On Tuesday I went to a talk by scholar and curator Nancy Broadbent Casserly, who has just published a book about Japanese washi paper. I thought I would give a brief summary here of all the wonderful information she shared during the talk. The talk focused on her research of washi papers in the Parkes Collection housed at Kew, part of their Economic Botany Collections. She began by describing the history of the collection, which was interesting in itself: Parkes was the British Minister in Tokyo in the 1860s and 70s and whilst living there was requested by Gladstone to gather information about Japanese paper manufacturing and report back to the Houses of Parliament. This request was probably partly due to the fact that the UK paper making industry was still struggling with a shortage of rag, and had not fully discovered the potential of using raw plant fibres, whilst Japan had long used gampi, kozo and mitsumata fibres to make their papers. Japan had also developed methods of using paper for a wide variety of applications, and the technologies through which they did this may also have seemed like appealing knowledge to gain (see my older post here about some of the things the 19th century British were trying to make from paper).
Parkes reported back to Parliament as requested, and also sent samples of papers and paper-making fibres. Sadly interest seemed to have waned by that point, and no-one quite knew what to do with these samples. They were passed on to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), who in turn passed half of them on to Kew. The Kew part of the collection numbers 111 sheets of washi and 17 3D objects made from washi. Nancy described two different kinds of washi which can be found in that collection: decorated washi (karikami) and imitation leather washi (gikakuji and kinkarakawakami). The first kind is often woodblock printed, but a wide variety of other techniques could also be used: sometimes paper was brushed with pigment prior to printing; or “background’ printed with one pattern before being over-printed with another; flakes of gold leaf mixed with seaweed and rice starch could be applied; or ground shell or mica mixed with seaweed and rice starch to give a pearlescent look; and finally powdered pigment could be blown or sprayed onto the finished print. This kind of decorated paper was often used on screens or walls in Japanese houses.
Imitation leather washi was made by laminating sheets together with glue, and then dampening and oiling the sheets before pressing them around a covered roller to create a relief pattern or texture. Sometimes this would be leather-grain, but it could also be a more elaborate pattern. Alternatively the paper could be burnished to give a glossy calf-skin appearance. After this process the paper could be gilded, lacquered, sprinkled with mica, or decorated in other ways. Sometimes it was gilded all over and then varnished in order to resemble the kind of Spanish leather wall coverings that were fashionable at the time. Imitation leather washi was used for a wide variety of applications, including making fire-screens and bookbinding.
Nancy finished by discussing 3D objects made from washi in the Parkes Collection. This was possibly the most interesting bit, as due to the special techniques of oiling and lacquering the Japanese were able to make a wide variety of robust, beautiful and surprising objects. Imitation leather washi was used in the same way as leather to make objects such as book coverings and wallets. Washi was also woven so it could be turned into objects such as hats. It could be shaped and lacquered to make it as strong as wood but much lighter. This is a helmet made from washi paper, lacquered to make it strong and waterproof:
There is also a telescope in the collection made in this way, and a raincoat made from lacquered paper. Another interesting and pretty way they had of using washi paper was to create a fine, wrinkled paper made to look like silk crepe. It could be twisted and pleated, and soaked in starch to help keep its shape. These techniques were used to create ribbons and cords, like these imitation crepe hair ornaments:
Nancy concluded by describing a few contemporary techniques of making and decorating washi paper (now mainly used for art and craft projects). There is currently an exhibition of the Parkes collection papers and washi papers made by contemporary papermakers at Norwich Univeristy of the Arts gallery, on until 20 April 2013.
A little bit more about different kinds of washi here