My students like to tease me by using the misnomer ‘rice paper’ to describe asian papers just to watch me cringe (rice paper does exist, but is made for candy wrappers which dissolve in your mouth). Like my students, most of you know that most oriental papers are not made of rice, but of inner bark from a variety of sources.
One such source of bark is the paper mulberry (kozo) which produces the preferred type of paper for woodblock printmaking. The fibers are long which allows for a thinner yet durable sheet. The best kozo papers are also ‘fluffy’ and have a beautiful sheen to the surface.
I have made many sheets myself and have taught oriental papermaking which makes me appreciate the hardships in making this wonderful product.
Steps for making paper
It starts with the arduous process of harvesting the mulberry’s new growth. The branches are steamed and then the bark is stripped off of the wood. Next, the bark is dried and the black outer bark (chiri) is scraped off of the white inner bark. The strips are washed, then
boiled with soda ash- traditionally in large pots fired by the mulberry branches and the ashes were used to make the alkaline soda.
The resulting strips of inner bark are then beaten. Any small specks of dark outer bark are painstakingly picked out. The macerated bark is mixed with water and neri (a mucus-like thickening agent derived from the tororo-aoi root that keep the fibers suspended) to create a slurry which is poured into a large vat.
The papermaking mould or sugeta is expertly dipped into the vat over and over to create just the right thickness and consistency.
The new sheet is then transferred from the sugeta to a stack of previously-made sheets and they are ‘couched‘ (a french term meaning to put to bed). A weight is applied to the stack so that the sheets can ‘weep‘ or drain excess water. One by one, the new sheets are then transferred to very wide, smooth wooden boards which are left in the sun to dry. The surface quality of the boards affects the resulting paper smoothness.
The dry sheets are removed and sizing (called dosa– a hot mixture of animal glue nikawa and alum or myoban) is brushed onto the sheets and then hung up to dry. Sizing both strengthens the paper and prevents the ink from bleeding (like water on tissue paper) when printing.
The price for each sheet of Kitaro Washi‘s kizuki (pure) kozo is almost $20 including shipping to the US! That sound like a lot, but I believe that it represents a massive amount of work and skill on behalf of the papermakers.
“Paper, in my opinion, is the most important element for successful printing and it is worth the investment.”
At Kitaro, large paper purchases are is made to order- so it took around 2 months for me to receive it- and here it is!