Sharing my passion for handcrafted jewelry, paper making, and living a creative life.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Collecting More Plants for Paper

Fireweed blooming in late summer

I'll be doing the papermaking tutorial soon so here is a bit more information on collecting plants.  

Never collect fibre that you cannot identify and do not collect plants that have been identified as noxious weeds in your area.  Some plants can be irritants and some can be deadly, even to handle (water hemlock for example).

My goal is to provide basic instructions, making it as simple as possible for you to start making your own paper.  For more detailed information, there are some excellent books available.  Half the fun of making paper from scratch is making your own discoveries.  If you find a plant that is safe to use and you think it might make a nice paper, go ahead and try it.  Cost is negligible.

Gather fresh grass or last season's remains.

The best time to collect plants for fibre varies.  It will depend partly on your region.  Plants that haven't even started growing in my area may already be mature in yours.   The amount of cellulose in the plant will vary depending on the age of the plant. A mature plant has more cellulose than a young plant so you will get more useful material from a plant that is full grown.  However, texture and colour vary at different stages of maturity so you may want to try the same plant at different stages.  Soil types and whether you use the plant material fresh or dry will affect your paper's qualities as well.
 Papers made from a variety of plants including corn husks, cattail, stinging nettle, iris leaves, and swamp grass.

I like to collect my fibre when it's easiest to do so.  The fibre can then be spread out or hung to dry and saved for later or used fresh.  I just pile it into baskets and turn it frequently until it is dry.  Cellulose is the primary ingredient in paper but plants contain a lot of other stuff, too - lignin, starches, fats, etc - which must be removed before making the paper. 

There are four types of plant fibres that I use in papermaking.

Woody Bast - Use small trees and shrubs that are an inch or less in diameter.  See my earlier post on gathering willow.  The bark is peeled away from the woody core and then the outer bark is peeled or scraped from the inner bark and discarded.    It can be done with the initial stripping or steamed and separated later.  The inner bark on its own makes a more evenly coloured and textured paper but I often leave most of the outer bark on for a rougher textured, darker paper which I enjoy using in my art.  I prefer to collect the woody bast fibre in the spring when the sap is running and the plants are easy to strip.  If the shoots have leaves, remove them first.

Herbacious Bast - This fibre is similar to woody bast in how it is collected and prepared but it is not a tree or shrub.  Plants like fireweed, stinging nettle, and milkweed yield herbacious bast fibre.  I peel the bark from the stalk using the same technique as with the woody bast but I don't scrape these strips.

Start by removing the leaves (I do this by running a gloved hand down the stalk in the opposite direction of the leaves' growth).  Be careful with stinging nettle.  The leaves, seeds, and stems really, really sting.  To remove the fibre start by stripping fibre from the base of the stalk.  The fibre rarely comes off in a continuous piece. As I work my way along the stalk, I break the stalk every 6 inches or so as I go which releases the fibre and makes it easier to continue stripping.  I wish I could show you the method but it's too early in the season here.  I usually collect these plants throughout the summer in my region.  In the spring there isn't as much cellulose in the plants and in late summer the sap has dried and they are almost impossible to peel without steaming.
 Strips of fireweed 

Leaf Fibre - This fibre comes from plants that have long flexible leaves like iris, cattail, yucca and lilies.  They are best harvested later in the season when they have more cellulose.  Some leaves, like iris, should be scraped to remove the pulpy material but if they are left until they are brown and wilted that step isn't necessary.  And to be honest, I've used them green without scraping and liked the resulting paper.  But scraping is the recommended procedure (maybe I should try it sometime).  And if you aren't going to use them fresh, you don't have to scrape them anyway.
 These irises grow in a swampy area near my house and it's easy to gather a large quantity at a time to use fresh or dry for later.

Grass Fibre - There are so many different grasses that you can use in paper.  As with leaf fibres, I wait until they've had time to mature a bit so that I get more cellulose from the plants.  But you can collect it fresh, as dry stalks, or as wilted brown blades lying on the ground.  Some grasses have quite short fibres so they don't make a strong paper on their own.  But some of the swamp grasses are very tough and fibrous.  To collect grass fibre, just cut the blades and remove any seed heads.  Corn husks are also a grass fibre.  I always save the husks from the corn I buy and dry it to use for paper later.  I have friends save it, too.

