I participated in an experimental, hand-made paper swap this month. There are 25 participants from around the world submitting swatches that are about 4 x 6″, with some sort of experimental process in the swatch. I had a number of different ideas, and my swatches evolved as I worked along. All of the ideas I had required a good, stiff, strong sheet of paper. For my sheets, I turned to a plant that I have not yet worked with.
This is agave americana, frequently called the century plant because of the urban myth of its blooming habit. These agave can live between 10 and 30 years. Near the end of its life, it sends up an enormous, single stalk that will remain blooming for months. Once the bloom is spent, the plant slowly dies, but it has usually propagated itself by sending small suckers from the base which develop into new little plants. While travelling through Sacramento, CA last year, we found a giant hedge of these lining the exit to the campground where we stayed. Knowing that agave is often used in native crafts such as basketry and rope making, I suspected it would be a good material for hand-made paper. We stopped to pull a few of the dead leaves away from the bases of the plants, eventually forced to use a saw from my husband’s Leatherman to cut them free. The leaves were stiff as a board, the edges rimmed with nasty spikes. I felt I could possibly use a leaf to saw down a small, soft pine tree, they were so tough and stiff. However, several weeks in our northwest fall and winter rain softened them right up.
After the winter retting, the leaves were soft enough to cut with scissors. I cut them into about 2″ chunks by the width of the leaf with a pair of heavy shears. I then cooked them in water with several tablespoons of pure lye, because I thought the fibers would be too sturdy to be broken down by soda ash. I boiled them for about 3 hours, then allowed them to sit in the lye solution for a week, after which I strained the leaves, reserving the lye solution. Even after all of that harsh treatment, I found that the chunks from the bases of the leaves and also the midribs were still too tough to use, so I sorted the softened fibers from the ones that needed more cooking and put those back in the solution. Another 2 hours’ worth of cooking did the job.
The cooked fibers then need rinsing, because there are many things in a plant besides the fiber. The stringy cellulose is what I need, and the alkaline cook is to dissolve plant waxes and other gunk so that it can be rinsed out. I had a lot of rinsing to do. There is an outer skin on an agave leaf, similar to what you see on a pineapple leaf. For the purest form of paper, this outer skin is often scraped off before cooking, but since my leaves were dried, this was not very practical. I opted to cook it out.
When I began this project, my idea was to cast extremely thick and textured sheets, and then see what happened when I marbled over that texture. In order for the marbling to show up, I would need to bleach the fibers a bit. I like some natural color in my paper, so I tend to bleach in the fiber stage, rather than in the pulp stage.
Finally, I beat the agave fibers for 2 hours in my Critter, a small-studio beater made by New Zealand artist, Mark Lander. While the fibers got to self-circulating very quickly, with a minimal amount of hand-feeding, I did need to periodically stir the tub so that the heavier fibers could recirculate, as they would sink to the bottom. As the pulp started to fluff up, I had to do this less and less frequently. When I loaded the beater, I found that some of the toughest of the outer skins of the agave leaves had not completely broken down. I plucked most of these out as I loaded, though I did leave some in for inclusions.
Once the pulp was finished, I formed the sheets with a western-style mould and deckle. I wanted pretty sturdy sheets, so I couched two sheets together to form one sheet. The pulp was unsized, and I pressed the sheets in my homemade hydraulic press and dried them in a little box dryer. The finished sheets were quite sturdy, with a lovely color and some interesting speckled bits from the pieces of skin I left in.
As the fiber pulped up, I realized that there would not be enough pulp to cast sheets thick enough for the experiment I had in mind. As I looked about the studio trying to think of other ideas, I found a small stash of my hand-made shifu (paper thread). The process for making shifu is more detailed than I can describe in this post, which is already quite long, but here is a link from one of my favorite blogs that basically describes the process…https://onesmallstitch.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/shifu-part-1/. Note that shifu begins with a flat sheet that is cut in a very specific way to make a continuous paper strip, which is then spun into the thread. This blog has a good picture that shows what happens on the edge of the paper as it is cut, and this becomes an important detail in my experiment.
I turned my attention to a different experiment that would answer two questions that have been on my mind a while: 1) is it possible to make hand-made paper that can hold up to machine stitching without further stabilization (starch, interfacing, etc.) and 2) is it possible to put shifu in my sewing machine bobbin and use it for machine stitch. The answer is yes, on both counts, though qualified on the second.
The bobbin side of the stitched paper.
I used a paper punch to punch a rectangular hole in the corner of each sheet, and planned to stitch right across the space with my paper in the bobbin and a metallic machine thread in the top. I loaded the shifu into the bobbin, and loosened the tension on my bobbin case quite a bit so that the thread would pass through easily. It turned out to be a pretty delicate adjustment, because I needed the tension loose enough to allow smooth feeding of the shifu, but not so loose that the action of the stitch formation pushed the thread out of the hook. My top thread was a variegated metallic thread made by Sulky. My feed dogs were down, my stitch length at zero, and I had my darning foot on so I could see what I was doing.
The agave paper was lovely and stiff, which made it very easy to steer as I stitched. The shifu was sometimes quite sturdy, and sometimes very problematic. Sometimes, I could get through two or three swatches without a problem, and other times, I would have the shifu break 2 or 3 times on the same swatch. Handmade shifu has natural slubs in it that come from the process of cutting the continuous paper strip. It is the little thicker chunk from the edge of the original sheet where the strip changes direction. Most often, if the shifu broke, it was because this little slub would get hung up in the bobbin case as the thread was feeding. I would have to stop, pull thread out past the slub, and start again. So, it is possible to use shifu in the bobbin. However, if the plan is to use shifu in a sewing machine, careful care would need to be taken to get those slubs rolled into the thread as tight as possible. Perhaps an additional coating of sizing would be helpful. The more traditional thread I used in these swatches was workable for these small samples, but in a larger project, it would create much frustration and wastage of a very labor-intensive material.
Once the sewing was complete, I pasted a small frame around the hole on both sides, both to secure the ends better, and to neaten the presentation. I hope the other participants enjoy my contribution.