Tag Archives: art

Visioning the Future through the Bardic Arts: Creating Vision, Creating Hope

Reishi mushroom from the Plant Spirit Oracle offers a vision of healing, growth, and regeneration

I used to be a big fan of reading dystopian fiction when I was younger. It seemed like a distant world, a reality far from our own. But perhaps now, those books resonate too close to reality. As someone who practices magic, I have to wonder, would the concepts present 1984 be as present if the book hadn’t been so well-read? Did George Orwell manifest these concepts as a magical act, or were these already present and he simply channeled what was already coming into focus? The same can be true of many such influential works: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Bladerunner, and more. We also have things like robots, invented by Issac Asimov as science fiction in the 1940s and 60 years or more later, became a reality.  One might argue that despite the fantastical nature of these works, works like these have had an influence on present human culture.  Perhaps, it is a sign of the times that most of what has been produced from a mass media standpoint in the 20th-21st century is rather dystopian and chilling, with some notable exceptions. As we have recently seen here in the US, words have power.  Words can shape reality and incite people to action. Is this the world we want to create?

As someone who practices magic, I certainly accept that our intentions and the directing of our will can help shape our realities. I also accept that for many things, we have to have a spark or vision before we can see it come to reality.  It is hard to bring something to life if we first can’t envision that it could exist. If we accept this to be true, then, in turn, we can consciously harness intentions and that bring visions to life that help create a better future. I think that one of the powerful things that art of all forms can do is help envision the future.


Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

At this point, we are facing both ecological disaster and many human challenges that grow more serious by the year as our society continues the “slow crash”.  This era of human civilization will decline and end–but the question is–what comes after?   How can we be good ancestors for the future?  Thus, I am always looking for ways to do more. I want to take responsibility for my own behaviors physically and metaphysically. Physically, this might include being careful with my purchases, working to heal and regenerate landscapes, and engaging in other kinds of sacred action. Metaphysically, it can be bringing forth visions of a better future–we can create the visions now so that they can enter circulation and become something that helps seed a brighter world.

I also share the rest of this post with a caveat. People create art for a lot of different reasons, both external and internal. You might consider visioning arts as one of many reasons to create, a bonus reason, a reason that offers your art additional purpose.  Not all art has to have this kind of vision either, but some art forms and works may be very well suited to it.

Creating a Sacred Vision

If you buy into this idea and you practice the bardic arts of any kind (poetry, music, dance, writing, visual art, fine crafts, etc) you might want to give this idea some thought.  What vision are you putting into the world? What is the world you want to create?  Towards that end, I have a few suggestions for helping you hone and refine some ideas.  The most important thing you can do is spend some time in meditation and reflection about what vision of the world, what ideas and concepts, you want to bring forth.   So here are a few things to consider:

  1. Start by thinking about the specific kind of art (bardic work) you produce and what kinds of messages you can share. Certain art forms are easier to convey messages than others.  When you convey messages in your work, can the work stand on its own, or, do you want to share some information about the work in addition to the work itself?
  2. Consider presenting general philosophy about your work.  Messaging can come in a lot of forms: these sometimes come in the form of “artist statements” that talks about what you do and why you do it.  This is especially helpful for work that can be interpreted in many ways, or whose interpretation is not immediately clear upon examination (e.g. woodcarving).  You can share these messages on social media, on your website, even with the physical art that someone receives.
  3. Consider your specific messages or themes you want to convey.   Perhaps you have a very specific message or a general one. Think about the thing you most would like to see in the world–write it down, and keep it in mind when you create.
  4. Consider the symbols you use. Symbols, whether they are intentional magical sigils or just broader symbols, also carry tremendous power. If you have specific symbols or symbolism you want to use in your work, this should also be considered!

Now, I’ll present three core visioning goals for my own work as an artist–I  am sharing them both to demonstrate an example of the kinds of visions you can create but also to spark your own creativity about how your bardic arts of all kinds (poetry, visual art, music, dance, fine crafts, writing) might support your own unique vision.

Messaging and Visioning: An Example

As a visual artist and a writer, I am always thinking about how I can bring this aspect of magical visioning into my work. It is one of the reasons I create, but certainly, not the only one! These are my three goals.

Presenting an alternative perspective and value of nature.

