4: Materials and Process Paper

History of paper

Source: edited and expanded from Wikipedia

The word “paper” is etymologically derived from papyros, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus plant. Papyrus is a thick, paper-like material produced from the pith of the Cyperus papyrus plant which was used in ancient Egypt and other Mediterranean cultures for writing long before the making of paper in China. Papyrus however are plants dried and woven, while paper is manufactured from fibers whose properties have been changed by maceration or disintegration.

Paper, being made from wood or rags, could be produced anywhere, and once large scale production techniques had been developed it could be manufactured in almost any quantity at moderate cost. Other paper-like materials in use, including parchment, palm leaves, and vellum, were derived from materials which were expensive or in limited supply, or required extensive hand-processing to produce a satisfactory finish.

China and Japan

During the Shang (1600–1050 BC) and Zhou (1050-256 BC) dynasties of ancient China, documents were ordinarily written on bone or bamboo (on tablets or on bamboo strips sewn and rolled together into scrolls), making them very heavy, awkward, and hard to transport. The light material of silk was sometimes used as a recording medium, but was normally too expensive to consider.

Paper was invented in central China during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The Han dynasty Chinese court official Cai Lun (ca. 50–121) is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern method of papermaking from rags and other plant fibers. Inspired by wasps and bees he is said to have created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan-Hsing (105 AD) and received praise for his ability. However, the earliest piece of paper found, at Fangmatan tomb site in Gansu province in 2006 inscribed with a map, dates from 179-41 BC, indicating that paper was in use by the military earlier than this. It is likely therefore that Cai Lun’s contribution was to improve this skill systematically and scientifically, fix a recipe for papermaking. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called the paper of Marquis Tshai.

In ancient China, the mortar and pestle method was primarily used for papermaking. The manufacture may have originated from the practice of pounding and stirring rags in water, after which the matted fibres were collected on a mat. The bark of Paper Mulberry was particularly valued and high quality paper was developed in the late Han period, which used the bark of tan (檀; sandalwood). In the Eastern Jin period paper began to be made on a fine bamboo screen-mould, treated with insecticidal dye for permanence. After printing became popular in the Song dynasty the demand grew more. Paper was often used as a levy, with one prefecture sending some 1.5 million sheets of paper to the capital as tribute up to the year 1101.

Paper had a wide range of uses:

  • wrapping or padding protection : from the 2nd century BC it was used for padding for delicate bronze mirrors,  padding of poisonous ‘medicine’.
  • toilet paper was used in China from around 875 C.E.
  • During the Tang dynasty (618–907) paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the flavor of tea. During the same period, it was written that tea was served from baskets with multi-colored paper cups and paper napkins of different size and shape.
  • paper-printed money: the world’s first known paper-printed money, or banknote was produced by the government during the Song dynasty (960–1279).
  • paper envelopes:  paper money bestowed as gifts to deserving government officials were wrapped in special paper envelopes as early as the Song dynasty (960–1279).
  • books: the world’s earliest known printed book (using woodblock printing), the Diamond Sutra of 868, shows the widespread availability and practicality of paper in China.

After its origin in central China, the production and use of paper spread steadily. It is clear that paper was used at Dunhuang by AD 150, in Loulan in the modern-day province of Xinjiang by 200, and in Turpan by 399.

Paper was concurrently introduced in Japan sometime between the years 280 and 610.

Islamic world and South Asia

Paper spread slowly to the Muslim world to the west via the Silk Road. The legend goes, the secret of papermaking was obtained from two Chinese prisoners from the Battle of Talas as a result of the tradition that Muslims would release their prisoners if they could teach ten Muslims any valuable knowledge. There are records of paper being made at Gilgit in Pakistan by the sixth century, in Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan by 751, in Baghdad by 793, in Egypt by 900, and in Fes, Morocco around 1100. Paper manufacture was introduced to India in the 13th century by Muslim merchants, where it almost wholly replaced traditional writing materials.

The Muslim world improved upon papermaking with the use of human/animal-powered papermills and trip hammers. The laborious process of paper making was refined and machinery was designed for bulk manufacturing of paper. Production began in Baghdad, where a method was invented to make a thicker sheet of paper, which helped transform papermaking from an art into a major industry. The use of water-powered pulp mills for preparing the pulp material used in papermaking, dates back to Samarkand in the 8th century, though this should not be confused with paper mills (see Paper mills section below). Trip hammers (human- or animal-powered) replaced the traditional Chinese mortar and pestle method and was then later employed by the Chinese. Following the First Crusade in 1096, paper manufacturing in Damascus was interrupted by wars, but Egypt continued to produce thicker paper, while Iran became the center of the thinner papers.

Books: By the 9th century, Muslims were using paper regularly, although for important works like copies of the revered Qur’an, vellum was still preferred. Advances in book production and bookbinding were introduced. As paper was less reactive to humidity, the heavy boards were not needed making books lighter—sewn with silk and bound with leather-covered paste boards; they had a flap that wrapped the book up when not in use.  By the 12th century in Marrakech in Morocco a street was named “Kutubiyyin” or book sellers which contained more than 100 bookshops.

The earliest recorded use of paper for packaging dates back to 1035, when a Persian traveller visiting markets in Cairo noted that vegetables, spices and hardware were wrapped in paper for the customers after they were sold.


Papermaking and manufacturing in Europe was started by Muslims living on the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Portugal and Spain) and Sicily in the 10th century, and slowly spread to Italy and Southern France, reaching Germany by 1400 and Scandinavia by 1596. The rapid expansion of European paper production was promoted by the invention of the printing press as part of the beginning of the Printing Revolution in the 15th century.

