Being immersed in writing a book is a great experience, but when I’m in between books, I enjoy picking up smaller assignments, especially when I’m asked to write about topics I normally don’t get to indulge in. Over the last six months, I’ve been working on a number of fun plant-related projects for the HGTV website, which has given me the opportunity to experiment with a variety of crafting techniques. I’ve enjoyed them all, but one of the best ones was learning how to turn some of my favorite garden plants into handmade paper. So, as a change from post after post of endless garden photos, I decided to write up some of the stuff that I didn’t get to include in the finished project, just in case any of you might like to give this a try while there’s still lots of great paper-making material available in the garden.
There are a variety of ways to turn plants into paper, many of which involve cooking plant parts with caustic or possibly dangerous materials, such as soda ash, to release the fibers – reportedly a very smelly process. As I wanted the project to be both kid- and kitchen-friendly, I investigated a couple of chemical-free techniques.
First, just out of curiosity, I tried tearing some leaves into long strips, cutting them into 2- to 2-inch-long sections, and then blending them with water to make the pulp. It worked to some extent, making sheets that I could pick up and handle carefully. Here are some of the resulting pieces, made from corn…
Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima)…
…and golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)..
These pieces are interesting to look at, but they’re really too loose and brittle to be useful for anything more than framing.
So, I ended up with a technique that combines plant parts with pulp made from scrap paper (mostly shredded junk mail) soaked in water and processed in a blender. (For step-by-step directions, see How to Make Paper on the HGTV site.)
I also decided to pour the prepared pulp directly into a mold, instead of the usual way of adding the pulp to a tub of water and dipping the mold into the pan to lift the pulp. This way, I was able to make each sheet separately and experiment with lots of modifications. This approach produces a relatively thick paper that’s great for a variety of crafts.
For full-sized sheets, I stretched plastic window screening over one right-side-up, wooden picture frame and secured it with push pins. The top part (known as a deckle) was another 8- by 10-inch picture frame, turned upside down and secured to the mold with two rubber bands.
For smaller pieces, I turn a 5 x 7 frame upside down and lay a piece of plastic needlepoint canvas into it. I sometimes use an additional piece of screening, as shown below: plastic window screening cut to the same size as the plastic canvas.
(Used alone, the plastic canvas leaves a distinctive criss-cross texture in the surface of the finished paper, as shown below. The window screening produces a finer surface texture.)
Blending the chopped-up plants with the paper pulp (roughly equal parts of each) produced much more useful results. Here are the same examples shown earlier in the post, including corn…
(and a closeup:)
Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima)…
…and golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).
Once you start using paper pulp as a binder, you’re not limited to just leaves. Adding flower petals, for instance, creates some very pretty effects.
For best results, use very small or relatively flat blooms; on larger blossoms, pull off the petals or individual florets.
One thing I learned is to not blend the petals with the pulp, as shown above. The fresh pulp looks nice, but as the paper dries (below), the color leaches out of the torn petals and causes staining.
Gently stirring the petals into the prepared pulp produces much better results.
Below is a mix of fresh petals and leaves.
For the piece below, I added dried rose petals and lavender.
For “herb paper,” I used a variety of small flowers and leaves, including lavender, curry plant, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme, anise hyssop, purple basil, rosemary, and winter and summer savory.
I’d hoped that the herb paper would have a nice scent, but it wasn’t all that noticeable, except on the sheets that included curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) leaves. There’s an easy way to add fragrance to any handmade paper, though: simply add several drops of your favorite essential oil to the water when you blend the pulp. Or, blend in a pinch of a fragrant spice or spice mix, such as cinnamon or curry powder.
Seeds, too, make a super addition to homemade paper. The piece below includes Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) seeds.
As with flowers, it’s best to use small or flat seeds. In the piece below (made from pulp from brown-paper napkins), most of the morning glory seeds fell out of the finished piece, leaving little craters, because they were too lumpy. The love-in-a-mist (Nigella) seeds were fine, though.
The really neat part about adding seeds is that you can actually plant the finished paper. As long as the paper dries quickly (I’d say about 8 hours or less), the seeds will not sprout until you wet the finished paper again later on, put it in a clear plastic bag or lay it on damp seed-starting mix, and keep it moist.
The piece above includes kohlrabi seeds. I made it during a spell of rainy weather, so it stayed damp for a few days and the seeds started to germinate before the paper even dried, as you can see below if you look closely.
Onion skins add an interesting effect to handmade paper…
…as do plant or animal fibers, such as cotton, wool, dog or cat hair, or (in the piece below) alpaca fleece.
A piece of advice here (which ought to be common sense, but…um…it’s easy to get carried away when you’re having fun): Do not try to add the fiber to the soaked scrap paper before blending it into pulp. It will make your blender very unhappy, as you end up with an icky and difficult-to-remove wad of fiber wound around the blades. I had better luck either pulling the fibers apart and pushing them into the already-blended pulp with my fingers before pouring the sheet, or else spreading the fiber over the mold screening and then pouring the pulp over it.
When you use junk mail or other printed paper to make pulp, the resulting paper often has a slight grayish shade from the ink. If you want whiter pulp, use print-free white paper. Want to add color instead? Tear up some construction paper or colored napkins or tissue paper and use that along with, or instead of, the usual scrap paper. (The piece below is a mix of green construction paper and white copy paper, with stirred-in flower petals.)
If you blend several colors of construction paper with scrap paper, you can make a fun “confetti” paper:
Sometimes the leaves themselves will color the pulp. When I shredded up a leaf of Tropicanna canna…
…I hoped the resulting paper would be reddish or pinkish, but it was a soft green instead.
Another way to add color before pouring the sheet is to add a few drops of food coloring to the scrap paper before blending. Or, add some ground turmeric or curry power for a yellow tint.
Once the paper is dried, you can easily spruce it up with dyes or watercolor paints. On the piece below, I used some blueberry (light blue), black-currant (medium blue), and turmeric (yellow) dyes left over from another project.
The best thing about using this pouring technique, rather than dipping, is that you can easily embed interesting objects into each sheet. For the project below, I used the seedheads of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), with some of the still-green leaves snipped into the pulp.
Instead of pouring the pulp over the items, which can cause them to shift, carefully spoon it into place.
Once the pieces are covered, you can gently spread out the lumps to evenly fill the mold.
Lift and tilt the frame to let the excess water drain away…
…set one side of the frame on a dish towel…
…flip over the frame…
…remove the frame…
…remove the plastic canvas…
…use a sponge to press the items into the pulp and draw off excess water…
…and then remove the window screening and move the sheet (still on the towel) to an airy place to dry.
Here’s the finished sheet:
I also did one with a full spray of northern sea oats seeds and regular pulp:
And one with the seedheads of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and black-paper pulp:
I also had a wonderful time playing with embedded herbs and flowers.
For the one below, I placed some herb leaves and flowers directly on the screen and stirred the rest into the pulp before pouring.
Fall-colored leaves work great too. One tip here (which works for any leaf or flower, really): pick them ahead of time and let them sit out for several hours or overnight, so they wilt a bit before you place them on the screening. The softened leaves will press into the pulp much more readily. I did the piece below with just-picked leaves, and you can see one side of the oval stewartia leaf popping out of the finished piece.
Other fun things to embed in paper include pine needles, small feathers, tiny beads, and bits of string, ribbon, or fabric.
Another advantage of the pouring technique for paper-making is that you can create a variety of shapes and sizes, not just full sheets.
Spoon the pulp onto the screen and use the back of the spoon to shape the edges.
So, what can you do with your finished paper? Frame it as artwork, craft it into notecards, or use it for endpapers for handmade books, among other things.
If you didn’t shape the paper at pouring time, you could cut the dried sheets into various shapes with straight scissors or pinking shears, or dampen the paper with water and tear it carefully to create ragged edges. Turn small bits into ornaments…
…or bookmarks. I probably wouldn’t recommend using those with leaves or flowers in them in valuable books, or leaving them in one spot for more than a few days, though, since I’d worry about the plant bits discoloring the book pages.
So, that’s it for making paper with plants (and without chemicals). Back to the garden for Bloom Day on the 15th!