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Washi Paper Production and Uses - May 2005 Newsletter

 

Washi is a very general term meaning “Japanese paper.” Today, it denotes handmade papers in a variety of styles, from sheer and airy to thick and textured. Many are printed with patterns, too. This month, we will take a closer look at the types of washi paper and how they are made. We will also explore washi’s many uses in everyday items.

How is handmade paper different from your everyday printer paper or newsprint? Well, there are lots of differences. The most important is the material: the majority of machine-produced paper we use is made from evergreen trees like pine and redwood. The fibers are ground up into a very fine paste, and many of the processing chemicals remain in the finished paper. Washi, on the other hand, is made with the bark of deciduous bushes. Instead of grinding up the bark, the fibers are carefully separated and left in long strands. This strengthens the paper and gives it a soft, fabric-like quality. The finished product is less likely to tear because the fibers do not all lie parallel.

Washi is most commonly made from the bark of kozo, gampi, and mitsumata. These three plants are native to Japan, and they can be easily harvested during wintertime when paper is traditionally made. Originally, papermakers took advantage of the native plants in their environment, but now many communities plant kozo or mitsumata specifically for production. Washi is divided into three categories based on these fiber contents. Each type of washi has a distinctly different look, feel, and purpose.

Paper made with the kozo (a.k.a. mulberry) plant is by far the most widely produced in the current market. Mulberry bushes are native to many areas in Japan, but farmers cultivate them for paper as well. Different varieties of kozo produce unique characteristics in washi, so some papermakers order plants from various regions of Japan. Kozo has strong, sinewy fibers and makes a paper sturdy enough for shoji, the screen dividers used in traditional homes. Kozo paper can be folded many times without breaking or tearing. It is ideal for printing because the fibers do not shrink or expand with moisture.

Gampi is a deciduous plant found in some regions of Japan. It is much harder to cultivate, so it is difficult to obtain bark for papermaking. However, the plant yields a very high-quality paper with a beautiful sheen and a sheer, translucent quality. It is strong and is said to last forever. A naturally occurring chemical in the bark repels paper eating insects, and the paper is resistant to water absorption.

Mitsumata, the third type of plant utilized for paper production, has been used since the 16th century. It has short, soft fibers that absorb water and ink well. Like gampi, it has a natural insect repellant in its bark. All of the best mitsumata plants are used for the production of Japanese bank notes, so washi makers begin with a lower-quality material. However, mitsumata makes a good-quality paper when paired with kozo or gampi.

The papermaking process begins with harvesting of materials. Historically speaking, farmers usually cultivated kozo and mitsumata during the colder months when their food crops would not grow, and they cut and processed the bark during the wintertime. Selected branches would be steamed in big barrels to help soften the fibers and to aid in removal of the outer bark.

Kozo branches have three layers – a dark outer bark, a green inner layer, and a light core. The light fibers are the main stock for washi, as they produce a clean, smooth sheet of paper. Sometimes the outer bark is used for decorative papers too. When the steaming process mentioned above is finished, the stalks are placed in water and the dark outer bark is removed. Then, workers scrape away the green layer of bark to reveal the white inner fibers. These finished branches are dried and set aside for the next step, which is bleaching.

Traditionally, bleaching used all natural resources to obtain a bright white paper. Placing the branches in clean river water and exposing them to sunlight can remove most of the inherent color. Some modern washi makers use chemicals to bleach the fibers to a lighter color, but many still use this time-tested technique.

The branches are now ready to be turned into paper pulp. They are boiled in an alkali solution, which helps to break apart the natural fibers. The fibers are then rinsed and bleached again, either using traditional methods with water or snow, or with chemical bleaches like sodium hypochlorite. After rinsing, the fibers are beaten with a wooden mallet on a stone surface. The softened fibers are placed in a large vat of water called a suki bune. The paper is ready to be formed!