One of the first ways I see us using art, writing, poetry, music, and other bardic arts is to present alternatives or ways of reseeing our present reality.  We can show a different perspective on something, offer a new angle, or provide new insight through our work.  I think you can do this with anything, but as a druid who has her heart set on preserving the natural world, my focus s on nature and on providing alternative messaging and visions.

The art show!

I’ll give you a good example of this. As I’ve shared before on this blog, I live in a region of the USA that is an extraction zone: we have fracking wells, 1000’s of miles of streams full of acid and iron from mine runoff, mountaintop removal, boney dumps, logging, and coal-fired power plants–to name just a few.  Around here, most people view nature as something to extract; a resource to be profited from, and a way to keep jobs in the region. Hunting and fishing are also big around our rural area; while I’ve met some hunters who have reverence, unfortunately, many shoot animals, birds, and rodents for sport.  Thus, there is very little respect or love for nature and in my art, I work to offer a different message. 

A few years ago, I was invited to hang some work through our local art association at the regional hospital. It was a nice opportunity to have my work seen by a lot of people.  I thought really carefully about the content of my art and decided to work to present an alternative view of resource extraction.  I painted trees with hearts in the ground, I painted the telluric currents of earth energy flowing, I painted regenerated landscapes.  It’s hard to say how these pieces of art touched those who saw them, but I hope they did some good. The more these kinds of alternative messages and perspectives can get into circulation, the more “normalized” they become and the more power they hold.

Staghorn Sumac ornaments from reclaimed wood

Another way of thinking about this is in the tools and materials I use–there’s a message about valuing nature inherent in this work.  For example, my neighbor plowed over a beautiful stand of staghorn sumac last summer without even knowing what it was or how it could be used.  This beautiful stand was one I got to know well and I was really distraught at how it happened.  This really saddened me, but he did allow me to come in and harvest as much as I wanted of the wood and roots.  I did so, and at the holidays, I made him an ornament from the beautiful root wood and put a note on there that it was from the wood he let me harvest.  Perhaps this beautiful wood will have him think twice about cutting down the trees and seeing some inherent value in them.

Re-enchanting the world

After someone is willing to see nature, to value it more, to understand it in a new light, then I can shift to the more magical and potent part of the message–the message of the world being an enchanted place helping re-enchant humanity’s perspective of the living earth. If a new vision is step 1, then re-enchantment is step 2.  In other posts, I’ve written about what I see as the disenchantment of the world, the philosophical and literal stripping of all magic and wonder from the world, which I believe has paved the way for some of the more egregious abuses of nature in the 18th- 21st centuries. 

Ultimately, if we see nature as sacred, enchanted, and having a spirit of its own, it is much more likely that humans of all kinds will behave in ways of reverence and respect. I think a lot of authors and artists have done a great job in showing that the world has an enchanted side. 

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways

I think one of my own projects that most closely aligns with this goal is the Plant Spirit Oracle.  The goal of this deck was to take common medicinal plants and offer them in an enchanted and personified way.  I also paid special attention to plants that were maligned like Poison Ivy and Japanese Knotweed as part of this work. Thus, Japanese Knotweed, which is widely hated and maligned, is shown in an enchanted light as a guardian of the waterways; the catnip in your garden is shown to have spirit, poison ivy teaching awareness, and so on.  These plants have forms that can be viewed, interacted with, and offer guidance and wisdom. . 

Offering new visions of the future and personal empowerment

Wendell Berry’s Poem as a Woodburning–I made this at Samhain and in the spring, I will leave it as an offering in the forest, a reminder of the vision we can bring forth

A final aspect, and one that has a lot of potency for me right now, is thinking about how works of art of all kinds can shape the future. I’m sick of reading and thinking about things from a dystopian perspective and I’m sick of watching our world go further and further into those dystopian vision.  I’ve firmly committed to creating works of hope.  This was a clear vision for me for the Tarot of Trees– a response to deforestation. I wanted people who used the deck to value trees more, and I wanted a vision of a healed world to come forth. But there’s also a lot of future vision in these works: witch hazel, one of my favorite paintings in the PSO, is all about a pathway towards the future; about becoming a good ancestor. Comfey is about having the tools to bring positive change, while Rosemary reminds us of the powerful cycles and generations that we have to consider.  The messaging is there for those who look!

