged to contribute and collaborate to make the day more interesting, allowing different teams to share aspects of their work. The format this year involved a series of two minute lightning talks, followed in the afternoon by a series of workshops. We decided that conservation’s contribution should therefore be a two minute video on paper-making, followed by a workshop where our colleagues could make their own papers. This involved some small re-arrangements within the studio, but with the aid of a Go-pro camera and a Gorillapod, we were able to film the paper-making process in action.

Having compiled the video, the next challenge was to figure out how to successfully replicate the setup outside the studio in order to deliver the workshop. This involved a lot of forward planning and, among other things, a blender, plastic sheeting and mason jars full of paper pulp. After a loaded taxi ride we were able to arrive at the meeting room and set up a makeshift paper-making station.

Delivery of the paper-making workshop at the BLQFP away day. The group stand around a desk watching demonstrations of mould and deckle paper-making tools.

Delivery of the paper-making workshop at the BLQFP away day

Other brilliant workshops delivered during the day included a ‘write your name in Arabic’ session with the translation team, where people were introduced to some basics of the Arabic language and learned to write their names.

Arabic language workshop in progress. The participants listen to an explanation of Arabic text by the tutor who stands at the top of the room in front of Arabic script examples hanging on the wall.

Arabic language workshop in progress.

The second was a cyanotype printing workshop with the imaging team, where people were able to learn about and experiment with the process. As another possible development to this watermarks work, we are hoping to undertake a collaborative experiment involving cyanotype printing on our handmade papers, complete with bespoke watermark designs.

Cyanotype workshop in progress. The participants stand and listen to an explanation of the cyanotype method. Cyanotype workshop in progress. The participants use the materials provided to practice the cyanotype method.
Cyanotype workshop in progress.

During the away day, we were able to deliver what seemed like a well-received workshop, where our colleagues could use our two moulds (with watermarks attached) to dip into the ‘vats’ of paper pulp, forming their own handmade papers. These were then couched between sheets of Sympatex and Bondina and pressed in stacks throughout the day.

Making papers and couching the sheets. The participants dip their paper moulds into a vat of paper pulp on the desk to make their paper sheets. They are helped by the tutor Camille.

Making papers and couching the sheets.

Workshops underway. An image from the back of the room showing the workshop participants engaged in listening to explanations and watching demonstrations on various desks laid out in the room.

Workshops underway.

When the day was over, we collected the equipment, delivered it back to the studio, and provided the newly made papers with fresh interleaving. These were left in the press to dry, and when we returned we were able to unveil some fine examples of handmade papers.

Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box. Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box. Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box.

Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box.

This is a guest post by Heather Murphy, Conservator from the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. You can follow the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership on Twitter @BLQatar.

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