Paper making: from pulp to perfection

Paper. For most of us, it is a largely functional item produced in massive volumes the world over. But handmade paper, made sheet by sheet, is much more than that. We look at the craft of paper making and chart its history over the years.

The paper-making process was invented in China in the second century AD. The first sheet of paper is reported to have been made with mulberry and other plant fibres, fishnets, old rags and hemp waste. From then paper became increasingly well used and by the third century it was being used as a medium for writing. Up until the 8th century, paper was a completely handmade process, producing thin sheets of paper, sheet by sheet.


By the 8th century paper had spread to the Islamic world, and it was here the process was refined and evolved into an ‘industry’ rather than a simple craft. Water is a crucial ingredient in the paper-making process. It is used to create pulp, which is a mix of different fibres (like the aforementioned plant fibres and cotton or linen rags) and water. The mix is extremely diluted: it involves a small amount of natural fibres and a lot of water.

As the process became more refined, water-powered mills began to play a vital role. This is very evident in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, when paper-making was at its peak. Here in Ireland, linen rags were the main ingredient in so-called ‘white paper’. According to an article in the Irish Times, in 1746 in an effort to encourage the growth of the paper industry, the Royal Dublin Society offered premiums for the collections of linen rags. This incentive saw £5,000 worth of rags gathered weekly in the city and county to supply the main paper mills near Dublin. The glory days of paper-making in Ireland lasted until the latter half of the 19th century when the number of paper mills began to drop (from 60 to 28) as competition grew from the UK. In 2005, the last commercial paper mill in Ireland – Jefferson Smurfit Group in Clonskeagh – ceased production.

Though the traditional method of making paper hasn’t changed: pulp is created from fibres and water, pulp is poured onto a mesh screen and held in place within a mould, water is drained from the mix, paper is air dried. The art of paper making is almost a lost craft now as mass produced paper has taken its place. But there are still paper-making enthusiasts, such as Tunde Toth who offers workshops in Grennan Mill in Thomastown, Kilkenny. According to Tunde, handmade paper is still in demand by artists as their preferred medium, wedding stationery or for the revival of old books and documents.

The makeup of the paper defines how it can be used: an interesting article on the Griffen Mill website shows the difference between a painting by artist John Sell Cotman, who painted watercolours on a wrapping grade paper and J.M. Turner, who favoured a Whatman’s writing paper for his studio paintings. The different effects seen on two different types of paper is clear and for many artists choosing the ‘right’ paper is as much a part of their art as painting is.

Based in Co. Mayo, Griffen Mill is one of Europe’s last professional handmade paper mills still in full time production. The mill produces archival quality handmade paper made from virgin cotton, jute and hemp fibres. Paper produced at Griffen Mill are designed to be used for the conservation of books, manuscripts, works of art and historic wallpapers from 12th to 19th century. Papers made by the mill are also used in historical recreations and as film props.

As we discovered at a recent paper-making workshop, there is something intrinsically magical about creating your own paper. Watching a sheet of paper appear from the watery pulp solution is thrilling. And though this craft is likely to be preserved mainly to recreate the past, we would like to think there will always be a place for handmade paper.