The National Library’s Department of Conservation and Restoration is in charge of preserving and restoring rare items in the Library’s collections, as well as halting processes of deterioration and erosion, in order to conserve the items for future generations. This delicate work is an art form in itself, with techniques and knowledge that have evolved over centuries. Our Conservation and Restoration department, like many conservation departments around the world, uses Japanese washi paper to restore various items. Marcela Szekely, the department’s director, explains the many uses and advantages of washi paper: “Every item that arrives at the department is carefully examined and the Japanese paper used for repairs is strictly selected according to it thickness, coloring, and fiber length. Washi paper is very versatile and has many uses in restoration: patching together paper tears, filling in missing parts, and even restoring book covers. Other disciplines in the world of restoration have also discovered the wonders of Japanese washi paper and it is also used in the restoration of objects, ceramics, textiles, and more.”
Members of the National Library team recently met with Izhar Neumann from “Izhar Neumann Paper Making Studio,” at his workshop in the village of Yanuh-Jat in northern Israel. Izhar is an artist who specializes in creating washi paper. He lived in Japan for many years, where he worked with master paper-makers and learned traditional techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Izhar brought these methods to Israel, where he opened his workshop and planted paper mulberry trees – otherwise known as Japanese kozo (楮) plants – which are then made into flexible, strong paper with delicate, natural textures.
Japanese washi paper can only be made by using either kozo plants or close substitutes like the mitsumata shrub and the gampi tree. In any case, the first step towards creating your own washi paper begins with the planting of a tiny seed! – These perceptive words are my own; to the best of my knowledge, they were not uttered by a wise old Japanese man, but who knows? – So if you’ve read this far, you already understand that washi paper isn’t made of rice, as are other forms of Japanese paper used in art. It is extremely important to maintain a strict production process, especially if you want excellent results. If the process is completed correctly, it produces a very strong and flexible paper characterized by long fibers which can blend wonderfully with the original paper of the item being restored.
It is very difficult to make paper at home, and it’s important to remember that this is a process involving various substances. Therefore, if you don’t have the knowledge, we suggest you don’t try this at home. Nevertheless, just for the sake of accumulating new knowledge – here is how you prepare washi paper using the traditional method:
The first step, as alluded to earlier, is to grow the paper mulberry trees until they reach the right size. It is important that they reach a precise stage in their growth – on the one hand, not to over-grow them, while on the other hand, giving them enough time to reach the appropriate size.
After showering love and attention on the branches of the kozo tree, we prune the pinkish branches and cut them. This must also be done in a very precise and focused manner. Then, it’s time to start “cooking” the paper.
First, we handle the raw material. After collecting the kozo branches, they are soaked in water and treated with various substances.
The Japanese prepare the paper mainly during the winter, as the cold water helps soften the wood fibers during the production process. This is why the National Library team chose a wintry, overcast day to travel to Izhar’s workshop. Izhar recalled that when he studied the technique in Japan, the students would work in the workshops during the winter for hours in order to make use of the cold water. After that, they would plunge their hands into hot water, in a pot placed on the oven, in order to warm them quickly. The library staff members were seated around a low wooden table and Izhar began working with the group on the various stages of paper preparation. The method remains the same. The only difference is that a group of Israelis sat around the table, instead of a group of Japanese.
After soaking the branches, we separate the bark from the branch, and collect the fibers at its core. Although Izhar does this quickly and mechanically, we must keep in mind that he’s highly experienced and that he’s using a sharp, dangerous tool. So don’t try to peel the bark without going through proper training.
After collecting the core strips of the kozo branches, which look like long white hairs, soak them in water, stir occasionally, and then, take out a cluster of fibers and squash them together. After that, squeeze the mass with your hands to extract the water from it.
Now comes the fun part: pounding the pulp with a meat tenderizer or some other wooden hammer. Just take out all your frustration on that poor pulp, (“Take that! And that! That’ll teach you!”) before it is then placed in a big tub filled with water where it is boiled with the required substances – don’t forget to mix!
Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. At this point, grab a bamboo mat which has been attached to a wooden frame and start making paper! By using a distinctive movement that consists of pushing the frame into water, tilting it at a certain angle, pulling it out, and straining the water – the kozo wood fibers are extracted from the water, and in turn merge into a beautiful strip of paper. The person performing this action also controls the thickness of the final paper.
After achieving the desired thickness, take the frame out of the water, and by using skilled movements and a specific technique (which we thought bore a resemblance to working with a sushi mat), separate the bamboo mat from the frame and place it on the drying paper. After accumulating a pile, the papers are pressed in order to get rid of the excess water. Now all that’s left to do is place the damp paper onto upright wooden boards and wait for it to dry.
At the end of a long day at the workshop, the Conservation and Restoration team returned to the library with a cache of practical knowledge and with their own stock of washi paper, which they can use in their various assignments. This traditional technique of paper preparation is hundreds of years old, and to this day, many workshops like Izhar’s can be found in Japan. Experiencing how to make paper from scratch, and understanding the complicated process and the necessary amount of hours required, contributed greatly to the knowledge and experience of our Conservation and Restoration team, who now have a new-found appreciation for the material which they paste into various restored manuscripts and books. The ctrl+p keys on our keyboards will never again be taken for granted!
Video and photos: Haim Shushan, the Conservation and Restoration Department at the National Library of Israel
If you liked this article, try these: