Paper making with foraged plants

Assorted paper sheets made from cattail plants.

By: Frances Owen, JCCB Naturalist

Paper making is a fun and relaxing craft to do at home. I especially enjoy using foraged plant fibers, as it allows us to connect to our environment in a deeper way. This tutorial originated as part of a paper making class. As such, I have included some resources from that class below, such as the original powerpoint, and recording of the program. Above all else, I hope you try this project and have fun while doing so. Get outside and explore the fibers available to you in your own backyard!

You can access the original powerpoint here.

The actual demonstration of the paper making process occurs at 30:09 in the video.

Supplies:

  • About 1 pound of plant fibers
  • Scissors
  • Large pot (not used for food-enameled water bath canning pots work well)
  • Washing Soda
  • Large spoon (wood or plastic, not used for food)
  • Blender (not used for food)
  • Fine mesh stainer
  • Shallow tub
  • Mould and Deckle (Here is a great tutorial on how to make your own!)
  • Felt, canvas, old towel or other thick fabric
  • *optional* two pieces of wood to press paper between

The full process, step-by-step:

  1. Gather plant fibers. Long leaves like those from cattail and iris will contain long strong fibers. Other plants that get taller than a few feet such as tall grasses (think about natives like Indian Grass and Big Bluestem) or some forbs like nettles and milkweed. Seed “fluff” from the brown heads of cattails can make a fine paper, and does not need as much processing to use. Collect around 5-10 seed heads to have plenty of material to work with. For most leaves you will want to collect around one pound to make it worth while. A full plastic grocery bag packed full should be more than enough for your first experiment.

2. Cut the plant fibers shorter. You can experiment with different lengths, but I recommend cutting fibers between 1/4″-1″ long. Place the trimmed plant fibers into a large pot. If you are using cattail seed fluff (other seed fluff will likely function in a similar way) you can just pull it off the stalk and place in the pot. Cover your plant fiber with water and add some washing soda. For large batches I sprinkle a couple Tbsp. Stir, and simmer for and hour or two. Turn off heat, let cool. You don’t necessarily need washing soda, but it does tend to help break down the fibers a little better to get you a higher quality paper. Many paper makers use washing soda or soda ash in the process for this reason. If you do not have washing soda on hand, or do not wish to use it, additional boiling and soaking times may be necessary to get the consistency you want. This part of the process is best done in an area with good ventilation. It can get stinky, and depending on the plant fiber you are processing, you could end up with some unhealthy fumes.

3. Add pulp into a blender in small batches, less than 1/3-1/2 of the capacity of the blender (for mine this is about 3 cups) -DO NOT PACK! Fill the rest of the blender with water and and blend until the fibers float freely, remaining suspended in the water (blend for about 30 seconds – 1 minute). The fibers will likely be much darker now than at the beginning of the process. If you’re using seed fluff, you may be able to skip this step.

4. Pour the blended pulp through a fine strainer and rinse to remove any remaining washing soda (the washing soda can continue to break down and weaken the fibers over time) and extra tannins from the water. The tannins from plants turn the water brown and can make the paper darker.

5. Mix the processed pulp into a shallow tub of water to create a slurry. If you are adding seeds, dried flowers, or other fun additives, this is a good time to mix them in! Alternatively, you can try to press and wiggle them into the pulp during the next step.

6. Pulling your sheets. With your mould and deckle pressed together (you are essentially sandwiching the screen between the mould and deckle)-slide them into the slurry at an angle until fully submerged, level it underneath the slurry, then slowly lift it from the tub, sifting gently back and forth to evenly distribute the pulp. Before lifting the mould and deckle completely out of the water, sprinkle in seeds, dried flowers, or any other additives to the slurry. Pull the mould and deckle completely out of the tub and let drain a moment.

7. Slowly lift the mould from the deckle. Look carefully around the inside of the deckle when lifting-you may need to pull and release some of the pulp from the edges. Once the deckle is removed, press fabric or felt overtop. Place over the edge of your tub and press out some of the water.

8. Couching. Flip the deckle with paper and fabric over-and press down firmly from the inside to help loosen the pulp and drain additional water. Slowly lift the deckle from one edge, making sure the pulp is separating from the mould. This process is called couching (pronounced coo-ching). Once fully separated, place another piece of fabric on top and press the pulp firmly between the two sheets to press thinner and remove more water. To press even thinner, you can press between a couple boards, standing on them to press out even more water. *Be careful while handling the paper at this point to prevent it from cracking.

9. Lay out on one of the fabric sheets to dry, either in the sun, or in an oven on the lowest heat, door cracked open. You don’t want to cook your seeds!

Experiment with different plants and processing techniques. Additionally, you might find that most of your paper ends up close to a “Kraft Paper” brown color. If you want to achieve lighter colored paper, you can try bleaching it (I used hydrogen peroxide with good effect) or try mixing in some scraps of white printer paper. Simply soak the printer paper for a couple hours (or even overnight) then blend up with your foraged plant fibers. Happy papermaking!

Paper made from cattail seed fluff with seeds and hearts punched out of dried leaves. The “fluff” was boiled without washing soda, and resulted in a felt-like texture to the finished paper.

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