The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Papermaking, Part II: Papermaking from Plant Materials (Cattail Fibers) July 9, 2012

In my last post, I detailed the steps for making handmade paper from recycled materials.  In that post, I also detailed the basic steps of making paper, from blending to couching to pulling and pressing sheets.  Recycled fibers are a great way to start, but you may find yourself interested in papermaking techniques using nothing but what is available from the land around you.  Plant-based papermaking is an advanced papermaking technique, so I suggest you start with recycled papers, and once you are comfortable with that process, move onto this one.

I’m going to be using cattail fibers, specifically, those of the flower head/seeds/fluff as an example for this post.  You can use a lot of different fibers for the plant-based paper process, including reeds (with hard, woody bits removed, cattail leaves, burdock (the whole plant), various grasses, etc.). We also have a lot of invasive phragmites around here; I have found that their leaves (but not stems) make excellent paper too. Each potential papermaking plant requires a “getting to know you stage” for example, burdock stems make better paper than the leaves, unless you dry the whole thing first.  What you want in a plant is some strong fibers so that your paper has strength, but not so woody that stems, etc get into your paper–thick stems won’t cook down in the process I’m describing below.  So something like the leaves of reeds, or the leaves (but not stems) of corn work for this.   Creating pulp from locally-sourced plants is pretty much an experiential art form, so you really just need to pick the plants, boil them down, make some pulp, and see what happens! But the cattail fibers are a pretty safe bet for your first attempt, hence why they are used as my example here.

Finished piece of cattail fiber paper

Finished piece of cattail fiber paper


Ethical Foraging and Gathering
Make sure when you are gathering wild materials that you are doing so in an ethical manner. This includes:

  • Do not over-harvest: pick only in areas that have a healthy amount of the plant growing, and leave plenty behind.  Don’t ever harvest endangered plants.
  • Make sure you have permission: public lands and state parks are often off limits; gain permission from private landowners before harvesting–chances are, if you share with them what you are doing (or a bit of your end product), they won’t care.  You should also ask permission from the spirits of the land.
  • Consider your timing: part of why I harvest the cattail heads in the spring is because the plant is dead; I am just harvesting the seed pods.
  • Be thankful: remember to be thankful for all that you take from the land.  In some pagan traditions, people leave a little offering like a silver coin, etc, near the plant.  Honestly, I kinda think this is pretty silly.  If I’m going to leave an offering in thanks, I do one of two things: leave something that would be edible to wildlife (e.g. some wheat berries or sunflower seeds or apples) or else do something that helps the land (like participating in a river clean-up).  Make whatever you are doing in thanks ‘count’ and have an actual, lasting impact.


Gathering Cattail Heads

I happen to live in an area with a ton of wetlands, so cattails make a perfect locally-sourced paper pulp.  I go out in the spring–early spring is fine–and gather the dried heads from the previous season.  You can find them in great numbers along roadsides or near ponds.  On a warm spring day, I went out and gathered a  large box full of the heads–probably about 40-50 or so of them.  Unlike most foraging, where you have to be concerned about gathering from near roadsides, with papermaking materials you don’t, since you won’t be ingesting any of the materials.  I should add that if you are gathering anything in a marshy area, having a good pair of rubber boots is a wise idea.

Box of cattail heads, collected in spring along the roadside!

Box of cattail heads, collected in spring along the roadside!


Preparing Fibers

Preparing plant-based fibers for papermaking requires some additional steps from the recycled paper instructions I posed last time.  First, you obviously need to get the fibers  in a pulp-like state.  For cattail fibers, this includes pulling them off their stems  and soaking them in a vat of water. (I used the stems to help start a fire, so they are not wasted; you can also compost the stems.)

Pulling fibers off of stems and placing in pot of water

Pulling fibers off of stems and placing in pot of water

Since you’ll be using something caustic to break down the fibers, its really important that you use a pot that won’t react to strong alkalai.  An enamel pot is a good choice for this; I also understand that stainless steel works, but I only have used an enamel pot.

Fiber is ready for cooking!

Fiber is ready for cooking!

Once your cattail fibers are in the pot, you want to add some Soda Ash (usually found in the form of Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda).  Super Washing Soda can be a bit tricky to find; look for it in your grocery store in the cleaning supplies near the laundry detergents.  I used to not be able to find it at all in Indiana, so I ordered it online in bulk (bulk because I also use it for laundry detergent and some other purposes). But in Michigan, our local Kroger store carries it.  I usually add about ½ – 3/4 a cup to a pot the size of this one; the ratios don’t have to be exact.

