I had a very special and fruitful paper making workshop with Professor Koji Shibazaki at his research lab (labo.z-mz.com) at Aichi University of Arts in Nagoya, Aichi prefecture, Japan this summer. Professor Shibazaki’ researches and creative activities are centered on the traditional Japanese Washi paper, a type of paper that is hand made from the barks of various mulberry pants, such as Kozo, Gampi and Mitsumata. He has been giving workshops and lectures on traditional Washi paper making and exhibiting his amazing lighted art pieces that are made out of hand-made Washi paper in Germany and France.
I arrived at Aichi University of Arts in mid-July and the temperature during the day had been in the mid 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Though it was not the ideal temperature for making traditional Washi, Professor Shibazaki and his students had managed to conduct a very successful paper making workshop. We made a variety of paper from outer barks of Mitsumata, a mixture of outer barks of Mitsumata and inner barks of Kozo, and from fine inner barks of Kozo, using several different techniques Professor Shibazaki demonstrated. The papers that were made from outer barks of Mitsumata and the mixture of Mitsumata and Kozo were used to create three large tapestries that were finished with gold and silver foil printings and were later exhibited at Ozu Washi Gallery in Tokyo.
Though I have learned about paper making by reading and watching videos before this workshop, I had no idea how time consuming the entire process took, from the preparation to the actual paper making. However, after this experience, I realize that how important it is for an artist/designer to start at the material level. Working with the material directly opens new opportunities for me to discover novel ways and new processes to design, a topic I hope to focus in the near future.
To speed up the process, Professor Shibazaki and his assistants had prepared different batches of the raw material before I arrived in Nagoya as this part of the process typically took about two to three days. To prepare for Kozo paper making, about 1.5 kg of raw material Kozo and 300 g of soda ash, another name for Sodium Carbonate, were combined and soaked in a large water pot for one day (it would have required two days of soaking during the winter months). These Kozo fibers were then boiled for about three hours and were left to soak in the water pot overnight.
When I arrived in the lab, we started the process by washing the Kozo fibers to get rid of yellow and brown coloration and other impurities. The results were the soft, long and strong Kozo fibers with beautiful off-white color. I could hardly believe that these raw fibers were able to be turned into beautiful translucent sheets of paper at the end of the process.
After washing, I learned the most labor consuming process of breaking down the fibers by hand using large wooden mallets that were made by Professor Shibazaki himself. According to Professor Shibazaki, this labor consuming hand process couldn’t be simply replaced by machines as the hand techniques would produce finer and stronger fibers than the machines. Several of us took turns pounding and smashing the fibers for a few hours using two different mallets.
After we prepared the Washi fibers we then worked on preparation of “Neri” by crushing “Tororo Aoi” and then by beating and mixing it with water. We put the “Tororo Aoi” in a cloth bag and squeezed it to remove sticky liquid that was then used in the paper making. This sticky and gooey liquid was the true secret behind all papermaking. It was hydrophilic with a negative electro-chemical charge, helping to suspend the paper fiber evenly in the water and produce strong molecular bonds between the fiber, water and “Neri”. Besides obtaining “Neri” from “Tororo Aoi,” Professor Shibazahi also used ready-made powders he purchased from handmade paper shops to simplify this process. The “Neri” was then added to a large water vat, also called “Sukifune,” with a mixture that was made of about 400 grams of Washi fiber and 200 liters of cold water. Before the “Neri” was added, the mixture had to be stirred skillfully so that the fibers could be separated evenly.
The last step in the preparation of paper making before actual paper making was to prepare “Shito,” or the plate to put web paper. Professor Shibazaki used simple alignment methods to make sure that the set up would allow each wet paper sheet to be aligned and separated properly. In one instance, he used thin gauges to separate the paper in a grid, and in another instance he used nylon threads to keep each of the wet sheets of paper separated.
After all these preparation, we finally started making paper. The goal here was to keep the paper fiber to spread evenly and smoothly on “Su”, or the bamboo blind that used by Japanese traditional paper makers. The “Su” were in various of dimensions, depending on the sizes of the paper one was making. There were only a very few handmade paper artisans who could produce high quality “Su” these days and the one that Professor Shibazhaki used in the workshop could cost up to $2000 and would allow us to produce two pieces of A2 paper simultaneously. Using “Su” to make paper was a very artistic, rhythmic and beautiful process. I was told that I must listen to the sound of the water movements. Smooth water movements would produce beautiful and smooth paper. After about twenty tries, I felt that I was finally able to adjust the forward-back and left-right movements of “Su” and hear various sounds of the water splashing and flowing. And I knew I was far from being a paper making expert.