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The Business of Handmade Paper

According to the Greeting Card Association, Americans still send 6.5 billion greeting cards every year, about 1.6 billion of which are for the Christmas season. In a survey published this November by The Stationery Store, 3% of the responders reported they make their own cards. Probably only a small fraction of those actually make their own card stock, as I do. I've been doing this in my kitchen sink for about 25 years, and I consider it a fun activity at the junction of history, science and art. History, because it's something that's been done for almost 2000 years. Science, because a wet sheet of paper formed of about 10% fibres and 90% water doesn't fall apart – it's held together with hydrogen bonding: a magnetic attraction between oppositely-charged oxygen and hydrogen atoms. And art, because every sheet of paper I make is unique, as I add various other materials to the mixture, such as grass, dryer lint, dyes and dried flower petals.

The first paper maker is thought to be T'sai Lun in China around 105 A.D. He used fibre sources that included mulberry bark, hemp, and recycled fishnets and rags. When the papermaking process was mechanized in the 19th century with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine, it remained the same process of starting with a suspension of pulp in water and removing the water successively by drainage, pressing and evaporation.

When I make my own paper, I start with recycled paper mixed in a kitchen blender. I use a papermaking screen I purchased with a deckle I made with quarter-round moulding. After creating a wet sheet and letting it drain by gravity over the sink, I lay the screen upside-down on a piece of cloth (equivalent to a press felt) and remove water through the screen using a sponge (the pressing stage). I then remove the screen and transfer the paper onto a second cloth (dryer felt), and use a microwave oven as a dryer. My contacts apparently look forward to receiving my cards – last year when I went the email route with some of them, I heard a few concerned replies fearing that I had shut down my little paper mill! One lady showed me recently how she repairs her old books, recycling my cards as end papers!

Earlier this year I visited a legend in the handmade papermaking world, David Carruthers. He owns Papeterie St-Armand, a tiny paper mill for art papers since 1979, operating out of an old linoleum plant on the Lachine Canal in Montreal. The company supplies handmade paper for items such as pads, books and invitations, selling through art stores and gift retailers around the world. The starting pulp is mostly cotton rags, but all sorts of exotic fibres such as flax, abaca and sisal are also used. Products in many colours and finishes are offered.

Since 1992 Papeterie St-Armand also has a small Fourdrinier machine, about 22 inches wide. The day I visited, the paper being made on the machine was for lampshades!

David Carruthers continues the 2000-year-old art of handmade paper, creating beautiful products that have found a niche in the modern world. It's a tribute to his entrepreneurship, artistry and knowledge of papermaking science.


Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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