This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #61 (January, 2003).

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Making Paper from Milkweed

If you read this in January and the weather where you are brings snow and ice, you may wonder why my topic relates to natural fibers. I admit to a strange passion: milkweed. And I love to process it in Winter.

This common plant (Asclepias speciosa) provides the willing papermaker with a ready source of bast fiber. Milkweed is easily identifiable from mid-season on by the bulbous pods and the stems that exude a "milky" white, sticky sap. When processed, the stems of the plant produce a beautiful paper which varies in color and texture according to the season of its harvest. Collecting the milkweed stalks in winter means the retting and cooking procedures are lessened. The weather eases the work of the papermaker.

The simple preparation measures used for milkweed may be used for other common annual and perennial plants. The only caution is to be certain you know your plant, as parts of some plants are poisonous.

Five pounds of collected stems will yield about one-half pound of "paper" fiber. The stems should be soaked until they feel slightly soft and the fiber peels away. This could be three weeks to two months (longer for early summer harvests). To speed this process, a small amount of septic tank enzyme may be added to the soaking pot. When soft, the stalks should be thoroughly rinsed and the fiber stripped from the core of the plant. This will be almost unnecessary for Winter harvested fiber.

Next the fiber is placed in an enamel cook pot (inexpensive in hardware and farm stores). The fibers are covered with cold water and one-half to three-quarter cup of caustic is added. Caustic may be soda ash, lye, wood ash, or lime. Soda ash is most commonly used and is available from papermaking suppliers. Cooking should be done in an open area and all tools used to stir fibers should be wood or enamel.

After four to six hours of cooking the fiber is soft and can be easily pulled apart. It should be thoroughly rinsed. The fiber can then be pounded with a wooden mallet or processed in a kitchen blender. The processed fiber is ready when a small amount of fiber placed in a jar of water, and given a shake, looks like a cloud. The fiber is then added to a vat (dish pan or shallow plastic tray) in a ratio of approximately one-third cup of fiber to four cups of water. Sheets may be formed using a Western or an Eastern sheet forming technique.

A formation aid may be added to the vat. Formation aid may be purchased from papermaking suppliers. It may also be produced using cut pieces of okra placed in a sieve and soaked. The resulting "goo" is added to the vat in small amounts to help the sheet form easily. A thinner, more even sheet may be produced this way.

I hope you have a bountiful winter harvest and enjoy the beautiful silk-like quality in your finished sheets.

Copyright 2003 Hand Papermaking, Inc.