Skull Talk: From Pants to Paper the Old Way

Last month, I heard about a papermaking demonstration hosted by Yale’s Beinecke Library. Papermaking seemed like the perfect lost art for PY to check out. Paper, after all, is the unsung cornerstone of most things literary and artistic. That the demonstrators would use historic techniques and human powered machines sweetened the deal and fit nicely as a supplement to my Project Book Lust series.


I met Margaret Mahan and Drew Matott of the Peace Paper Project outside on the Beinecke Plaza. They’d set up a long table with their supplies and samples, mysterious things of some bygone era. Moulds, deckles, hinged wooden boxes, stacks of coarse paper flecked with a spectrum of cloth bits. A group of Beinecke staff and local papermakers gathered at the table and talked shop.

DSC02712 DSC02732The Peace Paper Project uses old plant-based clothing (cotton, linen, etc.) to create an array of paper. That same style of paper was industry standard in the 1600 and 1700s. Now it’s an artistic technique much coveted by the group of papermakers at the demo. The Peace Paper Project itself evolved from the Combat Paper Project—an arts program that teaches veterans how to create paper from their old uniforms and then screen print on their new medium. Peace Paper does that, as well, but is more of an effort to expand the art beyond the veteran community. Drew and Margaret have taken the project around the country and abroad, including into remote mountain communities of Spain, and to India, where they helped women make paper from sarees as a statement against sex slavery.

DSC02746 DSC02726At Beinecke, Margaret organized the assembly line she and Drew would use to make paper right there on the plaza. A bicycle-driven Hollander Beater (modeled after the original, a 1680 Dutch wind-power version) circulates and pounds clothing fibers and additives in an oval tub that looks like a model lazy river ride. The beater’s teeth chew the cloth into a slurry of pulp. It takes four hours to turn a pair of jeans into paper using the bike method, but only 30 minutes when Drew attaches a small motor to the Hollander.

“It’s not that hard,” Drew said. “It’s just the endurance factor.”

So why use the bike at all? Well, in those remote regions electricity is scarce. Packs of neighborhood kids (and adults) eager to pedal the contraption are not. It’s fun. It draws attention to the project. And it’s good exercise.

Once the pulp is ready, they pour it into a vat and hog it, mixing the slurry by hand. Traditionally, the master papermaker then pulls the paper using a mould that allows the water to pass while trapping the slurry and a deckle to shape it. At the demo, Margaret was sharpening her skills under the guidance of Drew, the master papermaker.

“Papermaking is very forgiving,” Margaret said. If the pulled pulp looks uneven or flawed the person pulling simply returns it to the vat and tries again.


Drew couched the wet sheets, transferring them to a flat felt surface where they’d dry and become paper. Drew also devised a way to transfer images onto the pulp before it dries, using a coarse printing screen and a spray bottle holding died and diluted pulp. The dyed pulp bonds with the wet sheet and creates a vibrant print. The sheets are pressed and repressed to force out any water left and form a tighter bond among the fibers.

The process remains much the same as it did some 300 years ago. So, in this case, the cliché “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stands the test of time.

Brian Lance
Social Media Editor