Colourful Decorative Papers in the Collections and How to Make Them.

By Sarah Graham, Conservator, Maynooth University Library

Decorated papers for blog
A selection of decorated papers from the Russell Library

December is a great month. As the nights draw in, I embrace the hygge spirit, lock out the cold and set up a craft making emporium. This year, I thought it would be interesting to use the decorated papers in Special Collections and Archives for inspiration. It is easy to take the vivid and ornate decoration for granted and see the library as just a repository of information. However, skilled craftsmanship is needed to bind books and the eye-catchingly colourful decorated paper used to cover them informs us of contemporary tools, trade influences and techniques cultivated in their production. As knowledge was passed along at the workbench rather than being written down, the origins and materials used in making decorated papers are harder to pin down and rely on empirical assessment of extant papers. However, for the purpose of Christmas creativity, there are some relatively straightforward methods to make interesting papers for wrapping or our presents. Paste papers and marbled papers are the two types being looked at here.

I first tried making paste papers in Italy this summer as described in a previous blog. The earliest example of paste paper I’ve seen in the Russell Library is used to cover the boards of a half-vellum binding dating to 1685 (the pink flowers on white, far left of the papers above). This is approximately the same time De Bray was describing how to use flour paste to adhere vellum in the production of books. It was as ubiquitous in traditional binderies as wheat starch paste (the conservation equivalent) is in modern studios. Every conservator has their take on the perfect wheat starch paste recipe. Due to its flexibility it has many uses in book and paper conservation. It can be used as a thick local repair paste, watered down to a milk-like consistency for lining or left to dry on Japanese paper ready to be re-moistened for water sensitive items. Paste papers may have been produced separately like marbled papers but the materials were available in a bookbinding studio if desired and relatively simple to produce. In this instance, I added some acrylic paint we use to tone papers and these viscous colours could then be pasted onto paper in a number of ways to create different effects.

These are a few which I made by applying paste to the paper and then combing through with what I had to hand:

Combed paste for blog
Papers made by combing or stippling

For these cover papers and paste downs, the paper was covered in paste, folded in half and then pulled apart. I tried by putting a separate sheet of paper on top but I think my attempt was a bit tentative.

pulled paste for blog.jpg
From left: full pulled paste paper binding, pulled paste end-page, my attempt…, half parchment binding and my attempt at replicating the pattern.

I’m not entirely sure how this red paste paper (above right) was made. I tried to create something similar by stippling the paste and then turning the brush but it is not quite right. I suspect that it is a pulled paper which has had something the shape of a small pastry ring pressed into it.

One of the reasons wheat starch paste is used in conservation is its reversibility. It is easy to re-moisten and remove your repair. The majority of paste papers I’ve seen in the Russell Library are stamped and this could possibly be because a thinner, partial coverage of paste was easier to handle when fresh paste was applied to the back (for attaching the paper to the boards.) I made the stars and squares patterns, as straight lines are simpler to make in the softcut (block for lino cutting) rather than attempt the fiddly curves of the flowers. These were reasonably successful and once you have the stamp, you can use it in a number of different ways.

Stars for blog
From left: binding from the Russell with various ways you could use the one stamp
squares for blog
From left: binding from the Russell with my attempt at making the design, I cut up the stamp I’d made for the paper on the right

You can experiment away! Head to the National Library of the Netherlands for inspiration.

The origins of marbled papers are also ambiguous. It is likely to have started in China around the 10th century and spread quickly to Japan, where it was called suminagashi (floating ink). As a clear water bath was used, the inks must have been at least partially non-polar to stop it being miscible in water[1]. Marbled papers are quite quick to produce but are more technical to set up. For many years the details of how they were made were retained within specific workshops making marbled paper[2]creating a mystery around their production. Things have changed. For entry level marblers, there are oil based inks which can be found in craft shops. A quick search online produces many sites which show you how to marble on a water bath and on shaving foam. I only tried a water bath which can produce some pretty results but when compared to the originals in the Russell they can be a little heavy and… oily. As a technique it is possibly closer to the Japanese suminagashi method but the colours would need to be diluted a lot more.

oil marblin for blog
My first attempts at marbling using oil-based marbling inks

However, when marbling was developed in Persia and Turkey the water bath was thickened with a ‘size’ to make water-soluble inks float on the surface rather than sink. There are three main components to get right; the paper, the inks and the bath. The paper needs to be thin enough to flex when lowered into the bath as this will help the pattern stay even. It also really helps to coat the paper in an alum solution to help pick up the colour. Traditionally inks were mixed with varying amounts of ox gall to ‘control the speed at which they spread when dropped on to the size’[3]. I however, am cheating and using acrylic paint instead which seems a good compromise for a mid-level marbler. These need to be watered down so they can be dropped with a pipette. I am also cheating with the bath which is commonly a carragheen/borax mix[4] or methyl cellulose and ammonia. Methyl cellulose is often used in conservation and is easy for me to find but I’m leaving out the ammonia (I don’t have any lying about and it smells.) I found a cream like consistency prevented the pigment from sinking but let the combs move freely. Now we are ready to begin.

I poured the methyl cellulose into a shallow baking tray (although a white tray would have made the paints more visible.) You then drop the colours into the bath and comb through a pattern as demonstrated by Steve Pittelkow on ibookbinding. There are also many videos of this on youtube and the Washington University Library website has great examples.

marbling for blog
From left: snail pattern marbled paper from the Russell Library, my attempts at snail, feather and combed marbled paper and finally combed marble paper from the Russell.

I should warn you that this can become quite addictive. I have had to stop myself on many occasions from ‘just making up one more bath’ to see the effect a different consistency would have. I have only dipped my toe in and it would take many more marbled papers to become proficient. Luckily however, you don’t have to perfect an exact peacock design to create something beautiful.

decorated paper marbled wrong

Images of original books from the Russell Library are reproduced by permission of the Librarian, Maynooth University, from the collections of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

[1] P6 Wolfe, R.J., Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns (Philadelphia, 1990).

[2] P43 Wolfe, R.J., Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns (Philadelphia, 1990).

[3] P38 Miura, E., The Art of Marbled Paper: Marbled Patterns and How to Make Them (Hong Kong, 1990).

[4] P38 Miura, E., The Art of Marbled Paper: Marbled Patterns and How to Make Them (Hong Kong, 1990).

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