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Griffen Mill visit

 The Conservation studio at the Chester Beatty Library uses suppliers of materials and equipment from all over the world; however one of our favourite paper suppliers is right here in Ireland. Chris and Mike at Griffen Mill, based in County Mayo, make handmade papers suitable for conservators and bookbinders – we particularly like to use their Islamic-style paper called Akbar for endleaves. In the spring they kindly agreed to let us visit their papermaking workshop – below are some photos of my attempts at making paper.

Dipping the paper mould

Couching the newly formed sheet

Whilst we were there, Chris directed us in a little investigation into recreating a few historical recipes for the kind of surface tints and coatings that are found on Islamic papers, and we also attempted burnishing the surface to get a high shine. Islamic papers would be carefully prepared prior to calligraphy or illumination taking place, using processes such as tinting (white paper was not favoured), applying a coating, and burnishing. Surface coatings and sizes were used to create a smooth glossy, non-absorbent surface; vital in order to allow the reed pen used for calligraphy to move smoothly across the paper. Burnishing brings a beautiful gloss to the paper, but also helps to make it flexible and supple, and gives the paper the ‘drape’ characteristic of Islamic and Arabic books.

Here are some of the coatings that we tried out: 

  • gum tragacanth: soaked in cold water for 45 minutes and then strained. We painted this on in two layers, allowing it to dry in between. Although it didn’t initially produce a particularly glossy appearance, following burnishing it moved well, felt beautiful, and displayed a soft sheen
  • duck egg ahar: using the whites of duck eggs mixed 50/50 with water, to which we added a few lumps of alum. The mixture was then moved around using fingers to agitate it. It is supposed to eventually curdle, although we found if this did happen it certainly wasn’t visibly evident. After agitating it for about 30 minutes we strained it. For a more comprehensive recipe see the link at the bottom of this post. The ahar was painted on in 2 coats, and was really shiny once dry. The surface burnished up really well
  • tea and saffron tints: white paper was not generally desirable for Islamic works of art – instead a soft tint was preferred. We experimented with gently toning the paper using saffron and tea in water. I have been wondering whether using natural pigments like this might be a suitable way to tone repair papers – however a quick check in the studio showed that tea water has rather a high pH and so might not be suitable. Still, it would be interesting to carry out further tests
  • gelatine: mixing watercolour pigments with 4% gelatine in order to tint and shine at the same time
  • wheat starch paste: mixing pigment with thin wheat starch paste in order to create a tone and gloss simultaneously. This might be a good way to tone up paper for repair of manuscripts, and maybe gives depth rather than just a flat colour. Again, worth further experimentation

In order to burnish the prepared paper, it can be rested on any smooth surface. Curved wooden boards or stones were traditionally used, an image of which can be seen on this blog: http://radhapandey.blogspot.ie/. The curved surface would’ve limited the amount of movement needed from the papermaker as it reflects the natural reach of the arms. The paper could be rubbed with dry soap prior to burnishing in order to increase the slip of the burnishing stone on the surface. Stones such as agate were traditionally used, but anything smooth such as glass or conch shells were also used. We tried using a round glass paperweight, which worked excellently and was comfortable to hold in the hand.

Burnishing paper

Varying pressure by the burnisher can lead to a visible difference in surface texture and gloss – sometimes burnishing on top of a patterned surface (such as carved wood perhaps) was done deliberately in order to create a subtle pattern in the paper, caused by the recesses and raised areas of the surface below (like taking a rubbing by pressure alone).

Apart from all our discussion and experimentation with Islamic-style methods, we were able to quiz Chris and Mike about many aspects of papermaking and hear about their experience as papermakers. I was particularly impressed by the labour of love it was to move their ‘pig flattener’ (big rollers used for calendaring) down the country lane and into the workshop (which took two days using a winch, a few inches at a time).

The ‘pig flattener’

I highly recommend visiting their website http://www.griffenmillhandmadepaper.com/ which has many interesting sections, including an illustrated history of papermaking. The online shop provides more details of their papers (the range covers papers for conservation, bookbinding, and artists’ papers) which excitingly now includes two different 19th century-style watercolour papers. Sample books are also available.

Further information about preparing Islamic papers can be found on this wonderful website by a contemporary calligrapher: http://http://www.zakariya.net/.Look under tools and techniques for ahar recipes.

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