JAPANESE HANDMADE PAPER
The earliest forms of handmade paper were developed in China in the year 105 AD. A Buddhist monk brought the techniques of paper making to Japan in the year 610. Paper making in Japan is commonly known as washi. There are three basic plants used in the washi process. The mulberry plant is the most abundant and is used for making kozo paper. The soft and ivory colored surface of paper made from the mistumata shrub is the second most popular form of washi. The inner most layer of the bark from the gampi bush is by far the rarest from of washi. The gampi bush grows wild in the warmer mountainous regions of Japan and cannot be cultivated. This is one reason that gampi tissue is so rare and expensive.
Gampi tissue is produced in varying levels of thickness and has an overall shinny surface. The thinner sheets of gampi are translucent and have the greatest shine. The thickness of washi is measured in grams. The thinnest gampi produced is only 17 grams thick. In comparison, the average sheet of inkjet paper weights 85 grams. I work with the 17 gram sekishu torinoko gampi. All forms of washi will last thousands of years when properly taken care of. Most forms of washi are now machine made and lack the unique qualities of paper made by hand. Gampi tissue is one of the few truly handmade forms of washi. It is said that gampi will last the longest due to the nature of the handmade process.
The following gives a brief illustration of how gampi was first produced over 1,300 years ago. The techniques have evolved, yet most of the steps required remain the same. Gampi is harvested once a year. The skill required to create a sheet of gampi continues to be passed down to each generation. Gampi has now been listed as on the Japanese national historic register.
Removing the bark
The gampi is first harvested by removing the bush and placing it in a wicker basket. Once the basket was full, the gampi was taken to a large wooden steaming barrel. The raw gampi was placed in the steaming barrel to loosen the bark. Once the gampi was softened up, the bark was placed in a basket of cold water where a worker would gently step on the bark. The stepping motion of the feet would safely loosen the bark. A knife was used to strip the bark down to the final inner layer.
Cooking The bark
The bark was cooked in a large pot for up to a half day. The cooking process was followed by a hand washing of the pulp. The rinsing process involved picking out tiny pieces of the bark. Cooking and rinsing the bark was time consuming as all impurities had to be removed. Typically there were tiny bits of black bark mixed in with the pulp. Picking those tiny pieces of bark from the pulp was by far the most labor intensive part of the paper making process. Gampi is a naturally dark cream color. At this point the gampi was often bleached in the sun to lighten to color.
beating the pulp
The pulp was then beaten on a stone using a wooden paddle. This was a very detailed process with a specific steps to follow. The worker would count each time the paddle struck the pulp. The paddle would need to be reversed after so many times of striking the pulp. Beating the bark took skill and patience to achieve the desired consistency. The sounds of paddles beating the stone could be heard throughout the day until was done.
scooping the pulp
The beaten pulp was now placed in a vat of water. A worker would place a wooden frame with a fine screen in the water. The screen was moved back and forth in all directions. The movement allowed the pulp to float to the top of the water. This process was repeated many times until the precise amount of pulp was floating on the top of the screen. The worker would then allow the excess water to drain off the wooden frame. Once the excess water was drained, the sheet of gampi was carefully placed on a specially designed table. Each sheet of gampi was separated by a thinner sheet of washi designed to keep the gampi from sticking together. The stack of gampi was carefully squeezed to remove the final layer of water and allowed to partially dry.
The partially dry sheets of gampi were pulled from the stack and placed on a table for inspection. The worker would check each sheet for any imperfections. Sheets were brushed clean of any remaining debris using a thin and delicate brush. Each sheet was then placed on a screen in the sun for the final drying. The dried gampi was stacked and ready for sale.