It takes a skilled craftsperson to make a nice piece of washi. The equipment is heavy, and although there are bamboo suspensions that attach the large paper frames to the ceiling, it takes a considerable amount of skill to handle them efficiently. The main frame, or mold, is dipped down into the vat of water and fibers, and a thin layer of fibers is collected. The first layer is very important, because it will end up as the face, or good side, of the paper. A thin mat of bamboo and silk threads helps to keep the fibers evenly distributed on the screen. The papermakers will dip the paper mold into the water several times until the paper is at a desired thickness.

The paper is removed from the mold and placed on a stack of other newly made sheets. They are left to air-dry overnight, then are placed in a press to remove more water. Each piece of washi is then attached to a plank of wood and laid out in the sun for a final drying and sun bleaching. The paper is finally finished when it is removed from these boards. It is inspected and graded depending on thickness and softness. Each papermaker has a distinctly different finished product due to the many steps involved in creation.

Though the process to create washi is very time consuming, it is worth the effort. Washi’s delicate texture and soft feel make it a prized possession for writers and calligraphers. It also has a wide range of alternative applications, from small personal items to large shoji screens in homes.

From a Western perspective, lanterns, fans, and umbrellas are some of the most recognizable symbols of Japan. When we go to Japantown or cultural celebrations in communities, we often see these icons first.

Hundreds of lanterns light up the warm summer nights during festivals, and their bright colors add to the celebratory atmosphere. Lanterns are covered with a sturdy sheet of washi to protect the light inside; the paper is laid upon thin strips of bamboo, which create the distinctive shape of the lamp. Modern Japanese designers like Isamu Noguchi have created new shapes of lanterns for more modern applications in the home. Noguchi’s lamps sparked the current trend for using paper lanterns with electric bulbs in interior design.

Though we often think of the umbrella as a protective object meant for rainy weather, it is also a must-have during the blazing heat of summer. Popular in China and Japan, the paper umbrella is a very functional accessory because it blocks out UV rays from the sun. Though you do not see as many in modern cities, they still make appearances in the countryside and at special occasions. Washi umbrellas are often used as display items in the home too. Their beautifully painted exteriors can serve as art pieces that express Asian culture and history.

Washi is a very general term meaning “Japanese paper.” Today, it denotes handmade papers in a variety of styles, from sheer and airy to thick and textured. Many are printed with patterns, too. This month, we will take a closer look at the types of washi paper and how they are made. We will also explore washi’s many uses in everyday items.

How is handmade paper different from your everyday printer paper or newsprint? Well, there are lots of differences. The most important is the material: the majority of machine-produced paper we use is made from evergreen trees like pine and redwood. The fibers are ground up into a very fine paste, and many of the processing chemicals remain in the finished paper. Washi, on the other hand, is made with the bark of deciduous bushes. Instead of grinding up the bark, the fibers are carefully separated and left in long strands. This strengthens the paper and gives it a soft, fabric-like quality. The finished product is less likely to tear because the fibers do not all lie parallel.

Washi is most commonly made from the bark of kozo, gampi, and mitsumata. These three plants are native to Japan, and they can be easily harvested during wintertime when paper is traditionally made. Originally, papermakers took advantage of the native plants in their environment, but now many communities plant kozo or mitsumata specifically for production. Washi is divided into three categories based on these fiber contents. Each type of washi has a distinctly different look, feel, and purpose.

Paper made with the kozo (a.k.a. mulberry) plant is by far the most widely produced in the current market. Mulberry bushes are native to many areas in Japan, but farmers cultivate them for paper as well. Different varieties of kozo produce unique characteristics in washi, so some papermakers order plants from various regions of Japan. Kozo has strong, sinewy fibers and makes a paper sturdy enough for shoji, the screen dividers used in traditional homes. Kozo paper can be folded many times without breaking or tearing. It is ideal for printing because the fibers do not shrink or expand with moisture.

Gampi is a deciduous plant found in some regions of Japan. It is much harder to cultivate, so it is difficult to obtain bark for papermaking. However, the plant yields a very high-quality paper with a beautiful sheen and a sheer, translucent quality. It is strong and is said to last forever. A naturally occurring chemical in the bark repels paper eating insects, and the paper is resistant to water absorption.

