Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On June 10, 2016, a team of 12 people working at the University of Iowa Center for the Book attempted to make 2,000 sheets of handmade paper in a 10-hour workday. An earlier attempt in 2014 yielded only 1,350 sheets. But this time we were successful.

We made 3 changes during this new attempt:

  • We switched from cotton rag half-stuff to cotton linter fiber for our raw material.
  • We beat the fiber to yield a fast draining pulp with, for those familiar with the industry standard test, a corrected Canadian Standard Freeness between 400 and 450 mL.
  • We incorporated a set of 20 extra felts in addition to the 52 felts needed to make our regular stack or post of 50 sheets. This allowed the vat person and coucher to begin work on the next post as soon as a new charge of pulp was mixed into the vat.

To reach 2,000 sheets by the end of the day, we formed and pressed one post of 50 sheets and started another within 15 minutes. We reached 2,000 sheets in 9 hours and 15 minutes by having everyone continuously take turns at each of the vat positions. Everyone else pack pressed the sheets that had been separated from the felts, parted them, and hung them to dry in groups of four sheets.

The paper machine was invented around 1800. When making paper by hand between 1300 and 1800, a day’s work varied considerably depending on the size, thickness and quality of the sheets being made. Smaller, lightweight, poor quality grades such as wrapping paper could be made in quantities as high as 9000 sheets in a day. Very large, heavyweight, high quality sheets—for watercolor paper for instance—might carry an expectation of as few as 1,000 sheets in a day.

Why make 2,000 sheets in a day

We wanted to see how making that much paper that fast would impact the characteristics of the finished paper. Modern handmade paper used in the conservation of rare books needs to have qualities similar to the historical sheets.

If we employed production rates used to make paper as a utilitarian commodity, would we end up with sheets that exhibit an attractive tension between unavoidable marks or defects on one hand, and skillfully executed uniformity on the other? Or would the paper automatically just be poor in quality?

Answering this question is confounded by the wide range of skills in our particular 12-person team. By considering the better quality sheets made by the more skilled workers, we found many of the characteristics we see in well made historical sheets that are both skillfully formed and couched, but also possessed of various marks remaining from the hand papermaking process. More slowly made, more perfect sheets may eliminate any of the so-called defects, but we question if they embody the spontaneity and authenticity we see in historical utilitarian papers.

What we learned

With the right number of workers on a team, 1,500 or so sheets in a modern 8-hour work day are possible.

Attempts to replicate historical work routines provide real insights about historical production details that were never documented. Good examples are the necessary pulp drainage rate or “freeness,” as well as the level of skill that was necessary to do the work. We realized fast draining pulp permits high production rates in a given amount of time, but it also increases the amount of skill required on the part of the vat person to shake and even the sheet in just a few seconds of time before the wet pulp solidifies on the mould surface.

Finally, experiments such as this greatly enhance the already high level of respect we have for the quantity and quality of paper routinely made by historical workers.