  • Spain: Papermaking reached Europe as early as 1085 in Toledo. The oldest known paper document in the West is the Mozarab Missal of Silos from the 11th century, probably using paper made in the Islamic part of the Iberian Peninsula. They used hemp and linen rags as a source of fiber. The first recorded paper mill in the Iberian Peninsula was in Xàtiva in 1151.
  • France: had a paper mill by 1190
  • Italy:  1276 mills were established in Fabriano, Italy and in Treviso and other northern Italian towns by 1340. Papermaking then spread further northwards, with evidence of paper being made in Troyes, France by 1348
  • Holland: sometime around 1340–1350 spreading to Netherlands by 1586.
  • Germany: Mainz, in 1320, and in Nuremberg by 1390 in a mill set up by Ulman Stromer. This was just about the time when the woodcut printmaking technique was transferred from fabric to paper in the old master print and popular prints.
  • Switzerland by 1432
  • England  the first mill was set up by John Tate in 1490 near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, but the first commercially successful paper mill in Britain did not occur before 1588 when John Spilman set up a mill near Dartford in Kent.
  • Poland by 1491
  • Austria by 1498
  • Russia by 1576
  • Scandinavia: Denmark by 1596, and to Sweden by 1612.

Papermaking was mechanized by the use of waterpower. A paper mill is a water-powered mill that pounds the pulp by the use of trip-hammers. The mechanization of the pounding process was an important improvement in paper manufacture over the manual pounding with hand pestles. The first water papermills were built in the Iberian Peninsula:  1282 in the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon and 1411 in the Portuguese city of Leiria. Due to their noise and smell, paper mills were required by medieval law to be erected outside of the city perimeter.

Paper making centers began to multiply in the late 13th century in Italy, reducing the price of paper to one sixth of parchment and then falling further; paper making centers reached Germany a century later. From the mid-14th century onwards, European paper milling underwent a rapid improvement of many other work processes.

Fabriano papermakers: Fabriano artisans were introduced to the technique of making paper by Arab prisoners who settled in a town called Borgo_Saraceno. At the time they were renowned for their wool-weaving and manufacture of cloth. Fabriano papermakers considered the process of making paper by hand an art form and were able to refine the process to successfully compete with parchment which was the primary medium for writing at the time. They developed the application of stamping hammers to reduce rags to pulp through adapting the water wheels from the fuller’s mills, raising the hammers through fixing cams to an axle made from a large tree trunk to drive a series of 3 wooden hammers per trough. They developed sizing by means of animal glue, obtained by boiling scrolls or scraps of animal skin to size the paper; it is suggested that this technique was recommended by the local tanneries. They introduced the first European watermarks by applying metal wires on a cover laid against the mould which was used for forming the paper.

Before the industrialisation of the paper production the most common fibre source was recycled fibres from used textiles, called rags. The rags were from hemp, linen and cotton. A process for removing printing inks from recycled paper was invented by German jurist Justus Claproth in 1774. Today this method is called deinking.


In America, archaeological evidence indicates that a  bark-paper writing material called amatl was used by the Mayans by the 5th century AD and in widespread use among Mesoamerican cultures until the Spanish conquest. The paper is created by boiling and pounding the inner bark of trees, until the material becomes suitable for art and writing. European paper making methods spread to the American continent first in Mexico by 1575 and then in Philadelphia by 1690.

19th century advances in papermaking

Although cheaper than vellum, paper remained expensive, at least in book-sized quantities. A number of advances in 19th Century significantly reduced cost:

steam-driven paper making machines which could make paper with fibres from wood pulp. Although older machines predated it, the Fourdrinier papermaking machine became the basis for most modern papermaking. Nicholas Louis Robert of Essonnes, France, was granted a patent for a continuous paper making machine in 1799. Gamble was granted British patent 2487 on 20 October 1801. An improved version of the Robert original was installed at Frogmore, Hertfordshire, in 1803, followed by another in 1804. A third machine was installed at the Fourdriniers’ own mill at Two Waters. The Fourdriniers also bought a mill at St Neots intending to install two machines there and the process and machines continued to develop.

 introduction of wood pulp 1843 as alternative to rags from ragpickers. By 1800, Matthias Koops (in London, England) further investigated the idea of using wood to make paper, and in 1801 he wrote and published a book printed on paper made from wood shavings (and adhered together). Then in the 1830s and 1840s, Friedrich Gottlob Keller and Charles Fenerty independently from each other began experiments with wood but using the same technique used in paper making; instead of pulping rags, they thought about pulping wood. They invented a machine which extracted the fibres from wood (exactly as with rags) and made paper from it. Charles Fenerty also bleached the pulp so that the paper was white.

This started a new era for paper making. By the end of the 19th-century almost all printers in the western world were using wood in lieu of rags to make paper. Together with the invention of the practical fountain pen, the mass-produced pencil and the advent of the steam driven rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th century economy and society in industrialized countries. With the introduction of cheaper paper, schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers became gradually available by 1900. Cheap wood based paper also meant that keeping personal diaries or writing letters became possible and so, by 1850, the clerk, or writer, ceased to be a high-status job.

Acid-free paper: However the original wood-based paper was acidic due to the use of alum and more prone to disintegrate over time, through processes known as slow fires. Documents written on more expensive rag paper were more stable. Book publishers use acid-free rag paper for hardback and trade paperback books.