Most people who enjoy making handmade paper begin the process by tearing scrap paper into small pieces to make their paper pulp. This is the easiest way to form pulp, and the results are gorgeous.
However, if you’re more of a back-to-basics type person or feel that using paper to make paper is akin to cheating, then using plant fiber to make your pulp may be ideal.
How do you make paper from plants? To make paper from plants, harvest suitable plant material, cut it in small pieces, boil with washing soda for three hours, drain, rinse, mix into a slurry, and pour it into a tub. A sheet of paper may then be dipped, transferred, pressed, and dried.
Making paper by hand from raw materials is easier than you may think. You only need to follow a few basic guidelines and be willing to experiment with various fibers.
Before long, you’ll know what works best for you, and you’ll look forward to the change in seasons that provides new material for you to try.
The Basics of Using Plants to Make Paper
Using plants to make your paper pulp provides you with the satisfaction of making paper “from scratch” and actually doesn’t require that many extra steps as opposed to using scrap paper to make the pulp.
Paper made from plant fiber will vary significantly in color depending on the plant type and the season in which it’s harvested.
Before you rush outside in your excitement and rip up any and all plants from your yard, you should know that some plants are better suited for paper making than others are.
Which Plants Should I Use?
First things first. Handmade paper is generally made from one of three categories of fiber: bast, leaf, or grass.
Bast refers to the inner bark that some plants, such as milkweed, blackberry, raspberry, and flax produce.
Stems and thin branches from various trees, such as willow, fig, hazelnut, elm, paper mulberry, and juniper, can also be harvested for their bast fibers.
Long, thin leaves from plants that reach at least two feet in height are ideal for making paper.
Iris, lily, and hosta leaves work well, but other long-leafed plants such as gladiolus, daylilies, cattail, and sisal, can be used too.
Grass-type plants, like pampas grass, sea grass, and wheat straw, contain shorter fibers that are easy to process, though the resulting paper won’t be as strong as that made from other fibers.
Strangely, corn husks fall into the grass grouping and are an easy way to source paper-making material in the summer if your family likes corn.
You can even use seaweed if you have access to it to produce a unique, translucent paper!
Which Is Best?
Although bast fibers are commonly used for making handmade paper and do indeed produce strong, durable sheets, they are the most difficult to break down and process for pulp.
I’d recommend experimenting with leaf and grass fibers first to get a feel of the process before moving on to more difficult fibers.
Harvesting Plant Material
When gathering plant material in the spring or summer months, cut leaves or stems off individually from the base of the plant, focusing on the outermost leaves.
Alternatively, you could gather material in autumn as leaves are naturally being shed.
If you don’t plan on making your paper right away, the leaves should be dried completely before being stored for future use.
This, by the way, is the recommended practice, though using fresh materials will work too.
One pound of dry material should, in theory, produce about 15 sheets of notebook-size paper.
That may be a lot more than you wanted to tackle, so for your first few plants-to-paper escapades, try gathering half that or even just ¼ of a pound. That’s plenty to get you started.
What Not to Do
- Don’t attempt to make paper with poison ivy, oak, or sumac.
- Don’t harvest plants from other people’s property without obtaining permission first.
- Don’t strip the plants bare when harvesting leaves. Leave enough behind to ensure the plant’s survival.
- Don’t use dried plant material that you’ve stored if any signs of mold are present.
Whichever plant fiber you decide to try will need to be cut into small pieces with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife and “cooked” to break down the fibers.
This is accomplished by boiling the fibers in a pot with washing soda for several hours.
After boiling, the fibers need to be drained and rinsed thoroughly. After this step, the process is very much the same as when using scrap paper to make pulp.
(If you need a quick reminder of the basic process, head over to this article.)
The fiber is added to a blender along with water and blended until a uniform consistency is reached.
The slurry is dumped into a shallow tub, and the steps are repeated until you have the desired amount of slurry.
A mold and deckle are used to dip out pulp from the slurry. The new paper is then couched, or transferred, onto an absorbent material, water is pressed out, and the paper is dried.
What You’ll Need
The first thing you’ll want to do is gather plant material and either chop it up for use right away or let it dry and store it for future use.
The other materials needed are as follows:
- A non-reactive pot and utensil for stirring.
- Washing soda.
- A blender (this won’t be able to be used for food purposes again).
- A shallow container, such as a dishpan.
- A mold and deckle – read this to learn how to make your own.
- Two cover screens.
- Absorbent material, such as felt.
- A large sponge.
- An iron – optional.
Instructions for Making Paper From Plants
Gather your plant materials, weigh them, and soak them in a bucket of water for about two hours.
If you’re using dried material, soak at least overnight or until the matter softens. The thicker and denser the fiber is, the longer it will need to soak.
After soaking, rinse the plant matter well and set aside. Fill a large pot with 2 quarts of water for every ¼ pound of dry fiber, and heat on high.
Don some protective gloves, and add 1 tablespoon of washing soda for every quart of water just before the water begins to boil. Stir carefully until dissolved.
Add the plant material to the pot, stir, and allow to boil for approximately three hours. You’ll know it’s finished “cooking” when you can easily pull a piece apart.
Drain carefully into a mesh strainer, and rinse with cool water until the water runs out clear.
Add one handful of fiber to the blender. Fill the blender with water until it’s about ⅔ full.
Blend until the mixture looks fairly uniform, and pour the slurry into your shallow container. Repeat this step until you have several inches of slurry in the tub.
Stir the slurry in the tub, and insert your mold and deckle at an angle until it rests horizontally on the bottom.
Slowly lift your mold straight up out of the slurry and move the mold from side to side until the pulp is distributed evenly. Allow water to drain back into the tub.
Lift off the deckle, and place a cover screen on top of the mold.
Carefully lay the mold down on an absorbent material, like felt, so that the paper is face down. With a sponge, press gently on the mold’s screen to release the paper onto the felt.
Place another cover screen on top of the paper, and with the sponge, press firmly to draw out as much water as possible, wringing out the sponge frequently.
Next, sandwich the paper between either couch sheets (I use Arnold Grummer’s) or two dry pieces of felt and press firmly with a flat, heavy object.
Lay the paper on a flat surface, like a board, and allow to dry completely. Alternatively, you could place the paper between paper towels or cotton cloths and iron it until dry.