Seed Fibre - This is what you would find in cotton.  You can purchase cotton linters which are a byproduct of the cotton industry compressed into sheets somewhat like blotting paper.  They are especially for papermaking.  I collected cottonwood cotton one year and made paper.  Without any filler (recycled paper) it was much too delicate.  It felt like toilet paper except for the sharp little seeds in it (now wouldn't that be pleasant?).  When I mixed it with recycled paper it was stronger but still not a very good paper.  It was fun to try.

Paper made from trees is a whole different ball game and virtually impossible to do at home.  Lots of chemicals and machinery are required.  In her book, "Plant Fibers for Papermaking", Lillian Bell mentions using cedar to make a paper with a processing time for the fibre of 6 hours.

Okay then....get busy!  I'll see you back here with your plant materials in a week or two and we'll make some paper! 


  1. This is fascinating, I have to try this with some of the natural materials so abundant on our property. I don't think I'm brave enough to include plants like stinging nettle though!

  2. Pat, stinging nettle is one of my favourites because it makes a very strong, almost cloth-like paper. I do inevitably end up with some 'stings' though.

  3. your paper is so beautiful! i had no idea you could make it in such a way =D

    Chloe x

  4. thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a note. I've got all the papermaking goods in my studio though it's been awhile since I've done it. I have a magnolia tree in my yard and the leaves are great for pulp. I'll be back. ;-)
    ArtL8dY in Houston

  5. wow - so much info here. I always love stopping by your blog

  6. amazing post, Liz-Anna! those papers are SO beautiful and it's such an interesting journey to create them... you are not only a truly talented artisan but a fabulous writer too. ☺

  7. Thanks for commenting! I really enjoy reading them. I'll be posting the papermaking tutorial by next weekend.

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  9. Good morning, I just came across your blog about paper making by doing a quick google search after listening to an interview about paper making on NPR yesterday. Does straw work for making paper? Also, am I correct in understanding that if you let leaves like Iris dry then you don't have to scrape them, at what point are plants too old, or dry or whatever to use? Thank you.

  10. Have you ever used green onion leaves or leeks?

  11. Hi, I was just wondering if it was possible to make paper from ginger roots? Thank you for the guide, it's been very useful ☺

    1. Clare, it looks like I missed responding to you. I think it might be too woody but there is no harm in trying.

  12. Hi Liz-Anna,

    I have a couple questions for you regarding making paper from plants.

    I would like to make two types of paper:
    1. One from tomato plants
    2. Another from Irises and other leafy water plants.

    I have the same questions for both plant types:


    1a. With harvesting the tomato plants, would you recommend first peeling them into strips, and then cutting them into 1/2 to 1'' lengths?
    Or just cutting them into 1/2 to 1'' lengths directly?

    1b. Do I need to do this when the tomato plant is fresh and I have just harvested it, or can I wait until I have hung it to dry?

    1c. Do you have any recommendations if it is better to make the paper when the tomato plants are fresh or dry?

    2a. With harvesting the irises, would you recommend first peeling them into strips, and then cutting them into 1/2 to 1'' lengths?
    Or just cutting them into 1/2 to 1'' lengths directly?

    2b. Do I need to do this when the iris plant is fresh and I have just harvested it, or can I wait until I have hung it to dry?

    2c. Do you have any recommendations if it is better to make the paper when the iris plants are fresh or dry?

    I have not made paper before. It is part of a book I am making to document the water filtration system I built as part of this project: Floating University Berlin:

    Thank you!

    1. Sorry I missed this! I've never done tomato plants but I always strip fresh, then cut. Iris leaves I just ut up. Fresh ones it is usually recommended to scrape first but I don't.

  13. Thank you for all of this information!

    A question for you- I'm thinking of harvesting our black swallowwort to make paper. Do you have any suggestions as to when might be a good time of year to do so?

    Thank you!!

    1. I am not familiar with that plant. I try to harvest when the plant is mature but before it seeds when it tends to be too dry to strip well for bast fibre. For leaves like iris leaves at maturity is also when they have the most fibre.


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