In another example, this one by one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, his poem, Work Song, Part II: A Vision is a prime example of a message that holds a vision of the future. When I first read this poem, I cried from the beauty of it, the vision Wendell Berry offered and thought about what we might need to get there.

Visioning a Brighter, Nature-centered Future

Providing alternative perspectives, enchantment, and visioning for the future is certainly a magical act and one that many people who practice the bardic arts might build into their work.  When you create something and put it out in the world, you have an opportunity to create so much more than just a piece of art–you have a chance to help build a vision of the world to come.  While simple visioning work is only part of the task before us, however, as Wendell Berry’s poem notes, it is an important part and something that each of us can do. 

Dear readers, I am very interested in hearing from you on this topic: Have you built visionary principles into your art? If so, please share.  If you haven’t yet but would like to, I’d love to hear from you as well!


An Ancestor Oracle Deck

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

Samhain is here, and with it comes a time of reflection, casting away, and working with our ancestors. In my post several weeks ago, I discussed in great depth the ways of working with various kinds of ancestors–in this post, we’ll explore a bardic art  project project that you can make to work with your ancestors: an Ancestor Oracle. This was an idea birthed by a friend of mine and I on the drive back from the OBOD East Coast Gathering this year.  We spent hours in the car talking through all kinds of things, and one of the things that came up was a conversation about working with the ancestors–by the end of the conversation, we had both decided to construct an Ancestor Oracle in time for Samhain this year.  I thought others might also like to construct one of their own, and so, this post will tell you what this is about and how you might create one.


The basic concept of the Ancestor Oracle is simple: you generate a list of your ancestors (however you conceive of them): ancestors of blood, land, and tradition, those others whom you have loved and lost, human or otherwise.  Then, you either create a deck of cards (which this post describes), get printable blank cards or purchase a blank deck of cards.  Each ancestor or group of ancestors that you want to represent is giving their own card.  Each person’s ancestor oracle would, of course, be unique to that person.  The Oracle itself can be used in a number of different ways including divination, honoring ancestors, celebrating Samhain, and grieving lost loved ones.


Selecting Ancestors

Before you construct your deck, you will want to spend some time making a list of the ancestors you want to acknowledge.  Samhain is a particularly good time for this kind of work. For me, I included ancestors of blood, tradition, and land all within my deck. Some of them ended up as a group, like “The Ancient Druids” (because I don’t know their names) while others (like Iolo Morganwg, Ross Nichols, and Juliet Ashley–three important figures in my own druid heritage) were named specifically. I also included, of course, a range of loved ones and family members who have passed on. I found that this work took time–I had to compile my list, come back to it over a period of days and spend some time meditating upon it.


Doing this in advance is important to know: do you have 100 different ancestors you want to represent or just 20?  That will help you get a sense of what kind of supplies you need and how many cards you want to create. The Ancestor Oracle is, by definition, an evolving project (as I’ll discuss in the next section), so you’ll want more cards than you need at present.


Using your Ancestor Oracle

Once you’ve made your Ancestor Oracle, you can use it in a variety of ways. For one, an oracle is like any other divination system: you can seek wisdom and guidance from it as you would with the Tarot, Geomancy, and so forth. You might ask a question and draw a card, connecting with that ancestor and the advice or wisdom that they/he/she shared. If facing a difficult situation, you could draw a card and think about the kind of wisdom that particular ancestor might embody.


You can also use it for longer-term ancestor work. What I have been doing since creating mine two months ago is drawing a card each week to place on my altar–this shows me which ancestors I can attend to this week and what wisdom they share.  Given that this is the period of time where ancestor work is done, I think I will make this a yearly part of my own celebrations of this time: for the months of August, September and October, I draw a weekly card and work with that ancestor, leaving the card on my altar for the week.


A third way you can use the Ancestor Oracle is for an ancestor alter.  Now that we are at Samhain, I have laid out all of my cards on my main altar to honor my ancestors.  I will probably leave them there till Alban Arthan (Yule).  This altar the place where I do my daily meditations, Sphere of Protection, prayers, etc, so they are there and present with me.  Seeing the cards there, each day, has been a very profound experience and has really helped me to better connect with my various ancestors.  Especially the ones of my tradition, whose words and work I embody as a druid each day.


