Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Milkweed paper: first steps in papermaking from plants

All you need is imagination. This is the very first sheet piece of paper I have made from wild plants growing here on the farm in northeast Iowa. In fact it is only the third piece of paper I have ever made in my entire life! But can you see the potential.

Inspired Russell Maret's visit here this week and the report of his visit to master paper maker and McArthur Fellow, Timothy Barrett at the University of Iowa, I decided to pursue the idea that all the materials needed to make a book were growing here on the farm. I have been looking for a niche market crop we could grow and wondered if kozo, or Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) might be possible. The common Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) grows here readily and when clearing branches I have noticed the bark is very tough – perhaps it also could be used for paper.

A quick re-read of Washi by Suki Hughes, was further inspiration, except for the description of the pot of warm water into which the paper maker will occasionally plunge his "red, numb hands".

This led me to investigate paper making from plants and as a first step I collected some dried stalks of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The stem fibers are long, strong and silky, while the seeds are attached to downy hairs. Soaking and boiling the stems in lye made from wood ash (we have a wood stove) and then rinsing before beating yielded a curious lumpy pulp. Couched out onto a plywood sheet to dry, translucent fibers connect the woody straw pieces to make a suprisingly strong paper – the magic of paper making.

More beating is clearly necessary and perhaps some mucilage in the "vat" or pulp will help separate the fibers. But I think there is potential.

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