I recently felt compelled to learn how to make paper by hand. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to do this, but I’m so glad I booked myself onto a course. And now, thinking back over last weekend at West Dean College, I have a slightly readjusted sense of who I am.
My father was a papermaker, so paper is more or less in my DNA. Dad joined Wiggins Teape as a 23-year-old trainee just after WW2. It wasn’t his ambition, it was simply the job that came his way when he was demobbed from the Royal Navy in 1946. By the time I was born, he was Assistant Manager at Dartford Mill and we lived in a house owned by the mill, within walking distance of its huge machine sheds. As a small child, my Saturday afternoons were often spent peering into vats of pulp and watching vast rolls of paper moving on felts and drying on enormous hot cylinders. I was sometimes allowed to take away offcuts in different colours.
Then my own first career was in fine bookbinding and book restoration. I handled paper constantly for quite a few years – I cut paper, printed paper, marbled paper, sewed sections of paper into books, mended paper, glued paper, pressed paper, stuck down endpapers, and used one helluva lot of waste paper and newsprint in my bindery each day. After that I moved into bookselling, then into publishing, and eventually I inhabited my vocation as a writer.
So paper has always been at the heart of my life – I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) get away from that. I share my study with more than two thousand books and there are probably another thousand in the house! Sometimes I think I’ll drown in paper and books.
But why on earth did I suddenly (and I mean really suddenly) feel the need a few weeks ago – after all these years of living with paper – to learn how to make it myself? Something about going back to source, finding out where my life began, I think. Curiosity, for sure. And wanting to put my hands in that mix, that raw watery pulp, and make the stuff of my life all over again, but on my terms.
I enjoyed those sunny days in Sussex (and Lucy Baxandall is an excellent tutor). Loved the whole sloppy watery messy mess, the repeated action of pulling sheets of paper, the sheer magic of making this wonderful material from what appears to be nothing. I loved beginning to learn the hitches, trying out different techniques, adding bits and pieces to the vat or to the sheets, experimenting with pulp made of different fibres. Loved the rhythms: mix the pulp in the vat, pull the sheet, watch the water drip away, couch the sheet, rinse the mould, pull the next sheet, couch it. Pull, couch, pull, couch. Press the stack of wet sheets, hang them out to dry etc etc.
I think I’ll be doing more of this. Don’t yet have a clue where it’s leading…