Setbacks and Learning Curves

 

When you teach yourself something new it does not always go to plan. While you might be trained in a related field this does not mean that you will be able to do a new technique well at the beginning. Often you learn things by trial and error. There are bound to be technical difficulties from a lack of knowledge and not having the best equipment for the job, so you spend a lot of time trying to overcome these issues as best you can. It can be a big learning curve.

As I have said in the last two posts, Ellie and I are teaching our selves how to make rag paper. This all sounded very straightforward in “how to do” articles on the net. So we jumped in, bought the basic equipment, prepared the materials and started to make paper outside under the car port. That’s when we discovered this was not as easy as it looked.

 

 

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First sheet out of mould

 

Firstly we had not made enough pulp to completely fill the tub to make a lot of sheets. The pulp in two colours that we had made in the blender was too coarse and the process was closer to felting wool than paper making, which I have done before. You could plug up any holes in sheets with bits of pulp before taking them off the mold just like you can when making felt. We did not panic when things went wrong but had a good laugh about our shortcomings. The results were quite decorative and can be used in collage but they are not suitable for writing or drawing upon. We had to go back to the drawing board and work out how to make finer paper.

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Texture rag paper once dried

That’s when we discovered that professional hand-made paper makers use a machine called a Hollander Beater (great name) and the smallest models are AU$2,000 plus, which is way above our budget. As we want the paper for our own use and do not want go into major production this would be an expensive investment. This was all a bit disheartening but barriers always make me more determined to find a solution. First we thought of using cotton linter (cotton waste from the ginning process) rather than rags, but could not find an Australian supplier for small quantities and it is just too expensive to buy from overseas if shipped here at all (crafters in the US are spoilt for choice). You could use cotton balls but that is hardly recycling and you would need an awful lot.

Ellie went back onto the net and did a lot of research and came across a suggestion from someone who had the same dilemma (click on this link). If you do not have a Hollander beater use a washing machine to break down the cut up rags, as well as a clothes dryer if you own one. The one-inch square rag pieces are placed in fine mesh lingerie bags and the machine set to a heavy-duty hot water wash cycle with some sodium bicarbonate. Pretty much the opposite of what you should do if you want to preserve your clothes. You would not need to boil up the rag pieces if you put them in the washing machine.

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Cotton rag squares ready for washing machine

We tried this out and the cloth became much more fibrous, and was easier to pulp in the blender. You need to do small quantities at a time or risk burning out the motor. We have quite a powerful one and need to wear ear protectors or risk going deaf from the high sound levels. Any lumpy bits of pulp can be cut up and put back into the blender to break them down. We have decided to process a lot of rag material then go back to making the paper. The pulp can be dried for storage and the warm water added when you begin the paper making. We hope that we have better luck with the next batch.

The downside of all this is that it is quite time-consuming. It would be much easier to make paper from shredded computer documents, but this is not acid free or archival. I think I will concentrate on making decorative cotton paper first until I get the hang of it. You can also press the paper dry with an iron to make it smoother or put the newly made paper between smooth cloths or felt before it is pressed. We used Chux cleaning cloths, which give the paper texture.

Sometimes in the initial stages of learning a new skill you are unaware of the pit falls. In some ways this is just as well because you might not try something new if you think it is going to be too hard and the challenge to find solutions is good for your creativity. And if you don’t have all the right equipment there is usually an alternative. It might not produce perfect results but it could also lead to some very creative work that makes the most of imperfection.

Ellie and I will see where this leads. Whatever the results of our rag papermaking we will be able to use it in our artwork to trigger our imaginations. Experimentation does make life and art more interesting.

Kat

For those of you wondering what on earth is a Hollander Beater, here is a very short video of a paper maker demonstrating this machine and the pulp it produces.

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