Mix in your soda ash and bring your concoction to a boil (but not a rapid one, a simmer is fine). Cook your pulp and soda ash mixture for about 3-4 hours; make sure you have good ventilation while cooking (use the stove fan, open window, etc.).  Stir it every 30 min or so, making sure it doesn’t burn.   I use a wooden spoon for this purpose, as I know it won’t react with the soda ash (but I don’t use that spoon for cooking).

As it cooks, you’ll notice that the fibers start to darken. This is because the soda ash is going to break down the non-cellulose content in the fiber—and we want the cellulose, but not the other stuff, for paper.

After 3-4 hours turn off the heat and let your pot cool down for a while.  Once your pulp can be handled, drain your pot.  Put on some rubber gloves and rinse out your fibers so that you get all of the Soda Ash out of there.  You’ll need to touch your pulp in later stages, so you don’t want it to be caustic.  For this purpose, I usually use a colander or else some cheesecloth—anything that you can rinse and strain the fibers is fine.

Pulp cooks for several hours

Pulp cooks for several hours

You can put your fibers back in the pot, adding additional water.  They are now ready to make into paper!

Blending and Pulling Sheets

Now that you have your pulp prepared, you can go ahead and treat it like any recycled pulp (which some additional considerations in the couching step).  I have more detailed instructions in my previous post, but the basic steps are:

1)     Blend your fibers: this is especially important with plant-based fibers, even short ones like the cattail fiber.  This will give you a more uniform pulp and better results.  Don’t put too much pulp in the blender at once—its really thick stuff.  For some pulps, like reed, you’ll really need to blend for a while.  The cattail blends quickly and easily.  Some others, not so much.  Really serious papermakers doing plant fiber paper actually buy professional blenders that help break down the pulp.  But if you are reading this post, my guess is that you aren’t that serious yet :).

Blender full of pulp

Blender full of pulp

2)     Add your fibers to a vat of water (we are using the pull method for this, as detailed in my last post).

Pouring pulp into vat

Pouring pulp into vat

3)     Pull your sheets of paper out of the vat using a mould and deckle.

Pulling sheet of paper from Vat

Pulling sheet of paper from vat

Freshly pulled sheet of paper

Freshly pulled sheet of paper

4)     Couch your sheets of paper.  Please note that some plant fibers are really hard to couch effectively—and even harder to peel from a sheet of newly pressed paper sheets (this is when you stack the couched sheets on top of one another).  Because of this, I suggest that you stack and press no more than three of them.  If you have trouble pulling the pressed sheets apart, simply don’t press them at this stage.  Just take a sponge and soak out as much of the water as you can.  Not pressing them to remove excess water means that they will take a lot longer to dry, but you’ll end up with nice sheets.  I had this problem less with cattail than I did with burdock and phragmite.  I found that if I pressed only a few sheets of paper, and didn’t press too much water out of them, they didn’t stick too badly.

Couching Sheets of Paper

Couching Sheets of Paper

5)     Let your paper dry, then enjoy!  You can iron your paper or press it overnight to get it to flatten out.

Sheets of paper drying (mostly cattail, but also some recycled and 1-2 burdock sheets)

Sheets of paper drying (mostly cattail, but also some recycled and 1-2 burdock sheets); cattail is in various satges of drying, which is why its shaded differently

Stack of cattail paper!  So pretty!

Stack of cattail paper! So awesome!


20 Responses to “Papermaking, Part II: Papermaking from Plant Materials (Cattail Fibers)”

  1. theredlass Says:

    This is the most awesome thing I have ever seen. Is there any way to lighten the paper at all? It looks a little dark.

    Also looks like a gigantic pain in the ass.

  2. Willowcrow Says:

    I suppose you could try to bleach the fibers, although it wouldn’t be particularly environmentally friendly. I really like the dark look to the paper. You can use it as decorative elements, like for cards, etc. Its actually a little lighter than the photos suggest from the pictures–its dark when its wet, but as it dries, it gets lighter.

    Its not a PITA if you are doing other papermaking and are already setup for it. And really, its something you can’t buy anywhere.

  3. Hi,I tried to dye the cattails fluff today using procion black fiber dye. It made the fiber darker but not black. I’m wondering about how to get a darker color or maike it red, organge etc. I’m not making paper but I’m using it for sculptural forms with hairnets. Maybe bleaching it first, then dyeing it. Any suggestions?

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Did you break them down with the Super washing soda? That might get them ready to dye. Typically, dying natural materials requires something called a mordant, which is just a fancy term for a chemical that prepares material to dye. Alum, salt, iron, and chrome (toxic) are all common mordants. So if you use one of these, it might help set the fibers. And yes, bleach would help!

