In late July, I had the pleasure of hosting Kazuko Hioki, a conservator at the University of Kentucky Libraries, for four days as we worked on a collaborative project to recreate Japanese block printed book cover papers from the Edo Period (1603-1868). These historic specimens have been the subject of Kazuko’s research for some time. Not a papermaker herself, she contacted Tim Barrett at the Center for the Book to ask if he could put her in touch with a papermaker who might be interested in recreating these historic specimens, and he in turn suggested she contact me.
We’ve been working together off and on for the past year or so to parse from the brief descriptions provided in the historic records how these cover papers were actually made. This lack of historic documentation is due, in part, to the classification of recycled papermaking as low or peasant class work. As such, the process to create recycled papers was never written down in any formal sense, but instead simply passed between papermakers over generations, and as a result, very little description of the process survives. This entry details our recent trial to recreate the process of recycled papermaking from actual historic specimens and what we learned along the way.
Characteristically soft and supple to the touch, these cover papers were likely made from layers of poor quality recycled papers that were then laminated to achieve a desired weight and thickness. The laminated sheets were covered with a higher quality, dyed, thin washi paper and then either burnished or embossed for decoration. Here are a couple of examples of historic specimens I recently observed in the Asian Art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The quality of the recycled paper used to form the covers historically varied depending on a number of factors including condition of the original source, cleanliness of the studio environment, fiber preparation, and water purity. In looking at the historic specimens it is easy to identify an entire spectrum of quality ranging from poorly formed, dirty and discolored sheets to well crafted, near white samples. Here are a couple of specimens that show just how radically varied the quality of such papers were found historically.
On her recent trip to Japan, Kazuko purchased a set of books from a used bookstore in Tokyo for use in our project. This style of binding was incredibly popular throughout the Edo period and continued well into the late-Meiji. It was used not only for literature and popular fiction, but also for government records and scientific publications. As a result, they proliferate the shelves of used bookstores and stacks of books can often be purchased for less than a few dollars today.
We began our trial by soaking the historic specimens in water overnight to loosen the fiber of dirt and debris. We then separated the fiber by weight according to three treatment methods: 1) fiber that would be soaked but not cooked, 2) fiber that would be soaked, then cooked in a historic wood ash alkali, and 3) fiber that would be soaked, then cooked in a contemporary soda ash alkali. Since method 1 required no cooking, it was set aside as we readied the other fibers. For both methods 2 and 3, we cooked the fibers for roughly two hours to soften and ready them for beating. In this case, the heat generated in cooking also worked to loosen the ink from the fiber so that it could then be rinsed away through repeated washing. We also cooked a second batch of fiber according to method 2 using the colored cover papers to see if their inclusion would affect the final results
After each batch of fiber has finished cooking, we let it cool and then gently rinsed it under water to remove the remaining alkali solution. We then beat each batch of fiber separately for roughly 15 minutes by hand using traditional Japanese mallets, and then rinsed the beaten fiber again under cool water, this time until the water ran clear. The action of beating was believed historically to further loosen the ink from the surface of the paper so that it could more readily be washed away. After the first round of beating and washing, we divided the fiber from each batch, saving half as this stage, and then further processed the remaining material through repeated beating and washing. We found that with each subsequent round of processing, the fiber continued to expel ink and became lighter in color.
Little is known of the process used for sheetforming recycled papers, whether papermakers used the traditional Nagashizuki multi-dip method, the simpler Tamezuki single-dip method (similar to Western papermaking), or a Han (half) method which utilized a combination of both processes. The range in quality of the historic samples was a direct result of the skill of the papermaker in combination with the state of their equipment and cleanliness of their surroundings. For these samples, we opted to use the Han method presuming that it served as a sort of middle ground between those who would have had little skill historically and those who would have been adept at producing high quality sheets.
Using a deckle box we simulated a single dip and then, with the help of a formation aid, moved the fibers gently front to back in a rocking motion until all water had drained from the mould. As in the preparation of the fibers for cooking, we divided the fibers into two sets using a synthetic formation aid and a historic, natural formation aid made from the roots of the Tororo Aoi plant. In both cases, the formation aid served as a viscous solution that allowed the fibers to drain slowly, providing more time for the fibers to disperse more evenly across the mould. We then couched (laid down) the sheets onto a board and stacked them directly on top of each other to form a post (stack) of sheets. We pressed the stack lightly under weight overnight and then brushed them onto boards to dry.
We found that repeated beating and washing significantly impacted the color and clarity of the finished sheet. This repeated process also served to wear down the fibers to form sheets that were lighter and fluffier in quality and more consistent with the historic samples. There are still some questions that need answered. How long were fibers cooked, and if papermakers did not have access or funds for costly material resources for cooking, how were the same fibers processed to ready them for sheetforming? Were they left to ferment for a period to soften, and if so, for how long? How many steps of repeated beating and washing would it take to completely remove the ink from the paper? And later, what strength and consistency of paste was applied to laminate the soft covers so that they would not become stiff like board? Were the laminated covers embossed when still wet with paste or were they allowed to dry before this final decorative step? These questions will hopefully be answered in the next phase of this project. For now, it seems, we may have filled in some of the unanswered gaps in the historical record and for that I am very pleased.
For more information on the production and dissemination of historic Edo Period books, please see Kazuko’s extensive published research found here:http://works.bepress.com/kazukohioki/doctype.html#article.