Mitsumata, the third type of plant utilized for paper production, has been used since the 16th century. It has short, soft fibers that absorb water and ink well. Like gampi, it has a natural insect repellant in its bark. All of the best mitsumata plants are used for the production of Japanese bank notes, so washi makers begin with a lower-quality material. However, mitsumata makes a good-quality paper when paired with kozo or gampi.

The papermaking process begins with harvesting of materials. Historically speaking, farmers usually cultivated kozo and mitsumata during the colder months when their food crops would not grow, and they cut and processed the bark during the wintertime. Selected branches would be steamed in big barrels to help soften the fibers and to aid in removal of the outer bark.

Kozo branches have three layers – a dark outer bark, a green inner layer, and a light core. The light fibers are the main stock for washi, as they produce a clean, smooth sheet of paper. Sometimes the outer bark is used for decorative papers too. When the steaming process mentioned above is finished, the stalks are placed in water and the dark outer bark is removed. Then, workers scrape away the green layer of bark to reveal the white inner fibers. These finished branches are dried and set aside for the next step, which is bleaching.

Traditionally, bleaching used all natural resources to obtain a bright white paper. Placing the branches in clean river water and exposing them to sunlight can remove most of the inherent color. Some modern washi makers use chemicals to bleach the fibers to a lighter color, but many still use this time-tested technique.

The branches are now ready to be turned into paper pulp. They are boiled in an alkali solution, which helps to break apart the natural fibers. The fibers are then rinsed and bleached again, either using traditional methods with water or snow, or with chemical bleaches like sodium hypochlorite. After rinsing, the fibers are beaten with a wooden mallet on a stone surface. The softened fibers are placed in a large vat of water called a suki bune. The paper is ready to be formed!

It takes a skilled craftsperson to make a nice piece of washi. The equipment is heavy, and although there are bamboo suspensions that attach the large paper frames to the ceiling, it takes a considerable amount of skill to handle them efficiently. The main frame, or mold, is dipped down into the vat of water and fibers, and a thin layer of fibers is collected. The first layer is very important, because it will end up as the face, or good side, of the paper. A thin mat of bamboo and silk threads helps to keep the fibers evenly distributed on the screen. The papermakers will dip the paper mold into the water several times until the paper is at a desired thickness.

The paper is removed from the mold and placed on a stack of other newly made sheets. They are left to air-dry overnight, then are placed in a press to remove more water. Each piece of washi is then attached to a plank of wood and laid out in the sun for a final drying and sun bleaching. The paper is finally finished when it is removed from these boards. It is inspected and graded depending on thickness and softness. Each papermaker has a distinctly different finished product due to the many steps involved in creation.

Though the process to create washi is very time consuming, it is worth the effort. Washi’s delicate texture and soft feel make it a prized possession for writers and calligraphers. It also has a wide range of alternative applications, from small personal items to large shoji screens in homes.

From a Western perspective, lanterns, fans, and umbrellas are some of the most recognizable symbols of Japan. When we go to Japantown or cultural celebrations in communities, we often see these icons first.

Hundreds of lanterns light up the warm summer nights during festivals, and their bright colors add to the celebratory atmosphere. Lanterns are covered with a sturdy sheet of washi to protect the light inside; the paper is laid upon thin strips of bamboo, which create the distinctive shape of the lamp. Modern Japanese designers like Isamu Noguchi have created new shapes of lanterns for more modern applications in the home. Noguchi’s lamps sparked the current trend for using paper lanterns with electric bulbs in interior design.

Though we often think of the umbrella as a protective object meant for rainy weather, it is also a must-have during the blazing heat of summer. Popular in China and Japan, the paper umbrella is a very functional accessory because it blocks out UV rays from the sun. Though you do not see as many in modern cities, they still make appearances in the countryside and at special occasions. Washi umbrellas are often used as display items in the home too. Their beautifully painted exteriors can serve as art pieces that express Asian culture and history.

Fans are one of the most widely treasured souvenirs from Oriental cultures. Western tourists in the 19th Century brought them home as examples of crafts from Japan, and displayed them among other artifacts from their worldly travels. Japanese fans were often made of washi with bamboo or ivory spines. The soft paper could be folded up many times without breaking or tearing. Like umbrellas, fans make a nice display item when arranged on a wall.

Washi is also used in the home as a room divider. Shoji screens are made of layers of washi on a wooden or bamboo frame. The sliding partitions let in light and help to balance the room’s temperature. In ancient times, the screens were sometimes used as a canvas for intricate murals! Each screen is made of six layers of paper. The outer layers usually have finer textures, and some are printed with patterns. Shoji have remained popular throughout the world because their simple style adds a touch of warmth to modern architecture.

Washi has an important role in Shinto ceremonies in Japan. Shinto followers believe in spirits or gods who exist in all natural things; they also strive for purity and a clean way of living. Shinto shrines often have an area for offerings to the gods. Washi is tied onto branches of the sacred sasaki tree in these spots. Washi is also used in shimenawa, which is a sort of sacred border. Shinto worshippers cordon off an area of nature near a shrine as an unspoiled plot of land, and place shimenawa around the perimeter. The washi is folded and bound into ropes of straw as a decorative boundary.

Daruma dolls are also made with washi paper. Though there are many varieties of daruma dolls, including ones made of wood or recycled paper, washi darumas are still sold. The little dolls are symbols of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China. They encourage the owner to achieve a goal or persevere through tough situations. You can read more about daruma dolls in our archived newsletter section. Children and adults alike treasure Daruma dolls – even politicians keep darumas during election campaigns.

The use of washi in everyday items has declined because of industrial papermaking and global trade. However, shops still carry a wide array of washi products, including fine calligraphy papers and notecards. Japanese people use washi to wrap special gifts, and some printed papers are used for other crafts. For example, they cover hollowed eggshells with printed washi for a decorative display item. The papered eggs highlight the beautiful variety of colorful papers available. We carry a nice book about washi crafts – you can use the paper for origami, fancy gift cards, and many other crafts.

What kinds of patterns are printed on washi? The majority are small repeating patterns with colorful backgrounds. Nature themes are always popular, and flowered papers come in many color variations. There are also printed repeats, called “diaper patterns,” which include fan shapes and simple dot and line shapes. Many of these patterns came from traditional textile patterns, so decorative papers keep alive a cultural tradition of patterning and decoration. Take a look at our selection of printed washi in the origami materials section to see examples!

Washi can be made with patterns applied into the surface as the sheet is being produced. For instance, fibers dyed with indigo can be added in large, swirling patterns before the paper is taken out of the screen. Some patterns are created using tin molds similar to cookie cutters. The colored paper pulp is arranged inside the mold, while the outside is filled with white pulp. Papers like this are very expensive due to their labor-intensive process. However, the unrivaled beauty of handmade paper like this makes them a worthwhile investment for special applications.

We carry a nice selection of washi wallets here at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen. They feature prints of geisha paintings – you can enjoy a little bit of Japanese culture every time you go out on the town. Washi’s strength and durability makes it a great alternative to leather wallets. Wow your friends with your pocketbook and your knowledge of washi’s importance in Japanese history and culture.

 

OUR 2005 NEWSLETTERS

Full Of Fortune

All About Sushi (part II)

Secret Lives Of Geisha

Specialty Japanese Cookware

Rice The Golden Grain

Summer Wedding Gift Guide

Azuki Beans

Washi Paper Production and Uses

Symbols of Happiness and Longevity in Asian Culture

Bamboo – A Versatile Plant

Symbolism in Asian Motifs and Patterns

Fortune Cookies: The Real San Fransisco Treat

 

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MAY WE SUGGEST:

Geisha with Book and Bonsai Paper Wallet(5132)
Six-Inch Yuzen/Washi Origami Papers II(5496)
Six-Inch Yuzen/Washi Origami Papers I(5497)
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