Front and back of my ancestor oracle

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

A final way I plan to use the ancestor oracle is with grief and remembrance. When I constructed my deck, I made many more cards than I currently have ancestors. The truth is that I have been looking for some additional ritualized way of grieving a lost relative or friend, and the ancestor oracle offers me this way.  When someone I know and love crosses over the veil and joins my other ancestors, as I go through the grieving process and come to a place of acceptance, I will add them to the ancestor oracle and honor them in a ritual way.  I feel very good about this use of the deck, and know it will be a powerful healing tool. I suspect that there are a lot of other possibilities for using an Ancestor Oracle–if you have any, please share!

Some Options for Creating Your Oracle

Now that we have some sense of what an Ancestor Oracle is and how you might use it, let’s get down to how you can create it. I recognize, of course, that not everyone has cultivated visual art skills, and so, some of you might be looking for a route that you can manage.  That said, there are a few routes you could go to make this deck.  Here are four such options:


Option 1:   The route I took and will describe in this post, is to break out the art supplies and make some kind of artistic deck.  Since I am a visual artist, I made a watercolor deck.  I’m going to show you how to do this method (instructions in the 2nd half of this post), and even if you have very little practice or skill at present, you can still make a deck that speaks to you using basic watercolor wash techniques that anyone can do.


Option 2: My friend ordered a set of ready made blank tarot cards and wrote the names of each of her ancestors on them–this is a wonderful idea.  You can write in a normal script or try something fancy.  You could also paint them with acrylics.  Even a chisel point pen, like that used for calligraphy, would give a nice touch.


Option 3: Another way you could make this deck is by printing out pictures or using a photo editor to actually visually represent the different ancestors.  Taking it to a local print shop and having it printed and cut wouldn’t be too expensive (or you can order blank printable cards to do at home). I would talk to the print shop about what they are capable of before you went this route. Or you could get the photos themselves and even cut them to size and adhere them to a playing card deck. The possibilities for using photos to make your oracle deck are numerous.


Option 4: You don’t have to make an oracle with cards; you could make it with objects.  Find one small object that represents each ancestor, put them in a nice cloth bag, and your oracle is born!


Option 5: You also could make your oracle out of something  other than cards: you could woodburn wooden rounds, you could carve wooden rounds, you could paint on rocks, create polymer disks, and so forth.  The sky is the limit!

Instructions to Create a Watercolor-Based Oracle

Now that I’ve covered the ways you might use this deck and what its overall purpose is, I’m going to walk you through a simple way that you can make your own beautiful ancestor oracle deck using watercolors.  No painting skill is required to create this deck (I promise!), but you will need some supplies.


You should be able to get all of these supplies for under $30 or so of  at a local craft/art store or borrow from an artist friend:

  • 140 lb watercolor paper. The weight is important here–you want a weight to your finished cards.  Weight of less than 120 isn’t going to be thick enough.  Often, art supply stores sell single sheets of watercolor paper that are 22″ x 30″ in size for $3-$7–this is a great idea and is what I used for my deck. Otherwise, a watercolor pad will be fine.  Watercolor papers have different “tooth” or roughage; a more rough paper will give you more interesting textures than a smoother one.
  • Watercolors. Any watercolors, even a pan of children’s watercolors, will work for this. Having a variety of colors is helpful but even a few colors will work.  The colors will, of course, determine the final product.
  • Brushes. You will need a 1″ or larger brush as well as a smaller brush for lettering and splattering paint. Here’s a tip: professional artist paintbrushes can be kind of pricey–but if you go to where they sell house paint (like a home improvement store) they sell really nice brushes there for half the price.
  • Scissors, a box cutter, paper cutter, or X-acto blade to cut your cards out.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Paper towels or newspaper for your surface.  This is a messy project!
  • Jar of clean water for wetting your paints and cleaning your brush
  • Plate for mixing watercolor colors (optional but useful)
  • Chisel point/Calligrapher’s pen for writing names


Creating your Card Background

Now that you have your supplies, we are going to do this project in two steps. The first step is to create the background of the cards.  The background should be somewhat uniform.


First: Lay down some newspaper or paper towels on your surface.  For one, this is messy and for two, you don’t want too much paint getting on the other side of your paper.  I didn’t do this, but I was working on dedicated art studio space. Get your supplies ready to use.

