The long journey of hand-made paper

Telling the history of paper means going on a trip through the countries of the world, the habits and traditions of the peoples that have determined the birth and evolution of paper.

Luisa Canovi

The first curiosity to unveil is how paper got its name. When, between the year 1000 and 1100, paper “reached” the Mediterranean coasts, people found it very similar to papyrus, known for ages as a support to writing. This is how the words “paper” (English), “papier” (French and German), “papel” (Spanish) were born, while the Italian word “carta” was inspired by the Greek “chartes”, which indicated the inner-most, softest part of papyrus, from which the most precious sheets were obtained.

On the other hand, “carta” lent its name to “pergamena” (the Italian word for parchment), the animal leather treated so as to become fit to be written on, which is also called “carta pecora” (“pecora” is the Italian word for “sheep”). Parchment (which takes its name from the Asia Minor town of Pergamo) and paper have thus been associated through the name of “carta pecora”.

As to counterbalance this phenomenon, a particular kind of paper took the name of “carta velina” (tissue wrapping paper) from the Latin word “velinum”, the still-born lamb from which the softest parchment was produced.

IN CHINA, PAPER WAS CALLED “ZHI” THAT SOUNDS SIMILAR TO “SI”, THE CHINESE WORD FOR SILK: so once more there is a link with a material for writing. In Japan, to this silk-related ideograph, the sound “Kami” was added, inspired by the name of the Gods of the Shinto religion. According to the legend, a Goddess bestowed paper to human beings as a good thing to be created from of plants, water, air, with their own hands.

The “Gods” of other religions had a different opinion and in Europe, for example, paper diffusion encountered many obstacles.

First of all in Spain and Italy, where the Church considered paper the devil’s work, for its easy production within anyone’s reach and the possibility it offered to write and diffuse “dangerous” ideas.

A typical characteristics of paper has always been that of taking different shapes and meanings in the cultures and times in which it was diffused, sometimes adapting to pre-existing uses, sometimes rooting out old habits.

From its birth in 105 A.C., through its pilgrimage through Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean countries, it took paper many years to gain its own identity; for example, for many years it remained rolled up just like silk, papyrus and parchment before being used in sheets.

It was Japan that diffused folded paper, which took the name of “Origami”.

Differently from silk that cannot be folded, papyrus that is easily cracked, parchment that is too rigid, paper was optimal for being folded and moulded, transformed into shapes, objects, animals, etc.

In the first centuries following the year 1000, the Chinese used cut paper to accompany the deceased during their “journey” to the other world. In Japan, little ships were made with folded paper to “convey” the ancestors’ souls on the water and paper strips were used to delimit consecrated areas; other strips were hung on the temple tree so as to leave one’s destiny to it. Rice, salt, fruit and other humble products were offered to Kami (gods) wrapped in folded paper, kami. Thanks to this particular name, paper acquired a holy aspect and today wrapping a gift with paper still has the meaning of conferring it sanctity.

IN THE EAST, PAPER KITES WERE MADE AND THEY WERE CONSIDERED MEN’S MESSENGERS TOWARDS THE GODS. The first day of the new year, kites were flown from dawn to dusk and when the night fell, the threads would be cut and the kites left to fly so as to let them take away all the negative events of the previous months. Kites were used also to fight enemies, who thought that they were menacing spirits flying over their encampments.

During the Second World War, paper hot-air balloons were used by Japan against America as weapons, although the idea of unloading bombs from balloons was abandoned.

In the past, simple pieces of washi paper (a special, particularly strong, Japanese paper) were used to suffocate enemies in their sleep. The washi paper, which also means “peace paper”, owes its perfect composition to a rigid feudal rule: peasants who fabricated washi paper used it to pay taxes and, in case it was not defect-free washi, they were beheaded. Less tragic uses spread in China and Japan and paper became a daily item: from lacquered papier-mâché ornaments, to paper lamps, screens, sliding doors, umbrellas, fans, handkerchiefs, etc. Paper was also worn or used in the kitchen to prepare boiled, fried and grilled foods. Paper ashes were considered a good medicine for some diseases.

ALSO THE USE OF TOILET PAPER (NOT KNOWN IN EUROPE UNTIL SOME CENTURIES LATER), OF MONEY PAPER - THE SO-CALLED FLYING SILVER THAT FASCINATED MARCO POLO -, AND OF PLAYING CARDS - promoted by the Chinese Court as a means for intellectual exercise - were born in China. But the most important changes that paper brought about were in literary and cultural fields: paper allowed a rapid and wide diffusion of culture and ideas.

In Asia Minor, the technique of paper, when it reached Samarcanda in 751 A.C., stimulated commercial and cultural exchanges, substituting papyrus in a period in which Egypt did not export it any longer for fear that a library larger than that of Alexandria could be built.

The Arabs modified eastern recipes using locally available raw materials and producing extraordinarily strong paper; but they also created the world’s lightest paper for carrier pigeons who brought good and bad news to the four corners of the Empire.

In Muslim culture, the dimension of the paper sheet and the calligraphy was proportional to the importance of personal relationships: the resulting exaggerated cosumption of paper brought about a crisis and the need to reduce the use of it.

The famous little books written in the small Persian letters were thus born.

ARABS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO RECYCLE PAPER, TO AVOID THE RISK OF DESTROYING THE NAME OF GOD WITH IT. On the other hand, the Japanese used to recycle paper for the exact opposite reason: the name of God would live on in the new sheet through His Spirit. But differently from the severe Japanese laws, in Arab countries a paper sheet could also have stains and flaws, which were covered through marbling (ebru), later to become a veritable ornamental technique.

To make a virtue of necessity, in Baghdad the first attempts were made to rationalise sheet sizes using compatible formats with the aim of producing books without waste.

The West carried out the proper rationalisation of formats and grades in recent ages, and casually discovered the watermark from a thread that had accidentally fallen on a wet sheet.

When the paper technique arrived in Egypt and, later, in Italy, it was adapted to locally available materials: in this case linen, cotton as in other places it had been adapted to mulberry and other fibres.

As it often happens, abundance can turn into lack if an excessive use of the material is made. And this was the case of Egypt, where linen was stolen from mummies to supply paper mills until the use of linen in paper was forbidden.

In Italy, the fashion of cotton lingerie favoured the use of recycled textile fibres for the production of paper sheets. And again, as demand increased, rag vendors started to steal sheets from hospitals and shrouds from mortuaries: as a result, the use of shrouds was forbidden to prevent people from stealing them.

IN EUROPE, COTTON PAPER CHANGED PEOPLE’S WAY OF LIFE, in particular when it encountered the technique of printing: it favoured the transfer of culture from the hands of the Amanuensis monks to the common people. Few people could afford a precious parchment and almost nobody could read or write; but the introduction of paper, simpler and cheaper, and printing rapidly enabled the wide diffusion of culture.

The demand for increasingly large quantities of paper, for book publishing and other purposes, led to search for other fibres, as wood cellulose, and for technological innovations to make paper production a mechanical process. From that moment on, the history of hand-made paper goes hand-in-hand with industrial history. •

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