Amanda Degener makes paper from old jeans.
As the resident papermaker and outreach coordinator at Pyramid Atlantic, a center for print, paper and book arts in Silver Spring, she specializes in hand papermaking.
“It’s alchemy,” Ms. Degener says. “You’re changing one material into another material.”
The science of papermaking has been around since at least the first century A.D., and the same basic techniques are still used.
The first step is feeding plant fibers in the form of cloth, such as cotton, flax, hemp or ramie, into a Hollander beater, Ms. Degener says. Small pieces of wastepaper also can be pulped in a blender. The result will be an oatmeal-like pulp.
The pulp is then placed in a vat of water, where a mold and deckle, a screened frame, is dipped, she says. As the water drains away from the screen, the basis for the paper is left.
If artists are feeling creative, they can “paint” on the paper with pulp paint, which is fiber with dye, Ms. Degener says.
The paper is usually “couched,” or placed, on a wool blanket to dry. Then it is pressed in a machine at least twice to squeeze the water out of it. When a sheet is still slightly damp, an iron can create a smooth finish.
“Scientists don’t like to hear about magic, but to take an old pair of bluejeans and make bluejean paper, that’s magic,” Ms. Degener says.
In the mill, paper is made in mass quantities through similar procedures involving large machines, she says. Generally, she says, pulp is made in a hydrapulper and then transferred to a moving mesh belt. The water drains from the pulp, and rollers press the paper.
Papermaking is based on hydrogen bonding, says Howard Clark, co-owner of Twinrocker Handmade Paper in Brookston, Ind.
Because there are just two ingredients in papermaking, plant fiber and water, as the paper dries and the water leaves the pulp, the fibers form new bonds, called “hydrogen bonds,” he says.
Water, an unsymmetrical molecule with two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, easily attaches to other substances, Mr. Clark says.
“You actually make a chemical change,” Mr. Clark says. “It’s a reversible bond, if you work water into it. That’s recycling.”
Although almost any plant can be used to make paper, some plants have more fiber than others, he says.
“Celery has a lot more fiber than carrots, but a lot less fiber than flax or hemp,” Mr. Clark says.
The earliest record of papermaking is from the first century A.D., when someone in the Chinese court described the process, with paper made from linen scraps, he says.
When papermaking made its way to Europe about 1,000 years later, the end result became a substitute for parchment, he says. Therefore, the paper made in Europe was thicker, more like animal skins, than the paper in China.
The thickness of the paper can be controlled by the amount of time the pulp is beaten, Mr. Clark says.
In an attempt to better understand how to make paper from wood, scientists studied paper wasps, which chew on wood, Mr. Clark says. Their digestive systems produce a form of paper the wasps use to make their nests.
Although scientists never fully understood the ability of the paper wasps, the creatures convinced scientists that paper could be made from wood, he says. Eventually, a sulfur process was developed to remove the noncellulose parts from the wood, he says. Wood is about 50 percent cellulose, whereas cotton is almost 100 percent cellulose. The noncellulose parts of the plants make paper discolor, he says.
“The thing that makes paper work is cellulose,” Mr. Clark says. “If you make paper out of something with a lot of other stuff, like lignins and pectins, they make the paper go brown.”
When people want to make paper smoother and more opaque, they sometimes add calcium carbonate, says Tom Bannister, executive director of Hand Papermaking Inc. in College Park.
The calcium carbonate makes the paper whiter, he says. Clay or titanium dioxide can be used for the same purpose.
The most common additives hand papermakers add are dyes or pigments, Mr. Bannister says. Also, the process of sizing paper makes the sheets less absorbent. Therefore, the ink won’t bleed. One of the simplest ways to accomplish sizing is by using gelatin. The proteins in the substance coat the fibers and make them less susceptible to absorbency.
“The industry puts [in] a lot of chemicals and additives that hand papermakers avoid,” Mr. Bannister says. “We’re not trying to mass-produce anything. Hand papermakers are generally artists or craftspeople. They are creating works of art.”
Although most hand papermakers are primarily artists, understanding the science of their art could only help the finished product, says Helen Frederick, artistic director of Pyramid Atlantic. She also is a professor of printmaking and artist books at George Mason University in Fairfax.
Classes and exhibits often are held at the center (www.pyramidatlanticartcenter.org). For instance, “Contemporary Codex: Ceramics and the Book,” curated by Holly Hanessian, is on display in the main gallery through Aug. 26.
From Sept. 13 through Nov. 4, the organization will feature “Fibers of Memory, Mixed Media Works on Handmade Paper” by Gibby Waitzkin and “Red+Blue=Orange, a Multimedia Installation” by Despina Meimaroglou.
“If you aren’t in touch with your materials, you can’t control them,” Ms. Frederick says. “Artists should take control of their materials. In order to do that, they need to learn the chemistry to do the art.”
After artists become proficient at making paper, many of them enjoy sculpting with it, says Bridget O’Malley, owner of Cave Paper Inc. in Minneapolis.
As a paper artist, Ms. O’Malley makes artist books and sculptural pieces.
One specific example of science in her work is illustrated when she’s using indigo dye, she says. When she’s pulling the paper from the vat, it can look amber or light green. When it is exposed to oxygen, however, it turns blue.
“There is a lot of science involved in what we do,” Ms. O’Malley says. “I might not talk about the science every day, but it affects what I do.”