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Papermaking III: Cattail Leaf Paper (A Learning Experience)

In my quest for sustainable art supplies and things for daily living, I’m always experimenting with ways of replacing commercially produced materials with homemade ones.  And so, my papermaking quest continues. For earlier posts on papermaking, you can read about the basic process for recycled paper here and making cattail head paper here.

I had a friend recently ask me about making handmade paper from the cattail leaves in winter.  I was skeptical because of their toughness (and my lack of a Hollander blender, which is a industrial-strength blender that is a papermaker’s dream for preparing tough fibers) but I thought I’d give it a go and post the results here.  I’m going to walk you through my process and talk about what worked and the things I would change.  I will start by saying that making paper from any kind of natural material is a lengthy process, and the tougher the fibers, the more difficult the process.  This is why I posted about cattail seed/head fibers first–they are really simple compared to leaf fibers :).

The overall process of turning tough fibers into paper: For most plant materials, to create pulp, you have to break down the non-cellulose materials in the plant (usually through boiling in soda ash or lye).  This is usually a lengthy process. If you are cooking fibers, you want an enamel or stainless steel pot–an aluminum pot will react with the Soda Ash or lye that you need to use to break down fibers. A typical cooking takes about 4 hours.  Soda ash (Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda) can be used in your home.  It kind of stinks, but its not toxic.  If you are breaking fibers down with lye (which is needed for some really tough fibers) then you will need to boil your pulp outside because lye is toxic and releases some toxic fumes.  This is where having an outdoor rocket stove can be so useful!  After you boil the fibers down, you will rinse them, beat them, and then rinse them again.  At this stage, hopefully, you will have something resembling pulp!  So this is the basic process that I used for the cattail leaf fibers, although, as I describe, each time you work with a new material it is a learning experience.

Harvesting Leaves:  If you are a home papermaker and lack any equipment heavier than a typical home blender, you absolutely do not want to attempt anything with with tough stalk material (like stalk of phragmites or the stalk of the cattail).  They are too tough and difficult for you to use.    So I decided just to harvest the cattail leaves (many of which are brown and dead by my pond).  I harvested enough for a test batch (and in this first photo, you’ll see that I also harvested some other reed things I don’t know the name of but I plan on trying to make paper from at a later point.)  I will also say that if you are serious about making this paper, harvesting is the easiest part.

Harvested Fibers

Harvested Fibers

Soaking and Preparing Leaves for Cooking.  I brought the leaves back inside, I pulled out any that were rotten or otherwise looked dark or partially broken down  That left me with a bunch of leaves that I tore up and added to a pot of water to soak overnight.   Here’s the first thing I would change–the fibers I ripped were WAY to long.  I left them about 5″ long, thinking that they would break down further with beating and cooking.  Uh, no, they don’t. So I would suggest taking scissors to them and chopping them up to 1″ and 1/2″ pieces. This will save you trouble later.

Fibers in pot before soaking

Fibers in pot before soaking

Cooking fibers. After a full 24 hour soak, I was ready to cook my fibers.  I cooked them on high for 4 hours with a half a cup of soda ash (Super Washing Soda).  It stunk up the house, but that’s how it goes when you are making paper :).  Here is a shot of the fibers as they are cooking. The fibers will get less hard, and more pliable.  They’ll also get a lot darker.  Once the fibers cool, dump the water and rinse the fibers a few more times.

Cooking fibers

Cooking fibers

Beating fibers. After your fibers are cool, you can go ahead and beat them a bit. Cattail leaves have some stuff inside of them that isn’t good for paper (it makes things kind of sticky) so its always necessary to beat them after cooking them.  I started with a little wooden mallet, but I quickly shifted to using my rubber boots and jumping on the whole stack because, hey, its cold outside in Michigan in December and that little mallet would have taken an hour.  They spurt water too, so stomping them is best.  This is really where you start to see the pump taking form.

Mashing Fibers with Mallet

Mashing Fibers with Mallet

Better mashing of fibers

Better mashing of fibers

Rinse fibers.  At this point, I took my fibers back into the kitchen and rinsed them.  I was done for the day, so I left them sit on the counter soaking in more water overnight.

Rinsing fibers

Rinsing fibers

Cutting fibers. Now, if I had a professional hollander blender, I could avoid the beating fibers and rinsing and cutting, and just stick the things in the hollander blender.  But I don’t have one, so fiber prep is a lot of work.  I found that my fibers were WAAAAYYY to long to make a good pulp, and there was no way a regular or immersion blender or household tabletop blender could handle them due to their length. This left one option: cutting them up.  If you took my advice and cut them up earlier on, it would be easier than doing this at this stage.  It might even be possible to blend them, which would be a really good thing.   But here I go, cutting up my fibers!

Cutting up fibers

Cutting up fibers

Making the paper. At this stage, after about 6 hours of gathering, processing, cooking, beating, I have some pulp.  Honestly, the pulp isn’t that great because its too fibrous and not too pulpy. I think if I had cooked it down in lye and cut it shorter, I would have had a better fiber.  The lye breaks it down more than the soda ash.  But I went with what I had. I pulled four sheets with just the cattail fiber (which didn’t couch well, but dried really interesting) using the methods I described in my earlier post.  The fully cattail fiber paper doesn’t hold together well either–but that really has to do with the size of the fibers and the fact that I couldn’t get them any smaller.  For half the batch, I decided to add some abaca fiber (commercially prepared) to make it more pulpy and that paper looks great.  Here are some final photos.

Solid cattail fiber paper

Solid cattail fiber paper

Solid cattail paper in the light

Solid cattail paper in the light – see how it has patches that are not fully covered?

Cattail paper with abaca fiber

Cattail paper with abaca fiber

Cattail papers with abaca fiber

Cattail papers with abaca fiber

Closing thoughts:  I think that cattail leaf fibers in the winter, when they are dry, represents a challenge for papermakers (especially if you aren’t going to blend the fibers with anything else).  I would instead go with the cattail heads, which are much more straightforward and which you can get throughout the fall, winter, and spring. At the same time though, all the work was worth it because the final paper with abaca pulp is nice.  The fully cattail leaf paper is a bit flimsy, but I can see using it in a mixed media project, but likely not on its own.  The stuff that has abaca fibers holding it together is really, really nice and I could use it for all sorts of things.

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!