Ready to paint

Ready to paint

Second: Now, you will need to decide a color combination for your deck.  I went with colors of the harvest–browns, oranges, yellows–the colors of fall leaves.  Because Samhain is a time of the ancestors, I wanted to embody the colors of this season here in my part of the world.


Third: Now, get your paints wet (assuming  you have dry pans of paint). If you are working with tubes, understand that wet watercolor in tubes is *super potent* and you will need only a little bit.


Fourth: Now, wet your full paper with water; getting it fairly saturated is a good idea.  Its OK if its a bit drippy.


Fifth: Layer a few colors onto the page, giving it a good amount of color (depending on how you want it to look).  The colors will likely run, and this is a good thing.  The paper may also bunch or curl a bit–this is ok (we didn’t stretch it).

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

Sixth: Now, here’s where time and chance come in.  Watercolors have a mind of their own, and they change and spread as they dry.  To make this background, you can take advantage of this. While the original base layer is still wet, get your smaller brush full of color, and hold it about 3-6″ over your paper.  Hit the brush to your other hand and the color will splatter nicely.  Splatter the second color all over.

Layers and splatters

Layers and splatters

Seventh: Repeat this with several other colors. Then, give it 5 min to dry, come back and do it again, and repeat that process. I layered about 8 or so slightly different color layers onto my page as the base layer slowly dried.

Ready for salt!

Ready for salt!

Eighth: You can also use plain table salt or sea salt to add a wonderful effect to your card back.  The salt should be the last thing you add to the page–it makes something that looks like snowflakes on your page by sending away the pigment from where the salt grain fell.  I really like the effect.  Before you add your salt.  check to see if there are any particularly large pools of water–you might want to sop them up with your brush (we are going for a consistent background look, and pools of water can make things less consistent).

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Just sprinkle a little bit, on the pages, like you are salting your meal.  Then, give it time to completely dry.

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

Beautiful salt effect once dry!


Finally: Let the sheets fully dry (you can use a hair dryer to speed things up if you really want) and proceed to the next step.

Creating the Card Fronts

For the card fronts, I am going to suggest that you do a simple watercolor wash (1-2 mixed colors, using steps 1-5 above).  You can choose to do the same color on the entire front for consistency of cards, or, if you’d like, you can cut them and then do a different color wash on each card. In other words, if you want them all to be uniform, you can do the watercolor wash, let it dry, and then cut it up.  If you want the cards to have different colors, cut them up first.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler - just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper.  Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler – just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper. Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

The easiest way to cut them up is to measure and draw lines in pencil to whatever size you want.  There are certainly common sizes for tarot cards (like 3.5″ x. 5.5″) but since this is your deck, you can make it whatever size you want–even round! The other option is to make one card as a template and then use it to trace out all of the other cards. If you want them round, just get a cup of the right size and trace the cup onto the sheet and cut them out. Or you can use a paper cutter, like I did.

Paper cutter

Paper cutter

Finished cut cards

Finished cut cards

Once you have your cards cut and have done a watercolor wash on the card fronts, you might want to snip the edges to keep the card nice (or if you are a scrapbooker, you might have one of those fancy card rounders!)

Snipping corners

Snipping corners

You can finish the cards by adding the names of your ancestors, one per card.  If you get a nice chisel point pen (like the kind calligraphers use) it will make your writing look really nice, which is an added touch.


If you’d like, a nice technique to finish the edges of the cards is to darken them.  To do this, take a black ink pad and a makeup sponge.  Dab the sponge onto the ink pad, and then rub it gently over the edge of the card on both sides (If you haven’t done this before, consider practicing it before you go ahead and do it!).  You’ll have a darker edge and a border, which gives the cards a nice complete look.

Edging cards

Edging cards


I also chose to paint a symbol for each of my ancestors like freshly baked bread, a rocking chair, etc.  That was my way of connecting to the ancestor not only verbally but also symbolically. If you are uncertain of your drawing ability, you can also print and cut out a picture or other graphic that can be glued to the card.  If you are going to glue anything, I strongly suggest using a bookbinder’s glue, like Yes! Paste or even one of those little kids paste pots or glue sticks.  A lot of glue (like Elmers) has too much water in it and will make a lot of wrinkles as it saturates the paper of whatever you are gluing.

