An illustration of a person dipping a mesh screen into a vat of paper pulp
Behind the scenes Collections Series Short read

Materials of the Book – Paper

Paper has had many uses... crucially it is the perfect material for writing, printing and making books

Paper was made in China as early as 200BC.  The craft was passed along the Silk Road, through the Middle East and Europe, with paper mills appearing in Britain by the 15th century. Paper has had many uses, especially before plastic was invented and when glass was rare: such as for wrapping goods; for lanterns, and kites. Crucially, it is also the perfect material for writing, printing and making books.

Paper making is a highly skilled process, with the methods of production varying according to the style of paper and the traditions of the region. Paper is made by pulping plant material into fibres in water, then straining the mixture through a large mesh. Once dry, the resulting sheet of fibres is a flexible material strong enough to be repeatedly handled.

An illustration of a person dipping a mesh screen into a vat of paper pulp
Chinese Drawings 52 – Paper making

Many plant materials can be used, including wood, cotton and flax. Amongst other substances, these all contain cellulose. Cellulose is a long molecule made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that gives plant cells their structure. The length of cellulose molecules makes paper strong and flexible. The closer to 100% cellulose content; the better the paper. High cellulose content paper can be folded and unfolded countless times along the same line, which is necessary to make a functioning book.

Image of a damaged newspaper sheet, losses at the edges and splitting along fold lines
English MS 1197/96 – This paper made from wood has a low cellulose content and become brittle over time

Paper is highly absorbent, allowing ink and pigments to enter and mingle with the fibres. This means the writing or drawing is less disturbed by handling than it would be on an unabsorbant surface like parchment. However, this quality can result in ink spreading too much, therefore a ‘size’ is required. This is a dilute adhesive, either added in the pulping stage or brushed over the finished sheet. The end result is paper that has a good level of absorbency.

The thickness, texture and absorbency of the paper can be adapted according to taste and use by the maker. It can even be decorative. For instance, by adding dye to the bath of plant fibres during the making stage.

Book covered with decorated paper
Il Gello sopra vn sonetto di M. Franc. Petrarca.. (919) – Book covered with decorated paper

Explore our digital collections, to see a huge variety of works on paper.


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