A Short History of Paper

Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used as writing materials. Papyrus,
made from the papyrus plant that grew along the banks of the Nile River, cut, beaten, then
smooth by a stone. Papyrus was limited in access which made it an impractical material outside

of ancient Egypt. In early 190 B. C.,  people began using parchment to supplement Egyptian


A process of tanning and bleaching animal hides created a writing surface that proved superior
and more durable than papyrus. Parchment or vellum (calfskin parchment), however, was
expensive and impractical to mass produce. From one animal skin, you could only obtain a few
sheets of parchment. A practical writing surface was still needed.

Paper is made by pounding wood or cloth until the fibers separate from one another. The
beaten fibers are then mixed with water to form pulp. The water loosens the fibers in the
wood or cloth, allowing them to be reshaped into a sheet of paper. A screen (sometimes
cloth is also used) is then stretched over a wooden rectangular frame to form what is called
a "mold." Another frame called a "deckle" is placed on top of the mold. The deckle is designed
to prevent collected pulp from running off the sides of the mold.

The mold and deckle are then dipped into the fiber-rich water. As they are pulled through
the water-and-pulp mixture, a thin, even layer of intertwined fibers come to rest on the
screen. A wet sheet of paper has been formed! When dried, the fibers become a sheet
of paper, ready for use.

Ts'ai Lun, a servant, head of the imperial workshops, is credited with the discovering the
process of creating the first real paper in the year A.D. 105. Ts'ai Lun worked unrelentingly
for several years, he made pulp from macerated silk flock drained on a sieve, when
dried made sheets that could be written on. He then experimented with complementary
fibers such as linen, hemp, bamboo, laurel, reed and even Chinese herbs, using them
singly or in combination. Ts'ai Lun's conducted this research at time, when he was no
more a lesser imperial servant. The appearance of the word "paper" in the first Chinese
dictionary published in 69 A.D. bears witness to this development. Ts'ai Lun's
achievement was to promote the production of a more effective paper, made essentially
of long-fibred vegetable material.

This was reduced to a watery pulp and filtered through a sieve. Its dried residue made
a sheet which would be written on. The ingredients for the pulp were old macerated
fishing nets, worn hemp, rags of various kings, the most importantly tree bark. He finally
chose the bark of the mulberry tree, beaten, and separated into then fibers to which
he added a mucilaginous substance to glue them together.

Modern paper thus came into being.

Ts'ai Lun promoted it and introduced it at court.

Strange as it may seem, the same method of making paper used by Ts'ai Lun, is
still used today!

The Chinese closely guarded the secret of papermaking for 500 years. But in A.D. 751,
during a siege on the city of Samarkland in Central Asia, Arab soldiers captured Chinese
papermakers, who sold their knowledge in return for their freedom.

From there, the practice of making paper slowly made its way through Persia, Arabia, Egypt,
and eventually Spain and Europe. It took a full 400 years after the attack on Samarkland for
papermaking to arrive in Europe.

Buddhist missionaries brought papermaking to Japan in A.D. 610. At first, paper was used
almost exclusively for religious ceremonies and the copying of religious texts. In A.D. 770,
the Empress Shotoku commissioned a million printed paper prayers to be placed in
miniature wooden shrines or pagodas and distributed among the various temples in
Japan. This was the first mass text printing on paper.

Over the hundreds of years to follow, both the quality and availability of paper improved. In
Japan, early paper was often quite thick and strong and was used for many purposes
beyond writing and printing. Paper was used for fans, bags, masks, kites, lanterns,
clothing, and partition screens. Paper also oiled, making it waterproof, and used as
protection from the rain in umbrellas, windows,, and tarpaulins. The uses of paper
appeared limitless.

Sources: The Art of Japanese Paper - Dominique Buisson
                   The Ultimate Origami Book - John Morin