Edged cards ready for names!

Edged cards (Front and Back) ready for names!


I hope you found these instructions helpful.  May the ancestors be with you this Samhain and blessings upon you during this sacred time.

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

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!

Hand Papermaking, Part 1: Recycled Papermaking

This is a post on papermaking using recycled fibers.  I also have two posts on natural papermaking with cattail heads (which works well) and cattail leaf (which needs some improvement).


The commercial process of producing paper is an incredibly environmentally destructive one, contributing to deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution.  The consumer demand for paper is so high that  35% of our trees are logged just for this purpose.  The process of making paper releases greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals into our air and water. As a druid seeking a deeper relationship with the land, I work hard to develop alternative means to avoid supporting harmful practices, like the purchase of new, non-recycled papers. We have massive deforestation in the world–so much of it driven by the demand for wood-based products.


Towards that end, I have developed ways of recycling paper and using local, abundant plant-based materials for papermaking.  This post will detail how to create paper from recycled materials, such as office paper waste, junk mail, paper scraps, paper bags, etc.  I will also soon post about plant-fiber papermaking.


If you find yourself in need of ritual papers or papers for special purposes, hand papermaking is a great skill to have.  The paper below, containing ashes from Yule and Beltane fires, was made by a friend of mine as a gift.  This sacred paper can be used for all sorts of things!

Papermaking - sheet of paper with beltane fire ash

Papermaking – sheet of paper with beltane fire ash


A Short History of Papermaking


Papermaking is an art that is over 5000 years old.  The first papers in recorded history papyrus (ancient Egypt) and Tapa (China).  Both were used in record keeping and both were made of plant fibers local to the area.   In AD 105 the Chinese created our first “modern” paper from waste rags from fabric.  Within five centuries, the Arabic world had developed fine papers and exported these all over the eastern hemisphere, including parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  Italian papermakers picked up on the Arabic techniques and improved them, creating the first paper mill.  In the early 14th century, paper was becoming more and more important to European societies—in both the public and intellectual spheres.  Because of this, paper mills spread throughout Europe during the renaissance and later to the Americas. Jumping toward the 21st century, concerns about whether the information era will cause an end to paper as we know it have surfaced and the art of handmade papermaking continues to be one practiced by a select few.


Papermaking Supplies

You can get started making handmade paper for a $30 or less investment–most of this should be available secondhand.  Here’s what you’ll need:


1)    A blender.  I have a blender just for papermaking, but its possible to use your regular blender if you clean it out sufficiently after use (and if you are not using any additives or chemicals, which I don’t recommend you using anyways). I recommend picking up a used blender at a yard sale or thrift store.


2)    A mould and deckle.  The mould and deckle is the part of the process that allows you to form sheets of paper from a vat of pulp.    The mould and deckle are two frames with an inside diameter of whatever size of paper you want.  I have moulds and deckles in 8.5×11” and 11×17”, but you can make them of any size.  Embroidery hoops and used picture frames can both work for this purpose.  One of them should have a screen (window screening is fine; choose fiberglass over aluminum if possible) stapled to them.  To do the pour method (see below) you need a special larger deckle that is 3” high.


3)    Couching sheets.  These are simply sheets that are slightly larger than the size of your frame (so about 10″ x 13″ would work for an 8.5 x 11″ frame).  For couching sheets, you can use any cotton-based or muslin material.  Old bedsheets work really well for this–I recycle my old ones this way, and ask family and friends to save them for me (or pick some up at yard sales). You can use any type of cotton fabric or unbleached muslin to hold your paper.  Cut your couching sheets larger than your mould or deckle.


4)    Sponges: Fairly self-explanatory; you can also omit these if you don’t have any around.


5)    Materials to create pulp: old office paper, envelopes, bills, dryer lint, old clothing, plant materials, etc!  Paper with text or writing is fine and will give you neat effects.  I do not recommend using newspaper because it has a high acid content and will deteriorate faster.  You can also purchase commercial cotton linters or abaca fibers—but I find these expensive and not necessary for successful papermaking.  These fibers strengthen your recycled pulp, giving you a stronger final recycled paper.


6)    Paper additives (optional) – paper additives come in two forms.  Those that you add to the paper for a functional reason (such as paper sizing) and those you add to the paper for effect (such as cold water fabric dyes sprinkled over the top, dried flowers, confetti, glitter, etc).


