Sunday, 19 September 2010

Making Joy.

This last week, I've regressed some twenty years.

You probably don't know, but my original degree was in Paper Science, at a university that no longer exists. For four years after I graduated, I ran the labs in a paper mill in Derbyshire.

Since redundancy accelerated my move into teaching, I have done very little with paper. The odd bit of recycling, helping other teachers with projects and whatnot, but nothing serious.

This last couple of weeks, car trouble has meant I have spent quite some time alone with our head of Art, and we fell to random plotting. We decided it would be a good idea to have a joint project between Science, Art and Technology to make paper and paper-making equipment.

So, I resurrected a project that has sat on my to-do list for over three years, and started making paper from scratch.

Not recycling, as most paper-making projects do, but from actual raw materials, something I have not done for over two decades, and even then I used a bunch of specialised machinery.

For a man in his shed, wood is not a good material to turn into paper. It's too tough, and requires too much in the way of heavy machinery and corrosive chemistry. I had a cast about in my mind, and came up with... nettles.

I had always treated nettles as weeds, but as a raw material they are fascinating. Soup, tea, beer, robe, fabric... the wonder is why we do not have farms full of nettle crops (of which, more later).

There is very little online about making paper from nettles, mostly comments along the lines of "Hey, did you know you can even make paper from nettles?" so a lot of what I did was cobbled together from ill-remembered lectures and hobby-level reading.

I went old-school, and borrowed a few tricks from the Japanese traditions (very different to European techniques), and I made a fascinating discovery - nettles provide a wide range of fibres.

To a European papermaker, plants provide single kinds of fibre - hardwoods give short fibres, softwods give longer fibre, and cotton gives very long fibres, up to 5 or 6 centimetres (although papermakers tend to get the short bits, since the long fibres go to fabric). The nettles, though, are like two plants in one. the core of the stems is like a mixture of hard and soft wood - the fibres seem to be in the order of two to five millimetres long (I haven't had a chance to do any microscopy on them yet). The outer layers of the stem, though (the bast) gives fibres that could be, potentially, be up to a foot long! Split a stem with a twisting motion, and the strands seem to reach from root to tip!

No wonder they used to make rope from nettles!

Turning the stems into paper was a struggle, one that I'm documenting in an instructable that probably won't be finished before October, but the work so far has been a joy!

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to make paper. Not just make paper, but Make paper.

This isn't science, it's alchemy!

I have spent hours harvesting, stripping, cutting, retting, cooking, splitting and beating these plants. On a sheer physical scale, this is the biggest Instructable I have ever done. I have been stung, stunk out half my school, upset my neighbours and over-worked machinery.

I have been enjoying myself!

What the heck, maybe nobody reads the final project. Maybe it slips into obscurity (somehow I doubt that, though). It is a landmark project for me, far more significant than publishing my hundredth project, or even than having a Guide dedicated to my work. This project, to me, epitomises what Making means to me.

I have gone back to basics, the very soul of a product. I have taken it back far enough, I am fairly sure that, if you left me in a field with a knife and something to start a fire, then I could walk out (days) later with a sheet of pale green paper.

Ha! I'd like to see a computer geek build his own computer from a pile of sand and copper ore...


  1. >clapclapclap< Missed this post the first time around. I'm jealous - no time/materials for epicness on that scale!

    It seems a bit ironic to me that it's so unusual to use the very methods of creation that we started out with - that the military-industrial complex has taken over the production of goods to the point where it's a truly novel thing to actually make anything from scratch. >ponders<

  2. Oh, and it would be well-nigh _impossible_ to literally build a computer (as we think of one - a PC/laptop type machine) from scratch - dear lord, a hobbyist certainly can't even build her own hardware from scratch - you'd have to design all the internals (motherboard, cpu/gpu, processor, RAM etc, oh and don't get me started on the hard drive), peripheral connections, load an opensource BIOS before you could even think about an OS...and THEN you have to make a monitor and input devices! Just thinking about what it would require makes me tired. :D

    Obviously, you could make a computer from scratch yourself, but it'd have to be a mechanical computer, more on the level of a turing machine-type for the summer perhaps...