  4. awesome post – very inspiring !! As for the archival matters, would cattail paper eventually release self destructing acid, as does wood pulp papers ?? Other then cotton, what plants would produce an acid free quality ?? Any quick tips as to how one could determine if a plant would produce an acid free paper just by looking at it ….or would this just have to be memorized …. I have questions 🙂 many many questions 🙂
    thnx!! – @Rickbischoff

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Rickbischoff, I haven’t tested the acidity of cattail fiber paper (but a test would be simple, so I will endeavor to do so and post some results in a future blog post). There are additives you can use to offset a highly acidic paper; these are usually chemical and not so healthy or good for the planet.

      In terms of acid free papers, I don’t think there is any way to eyeball the acidity of a plant; you’d have to do a test of its pulp. The pulp-making process does change the composition somewhat (as you are cooking it down in Lye or Soda Ash) and so you’d have to test it later at that point. I hope this response helps! 🙂

  5. Robin Ropthfuss Says:

    Thank you so much for the wonderful information. I am considering doing this with a 6th grade class (a hands on demo related to the invention/advent of paper). I will test of course, but do you have any specific suggestions about amounts? For example, how many cattails do you need to make one sheet of paper. What should your water to pulp ratio be? I would like the kids to pound by hand rather than use a blender – do you think this would work with this fiber? Approximately how long would that take if I gave 3 or 4 kids a plastic bucket, a couple of cups of cooked/rinsed cattail and a baseball bat? I obviously need to do some serious testing, but would appreciate any information you could give me. This unit currently makes paper from paper (using a blender) and I would like for them to understand just how valuable and rare paper was “back in the day” by making them work for it! Thanks!

    • Willowcrow Says:

      The papermaking process will be great for kids, and its a very forgiving process. Did you see my other posts on recycled papermaking as well?

      Now about your questions: Generally, about 1/2 – 2/3 cup pulp will produce one 8.5×11″ sheet of paper, depending on how thick you are pulling it. You’ll need extra to swirl in the vat, though, so each kid should be alloted several cups minimum so that they can pull a few sheets each.

      Paper to pulp ratio–I’ve always just done it by feel, so I don’t know if I can give you a specific ratio. But its easy enough to tell once you have the pulp in the water vat–if the sheets are really thick when you pull them, you probably need to add more water. if they are too thin and tear too easly (even when wet, like when you try to couch them) then you need to add some. You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly!

      If kids wanted to pound by hand with a bucket, that would be great. Truthfully, the cattail pulp doesn’t take much processing at all, so whatever they did would be fine.

      Papermaking is very forgiving and easy–you’ll get the hang of it easily enough! If you want to give them more of a challenge, you might try the cattail leaf–now there’s a challenging paper (requires several hours of beating, lol).

  6. Cat Says:

    Do I have to use the Soda Ash? or can I just boiled long enough for the cellulose so sepperate out?

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Cat, I haven’t tried it without soda ask. I would guess that if you boiled it long enough (at least double the time) you should be able to separate it out. The soda ash makes it go much faster. And soda ash/washing soda is a naturally occurring ingredient; its not one of those weird chemicals polluting the planet, if that makes you feel any better! (I also use this for my homemade laundry detergent).

  7. Jaya Balan Ambross Says:

    I am thinking to do paper cup, plate and bags with available natural resources in Malaysia. Need some advice from your side

    • Willowcrow Says:

      The biggest issue with the natural papers is that they are rather absorbent. You will need to think about either using fibers that repel water or using some kind of “sizing” (sprayed on or painted on) to deal with the absorbency issue with the plates and cups. A thin layer of beeswax, for example. Can you tell me more about your plans?

  8. Cindy Langewisch Says:

    I have finished shelling my dry beans and have 2 bags of very dry bean poad and I love the coloring. Have you ever used such fibers? Wha

  9. murnong Says:

    why cant you use corn stalks? Ive harvested mine and have put them through a mulcher and hope to make a lovely golden coloured paper. The stalks got mulched with all the leaves and some cobs so hope this wont mean failure from the get go.

    • Dana Says:

      Any really hard plant matter needs to be good and broken down. I would try corn leaves and husks, but not the stalks–but I process my plant matter without heavy equipment. If you put them through the mulcher, a few times, and then used soda ash and cooked them down with that, you might get something usable 🙂 Try it and let me know! I don’t have a mulcher, so I could never get them into a pulp!

  10. Thank you for these tuorials. I am going to try it! xo

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