I'm always listing various vintage papers and telling you "wow, this is real rag paper!" assuming that you know what a big deal rag paper is but do you? Do you know what rag paper is?
From recent email conversations I've had that this is not always the case so this article attempts to tell you what it is and why it's a good thing.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PAPER
Before we look at rag paper it's worth taking a very quick and simplified look at papermaking now and papermaking before now to contextualise where rag paper sits in the grand scheme of things.
Newspapers, toilet roll, copy paper, product packaging and a lot of artist paper is made from made tree pulp but you probably knew that already?
It hasn't always been this way. In fact it's a relatively recent thing.
Paper was made from tree pulp in Germany for the first time in 1800.
It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that it became the ubiquitous material that it is today.
In the 1860s cost effective, efficient processes to pulp trees and turn them into paper in industrial quantities using machines were fully developed.
Before that it was all done by hand and it didn't involve tree pulp.
This papery revolution was great news for Scandinavian and Canadian forest owners; it made them very, very wealthy.
But did it make them happy? Yes, probably.
This was also great news for almost every single person on Earth - it made the availability of paper so cheap you could even us it to wipe your bottom! This leads me on to something else
!!! A Controversial Opinion Alert !!!
In this writer's opinion, paper is the most important invention ever - even more so that the internet.
Yep, I just said that.
Why?! The internet is brilliant! Yes it's amazing and I love it.
But paper... It's amazingly amazing.
- It's cheap, portable and easy to use.
- It doesn't require batteries or wi-fi and if it breaks you repair it with tape.
- You don't need a monthly subscription to access it and you can still use it, free of charge on a plane. Even in economy where we sit!
- Cheap, mass produced paper has at one point or another benefited almost every single person on the face of the planet - it's the great leveller.
- You don't have to be rich or well educated to use paper.
- You learn to write on it, you can draw for fun, share ideas, print books and maps on it, disseminate news on it and then wrap your fish and chips up in it.
- We keep records of events, administer businesses and governments using paper. We print photos of our babies on it, send birthday cards, make passports from it and a thousand other things and it costs next to nothing.
- Paper is biodegradable. David Attenborough isn't worried about polluting the sea with paper, it breaks down, it isn't plastic.
- Paper is recyclable. When you're done with it, it can be sent back to a paper mill and made into more paper.
- Imagine the breakdown of society if toilet paper stopped being made. You wanna wipe your bottom using your iPad? Nope. Didn't think so.
In the West, before paper was a thing you'd use parchment/vellum to write and draw on or to bind books with.
It was used to create those beautiful illuminated religious books you see from time to time.
In fact it's still used in the Houses of Parliament to keep records of law because it's durable. Looks cool too.
Important legal documents such as land deeds were made on vellum for the same reason - longevity.
Just like leather, parchment (or vellum) is processed animal skin which unlike leather, looks and feels a bit like paper.
It's still made by a handful of fabulous artisan businesses around the globe including Pergamena in NY state, Wm Cowley in England and Cortume Runge in Brazil.
One of the advantages of vellum over paper is that it lasts for a zillion years, it's almost indestructible and it looks amazing too.
This film shows Tania Crossingham painting and gilding on our calfskin vellum.
Vellum is a beautiful but expensive material and always has been because making it is a long, laborious, dirty business. Imagine how many animal skins need to be processed to make enough to create an illuminated bible? Lots.
This wasn't and still isn't a material for the masses although we've done our best to make it as affordable as possible.
Artists value vellum for it's smoothness and willingness to accept paints and inks. It's a very popular surface in botanical watercolour circles. This painting by Shevaun Doherty demonstrates the detail that can be captured using vellum as a surface.
Anyway, that's enough about parchment - what's next?
EARLY PAPER - CHINA AND WESTWARDS
Paper (made from a type of mulberry) was invented in China as early as the 2nd century but it took another 400 years for it to be (almost) mass produced there.
This manufacturing process spread to Japan and Korea and very, very slowly westwards (along the Silk Road?) utilising whatever local fibre was available.
By the 13th century the process of hand papermaking in Europe had arrived spreading northwards from Spain.
These European papers were made from fibrous material - old fishing nets, fabric bags and clothes, or rags.
See? Rags! Rag paper. Phew! We've finally arrived!
By the 18th century France, Germany, Holland and England were the main paper producing countries in Europe culminated with the greatest and most important papermaking outfit of all time, anywhere in the world - J Whatman.
QUICK SHOUT OUT TO WHATMAN
J Whatman invented wove paper and produced a huge range of the highest quality handmade papers ever made by a single company. They made drawing papers for painting and printmaking, writing papers and ledger papers - nearly 300 types in their standard range plus special makings for private customers. They were simply unmatched. Even today, pre 1960s (and not post 1960s - avoid this please) Whatman paper is the most sought after of all papers by discerning artists, printmakers and bookbinders.
Anyway, I digress.