7)    A basin or sink in which to work.  I recommend using a sink if you have a garbage disposal—the excess pulp can then go through the disposal.  If you don’t’ have a garbage disposal in your sink, I would use a basin instead so that you don’t have to sieve the pulp out of the sink before releasing the water down the drain.


Additional things helpful to the papermaking process:


Easy Access to water and electricity. For modern papermaking, having your blender close by and a sink is very necessary.  Obviously, water and electricity don’t combine well, so take reasonable safety precautions when using this equipment.


A workspace that you don’t mind getting wet.  I’ve made paper in kitchens, garages, and outside in the sun.  All are good choices.  Papermaking is VERY messy, so choose your workspace carefully.


Old Towels: For cleaning up your mess.  Trust me, it will happen!


A sunny day with little wind:  Your paper dries quickly outside in the sun (2-4 hours).  In my part of the world, it takes 2-3 days to dry indoors due to our high humidity level.


What can go in handmade paper?

You can put all kinds of “inclusions” in handmade paper.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Dried flowers from the garden
  • Dried anything from the garden that is soft
  • Bits of fabric and yarn (cut up small)
  • Paper scraps and junk mail
  • Tea bags (used)
  • Dryer lint
  • Dried leaves and herbs
  • Cut grass
  • Coffee filters (used)
  • Paper towels used (with paint, not food!)
  • Bits of letters
  • Book pages (removed from books falling apart, etc)
  • Tissue paper (recycled from gifts)
  • Old clothing, torn up small

The sky is the limit.  For things that are thicker or harder, soak them at least 24 hours before you put them in your blender.  I advise against anything super-hard like pine cones or very hard seeds or nut pods—they simply won’t blend well and will cause you problems in your paper.


Stages of Papermaking


Prepare your of recycled materials and paper inclusions. 

Begin by tearing up the paper you want to recycle into 1.5” squares.  I stress that tearing is important because you want to retain as much of the paper fiber as possible (if you cut it, you’ll cut the fibers and end up with weaker paper).  Tear up a good bit, and then place them in a bucket or large bowl of water.  Allow the fibers to soak at least an hour (for standard office paper) or much longer (for heavier stuff such as cardstock).    I recommend soaking thicker papers like watercolor paper, abaca fibers, and so forth overnight.

If you are using flowers, tea, or plant matter with your paper and don’t want them bleeding into the paper (can look cool, but not always what you want) you’ll also need to boil those for 10 minutes or so.  This keeps the pigments in the flowers from spreading into your paper, creating small halos around the plant.  Personally, I like the effect but not everyone does.


Prepare your work area

Set your blender up as close to your sink/vat as possible.  Fill your vat/sink up with enough water to completely cover the mould and deckle when they are placed inside (about 1-2” over is a good amount).

Prepare a place to lay and press the paper after you create it—take an old towel or other absorbent surface and lay it near your work area.  This is where you will transfer your freshly couched sheets.

Your couching sheets should be damp before use, especially if you are using a thicker material like felt.  You can soak them and then let them sit out, or even hit them with a spray bottle before use.


Create your pulp

Once you have soaked your pulp, grab a decent handful of it and place it into the blender, filling the blender up about 1/3 of the way.  Fill up the blender to the top with water.   If you use too much pulp you’ll stress the blender, and if you use too little, you’ll be a bit inefficient in your pulp production.  Give the pulp a good blend – for a solid pulp, 30-40 seconds is sufficient.  As you are blending, watch to make sure all the fibers are spinning.  If they aren’t, then you have too much pulp in the blender—remove some and add more water.

Recycled paper and blender

Recycled paper and blender

Note: How much you blend the pulp can affect how your paper looks.  If you blend the pulp only partially, you’ll end up with a much different effect than if you blend it completely.  For a complete blend, you’ll want to start on low for about 15 seconds then move to the highest setting for another 15-20 seconds.

Blending time and speed will determine how quickly your papers turn to pulp.  When using recycled papers, you may consider blending them less to give you a neat effect.  Blending them for only a few seconds will leave portions of the text readable and give you very unique sheets of paper with flecks of text that can still be read!   You can combine different colors of paper for a confetti look too.  Here is an image of a piece of freshly pulled paper with text bits from a recycled book combined with some recycled purple tissue paper pulp:

Freshly Pulled Paper

Freshly Pulled Paper


Method 1: The Pull Method

The first method of papermaking (and the way its traditionally done) is to pour your pulp into a large vat of water and pull sheets from it.  The Pull Method allows you to create many sheets of paper similar in appearance.  The paper from the pull method is also thinner than that of the Pour Method (discussed below).  Both have their benefits.

To get the right consistency of pulp in the vat, you’ll probably need to add three or so blenderfulls of pulp to your vat.

Once you have added the pulp, swish it around with your hand to get any that may have settled, and then slip your mould and deckle into the pulp.  Hold the mould and deckle together, making sure that the mould (the part with the screen) has the screen facing up.  Pull the mould and deckle straight up (moving the mould and deckle together back and forth a bit to swishing around the pulp and water a bit to even it out as you pull).  Stop moving the mould and deckle once most of the water drains out.

Pull method for papermaking

Pull method for papermaking

Take one of your dampened couching sheets and place it over the freshly pulled piece of paper. You can use a sponge to get off a bit of excess water, then take the sheet to your absorbent cloth and flip the entire mould over.  The paper should come off the mould and stay on the couch sheet.  Sometimes it is a bit stubborn, and I find that if you pull on the edges of the couch sheet away from the mould, it helps get the paper unstuck.

Couching Papers

Couching Papers

You can continue to pull sheets of paper, couch them, and lay them on top of each other (creating a stack) until you have created all that you want to.  After you pull 5-8 sheets of paper, you’ll notice that your pulp will thin out considerably.  Continue to add new blenderfulls of pulp (and additional water) as necessary as you go along.  You can subtly change the color of the pulp as you add blenderfulls by changing the types of recycled papers you put into the pulp.


Method 2: The Pour Method

This is a method I developed to allow me to create marbleized paper techniques and also to create thicker papers.  It also allows you to experiment with different recipes for paper, one blenderfull at a time.  I highly recommend it for mail art, as you get thicker papers which are useful for sturdy bases and backgrounds.  For this technique you will need a larger deckle (3”) high.

Place your mould and deckle in the vat of water.  The top of the deckle should stick out of the water, preventing the water inside from flowing out.

Pour method

Pour method

Create your pulp as normal in your blender.  Instead of pouring the pulp directly into the vat, pour about ½ a blenderfull into the inside of the deckle.  Swish it around with your fingers till you see the pulp evenly spread within the deckle.  Grab the mould and deckle and pull the whole thing out of the water—and you have your sheet of paper!

You can experiment with all sorts of techniques with this method including combining two different types of pulp or making layers of color.


Give it a little color!

Some of the sheets in my examples have been treated with a powdered cold water fabric dye or natural dyes (walnut ink, berry dyes, etc.).   You can do one of two things:

1)    While the paper is still wet (just after pressing), you can take the package of dye and sprinkle some of it on each sheet (as shown in my pictures of my paper drying).  This gives you a speckled effect, and is really quite stunning.

2)    You can also add dye to your paper while you are making it.  Add a few tablespoons to your pulp in your vat—and use gloves to pull your paper!

3)    If you want color and don’t want to deal with the dye, you can also add colored sheets of recycled paper, brightly colored tissue papers, natural plant dyes (like chamomile or pokeberry) or even construction papers to your pulp and blend it well.  All of these options produce great paper with fantastic color!

Dyed papers

Dyed papers


Drying and pressing your paper

Once you have a decent sized stack of wet papers, take your stack outside.  I find the easiest thing to do is to press it by using a piece of board on the sidewalk or driveway.  I stand on it for about a minute, allowing much of the water to be removed.

Next, I remove each sheet (keeping them on their couching sheets still) and lay them in the sun to dry.

Drying Papers

Drying Papers

Often, I will mist them and iron them to get them completely flat once again.

Alternatives to pressing include using a larger commercial press overnight, or even using an vintage laundry press to press your sheets dry faster!


Handmade Paper Projects

There are just so many things you can do with handmade paper.  Here are a few recent things that I made with papers:

Handmade journals

Handmade journals

Pages for Book with Hand-carved stamp

Pages for Book with Hand-carved stamp

Recipie cards

Recipie cards