Workshop: Making Washi

A page from the original article in Imprint (Summer 1996 Volume 31 Number 4).

‘Mitsumata is harvested every three years and, as with kozo, stalks are steamed to facilitate stripping the bark prior to processing. This fibre is included in the Japanese paper currency. The fine glossy surface, if pure mitsumata paper, is excellent for precise, detailed printing.’

Imprint Summer 1996 Volume 31 Number 4. Cover image: Patsy Payne, BRACCIO RELIQUARIO DI SAN ROSSORE, 1996, woodcut and linocut, 56 x 76 cm, edition of 10.

This article was written by Gladys Dove and published in the Summer 1996 issue of Imprint Volume 31 Number 4.

Today the term ‘washi’ implies, and is often used to refer to specifically handmade Japanese paper. However, washi is manufactured both by hand, in the traditional manner, and mechanically. The traditional washi method uses fibres processed from the internal bark of the kozo, gampi and mitsumata plants. Of these three, perhaps the most familiar is the more readily available (in Japan) fibre of the kozo plant, more commonly referred to as paper mulberry (from the Moaceae or Mulberry family). Kozo produces an extremely strong paper; it has been used in Japan since ancient times for the many different purposes we have come to acknowledge as traditionally Japanese – shoji screens and kites as well as spun fibre (tafu) and spun paper (shifu) used for mats, baskets and fabric respectively.

Gampi and mitsumata fibres are obtained from plants related to the Thymelaeceae or Daphne family. Gampi is not cultivated, the bark is gathered every three to five years. These fibres produce a lustrous and translucent paper. Mitsumata is harvested every three years and, as with kozo, stalks are steamed to facilitate stripping the bark prior to processing. This fibre is included in the Japanese paper currency. The fine glossy surface, if pure mitsumata paper, is excellent for precise, detailed printing.

From the historical perspective, pure fibre washi has proven archival qualities. When washi is produced in the traditional manner the fibre goes through the following process after harvest:

  1. Dried bark strips soaked overnight in mountain streams.
  2. Soaked bark rubbed between feet to remove dark outer scale and debris.
  3. Green layer carefully scraped away with a knife. This process determined the natural colour of the paper. Dark imperfections cut away and scrapings separately processed (chiri paper).
  4. Bark cooked in alkaline solution (wood ash, soda ash, caustic soda, sodium carbonate, etc.).
  5. Simmering – test selected thick piece of bark by gently pulling apart to show fine tracery of fibres.
  6. Cooled overnight, then rinsed thoroughly. For white paper, fibres can be bleached and rinsed again.
  7. Picking – blemishes in fibre removed.
  8. Beating – this process separates but still maintains the long bast fibres which produce fine strong sheets.
  9. The sheet-former then charges the vat with water, pulp and neri. Neri is a clear, thick, viscous formation-aid obtained from the tototo aoi and other plants like okra, or it can be synthetically derived. It is added to the vat to provide flexibility for sheet formers to manipulate the horizontal and vertical alignment of the fibres.
  10. A sheet is formed by multiple dipping of the suketa into the vat. This process allows individual variations in the sheet strength, thickness and texture.
  11. The su (flexible screen) is removed and a fibre layer (sheet) is couched directly onto the previous sheet on a post. NB using neri eliminates the necessity of using couching cloths for sheet separation.
  12. The post is lightly weighted overnight, then pressure gradually increased during the next day. This slower method of pressing gives stronger fibre bonding. Sheets are then separated from the post and brushed onto boards. When this method of restrained drying is used there is less shrinkage.

Although some Japanese papers remain unsized, dried sheets can be treated with size for printing or for Konnyaku – wet strength dyeing. Today, many of the manufactured papers include percentages of unspecified pulp as well as wood pulp, silk, rayon, recycled papers and vegetable materials such as turnip and onion. These commercial papers have been researched and tested for acceptable pH levels for artistic and archival use. By maintaining the strength and quality for which the traditional washi is renowned, and being competitively priced, Japanese papers are growing in popularity. Since the turn of the century, their qualities have been appreciated by western printmakers. Washi is ideal for relief printing and can also be applied to etching and lithography.

There have been several traditional workshops in washi-making held in Australia, the most recent was conducted in 1991* in Perth with Meiko Fujimori together with Toshio Onishi and Ann Nakamira. As a result of participating in this workshop, I was invited to participate in an international exhibition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of international workshops at the Awa Washi Hall – a museum of handmade paper in Japan. The invitation was extended to include masterclass workshops as a guest and visiting artist at the Museum and Fuji Paper Mill in Tokushima. This sojourn provided the opportunity to experiment with pulp and paper and to meet many other artists and paper experts.

The most comprehensive reference books on washi currently* available are:

Japanese Papermaking – Tradition, Tools and Techniques by Timothy Barrett, published by John Weatherhill, N.Y. and Tokyo.

Washi – The World of Japanese Paper by Sukey Hughes, published by Kodansha International, Tokyo.

Papermaking (magazine and newsletter) PO Box 77027, Washington DC 20013-7027, USA

* these references were current in 1996