MONEY FOR OLD ROPE
We use grey board today in much of our life for making anything from cereal boxes to book covers. Before grey board, board was made from hemp (with a load of other nasty old inclusions) which came from recycled rope from shipyards and ship's rigging etc.
Businesses bought old rope for this reason hence the expression "money for old rope".
MONEY FOR OLD RAG
OK - Money for old rag isn't a saying but it was a thing.
Where did this rag come from?
Simple. Rag Dealers.
Before tree pulp and papermaking machines arrived on the scene, all paper in Europe was made by hand from linen rag and when that became scarce, cotton rag was used.
Why did linen rag become scarce?
Linen rag became scarce around the 1920s (although it was still available) because cotton was cheaper, faster to produce (think British Empire, East India Company, slavery in America...) and more comfortable to wear and so clothes and other articles were made from cotton instead of linen.
The poster above shows an advert for a rag business. Nice address too - just a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square, St James', Leicester Square etc. I'm presuming it wasn't such a prestigious address then though?
As you can see, F Head bought amongst other things, used paper and linen cutoffs - all to be made into paper again.
Papermakers bought used rag from rag dealers.
This rag would be taken to a papermill where women (usually) would sort it into piles of linen or cotton and remove any impurities such as buttons and pins.
A print from a rare J Whatman sample book. This shows women sorting rags at the mill.
From there it would be cleaned, shredded and pulped with water in beating machines and formed into sheets of paper for printing, drawing, ledgers, record keeping etc.
Diagram print showing the formation of a sheet of paper using a deckle and mould.
Used papers would then be collected and once more recycled.
Instead of imagining what this looks like, check out the film below. It shows everything in detail. Enjoy.
This film shows the entire process of hand papermaking in a semi-industrial context including the sorting and processing of rags.
It was produced towards the end of the British commercial hand papermaking on this scale.
WHEN 100% DOESN'T MEAN 100%
Cotton and linen rag as a commodity is scarce today. I don't think there's anywhere that sells it commercially in quantity.
This means that papermakers cannot easily source rag on a scale required to reliably make paper.
You'd think that with so many cotton t-shirts and bed sheets etc cotton rag should be fairly simple to track down but 100% doesn't always mean 100%.
Material purporting to be 100% cotton can and often does include a tiny percentage of man made fibre which is incompatible with papermaking.
Apply watercolour paint across a sheet of paper which has a single tiny strand of polyester or nylon and see what happens. It doesn't dry, it doesn't stay where it's supposed to thereby making that sheet of paper useless.
THE ALTERNATIVE TO RAGS - COTTON LINTER
Buy a mass produced cotton paper now from any papermaking outfit (St Cuthberts, Fabriano etc) and it'll be made from something called Cotton Linters.
This isn't a new thing. Cotton Linters have been the basis of most modern cotton papers from the mid 1950s onwards. Even the great papermakers J Whatman and J Green used linters in their later papers when the sources of cotton rag rag dried up.
Cotton Linter fibre is taken directly from the cotton plant and not from old cotton rags.
They are usually made from the second cut short fibres left after the longer fibres have been taken for the textile industry. It's never been woven into fabric and therefore has shorter, less strong fibres when compared to rag.
Cotton Linter papers are still wonderful to use, there's nothing at all wrong with them.
In comparison to rag paper they're not quite there. Rag paper has longer, stronger fibres. It's more durable and somehow slightly different to work on.
IS NEW RAG PAPER STILL AVAILABLE?
Yes, in small quantities, sometimes.
A few commercial papermakers such as Twin Rocker in the US and St Armand in Canada have sources of 100% cotton (denim jeans) or linen which allows them to continue to make a little bit of pure rag paper but it's the exception rather than the rule. Most of their papers are linters, abaca or flax.
I believe Two Rivers in England make a paper with a linen rag content (a mix of linen rag and cotton linter) which unsurprisingly is being well received. They also size their paper with gelatine which is fantastic.
One papermaker in France, Moulin de Verger, had the foresight to stock up on linen rag and now makes the most beautiful contemporary paper I've ever seen but it comes at a price.
Rag makes the best surface for producing art on because it's a better quality fibre than anything else.
It's longer, stronger and more durable.
Personally I love the process, history and craftsmanship of rag paper.
The most sought after rag paper is made from linen and then cotton.
Cotton linter paper is fine and some of it is beautiful - Arches, Two Rivers, Somerset.
Abaca and flax papers tend to be an American thing but really really nice for certain uses - some bookbinding and printmaking. It's very strong with good foldability.
Wood pulp paper is ok for art and some is quite nice (Zerkall, Hahnemuhle, Bockingford) but none of it is as good as a cotton.
EXAMPLES OF COTTON RAG PAPER
We sell various rag papers including
WS Hodgkinson - made paper at Wookey Hole from cotton rag.
J Whatman - vintage and antique handmade and mould-made paper. A selection of linen and cotton rag paper.