The Awagami factory has been hard at work making paper despite our 21 person invasion these past 8 days. Two short women, one stout the other thin but round faced, their heads covered with round white hats stand apron clad all day long in a small glass enclosure in the middle of the factory, picking tiny black spots out of gampi fibers soaked in icy water. A loud beater behind them pounds endlessly at times, but they don’t seem to notice. Scooping small bowls of fiber saturated water which they clean with tea spoons, they ensure the purity of the silky white threads that go on to produce the world’s most expensive paper. In a far corner of the factory another woman using these cleaned fibers casts large sheets of gampi, each perhaps 30”x40,” rocking the large bamboo screen in and out of a fiber filled tub,
pulling perhaps 15 sheets an hour. Across the factory a man wearing a rubber apron and boots is mixing a dozen 5 gallon buckets of kozo fiber with pulp and the albumin like juice of the neri root. He then pours the buckets onto an enormous screen 3 meters square which is then rocked and gently hosed until the fibers settle into a thick even sheet. This enormous sheet is then pulled over a vacuum suction bar, where the water is drained allowing the paper to be moved to a drying board. It takes two workers to move a sheet this large, and when they are finally dried they are rolled into enormous tubes for shipping. The color is warm liked whipped yellow butter, heavy in weight, glass-smooth to the touch on one side, slightly rougher on the other. I have
never seen such large sheets of paper, and of course I wonder what on earth I could do with one -- how long would it take me to fill its area with drawn images? What if I made a mistake? I am quite sure these papers must cost several hundred dollars a sheet. Shizu tells me that Awa Washi makes these sheets exclusively for Hiromi Paper in Santa Monica, California. Who buys them from Hiromi and what happens to them then is a mystery; for me the pleasure in contemplating what I would do with such a sheet of paper is enough of a luxury.
Our next task is actually to learn to cast sheets of paper, and then to remove them from the casting tray and properly press and dry them. For this Fujimori-san has the patience of a master craftsman who loves his craft and enjoys passing his knowledge to others. He treats us to several demonstrations as a group, and then invites two students, Sarah and Liz, to try their hand at casting as we watch and he coaches. Each day since as he inspects our progress he works patiently one on one with many of the students including myself when he feels that a little refresher on technique will result in better sheets. That the man is a master is beyond question, his body dances through the casting of each sheet – as joyful a pairing of man and material as I have ever witnessed.
The first step in casting a sheet of paper is to mix the fiber and neri into the water. The wooden tub (all the tools are either wood or bamboo), is filled half way with cold water into which we add a melon size ball of fiber and an amount equal to a nice salad bowl of neri. A kind of swinging wooden rake made of wood braces and diamond cut bamboo blades is hooked into place so that the blades reach down into the water. The rake is rocked back and forth to break up the fibers and distribute them evenly in the mixture. After about 60-100 swings of the rake it is removed and the stirring continues with a bamboo pole for about 5 minutes. Fujimori-san tells us to listen to the sound of the water while it is being stirred, as this will inform you whether or not there is enough neri. Not enough neri and the fibers will clump and the paper will be uneven. I never seemed to get an answer as to if there can be too much neri.
The paper fibers will be scooped out of the water onto a tray which consists of a lockable stretcher and a bamboo matt. The tray hangs by two small ropes attached first to a metal spring and then to a wooden bar that jets out over the tub. The top of each tray has two wooden dowels that run the depth of the tray and serve as handles. If everything is properly set, you can hold onto the front of the tray’s handles with minimum effort and the rope will allow the tray to dangle a few inches above the water level. Now comes the hard part. Fujimori-san begins his little dance, which I call the Awagami shuffle. With his feet shoulder width apart, he quickly dips the front edge of the tray into the water, picks it up sharply and spills the first run of water out the far side. This quick action lines up the fibers across the matt, and creates a smooth “top” side to the paper. He does this a second time, and then on the third swing he gathers more water into the tray and rocks it back and forth allowing the fibers to spread evenly and in all directions as the sheet of paper begins to form. Depending on how thick you want the paper, you can stop here or keep dipping several more times. Rock too much and the wet fibers slide all around and the sheet is ruined. Don’t rock enough and the fibers don’t spread evenly. Plunge the tray into the water vertically and all should be fine; move it slightly backward or forward, and the fibers jump off the bamboo matt. Fujimori-san makes it look so easy every time. Believe me, it’s not!
Once the paper sheet has formed on the tray, you place the tray on two wooden bars that cross over the bath and let the remaining water pass through the fibers and the bamboo matt. I won’t go into it, but I lost many a finely formed sheet just by poorly adjusting the bars and losing control of the tray. The tray is now opened, and the fiber covered bamboo screen is lifted over your head and turned upside down as you turn around 180°. A wooden tray is set with a wet blanket waist high with two wooden posts on the near side. This is where you “unload” the sheet, again not so simple. As you begin to drop your arms from over your head, you first lower your right hand holding your left high so that the paper only touches the matt on one side, using the wooden posts as guides. Then gently lower the rest of the sheet. You remove the bamboo matt from front to back, using a bit of water and pushing from the back of the matt with your right hand if the paper fibers stick. Additional sheets are turned out on the previous sheet, a small ribbon placed on the old sheet to help in pulling them apart for drying. Now turn around and start again. Every 4 or 5 sheets of paper you will need to add more fiber and neri to the tub.
Over four days, when the piles of paper began to mount, we pressed the paper under heavy weights and a large press; the river of water that drained out was impressive. The following day the sheets are removed one by one and dried either “hot press” style or “cold press” style. For cold press, the more traditional method, the sheets are laid out singly on wooden boards to dry in the sun or alternately in an aerated room. Hot press involves laying the sheets one at a time on a stainless triangular steam dryer, which is a large metal box filled with steam that we rotate as one side becomes covered with drying paper and another side need its papers removed. Both options have their advantages, hot press working much faster, and cold press in general producing a nicer piece of paper for printing. We had a minor calamity with the cold press today when a board blew over and several sheets blew off other boards which were outside. We quickly moved the remaining boards in doors to dry overnight.
Of course, RISD students being who they are, these general rules and instructions were quickly modified to satisfy their voracious visual curiosities. All manner of plant material and fibers were inserted in the final layers of sheets; fiber colors and textures were altered; sheets were artistically crumpled on the hot press; sheets were folded and creased and laid with ribbons. Students experimented with mixtures of different fibers including gampi. Though I have enjoyed every step of this process, watching the students get into it in their own very individualized manners today and yesterday has without a doubt been the most satisfying part. And of course, watching our resident art historian Elena Varshavskaya become a bonifide paper maker, and really enjoying it when she hadn’t planned on participating, that too has been a real joy to watch.
We will be sending the paper back en masse to RISD where some of it will be used by the students for their final projects for this course. The rest is theirs to keep or use as they see fit. I have a wood block print I want to print on my sheets, and plan on carving the blocks in February. Stay tuned, as we hope to find a venue to exhibit some of the paper and all of the final projects at the end of the term.
My apologies, as this post and the one before it contain quite a lot of technical information which is rather dry. My goal is that these notes may serve as a reference as much as a travel log.