Sa papermaking

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of learning more about Sa Papermaking at the Preservation House, where our study abroad group went the first week of the program. I was hoping to learn more in depth about the entire process, especially since making paper was one of the important goals of my research! 

The tour was lead by one of the employees named Tip and the owner, who demonstrated the process. They were understandably stressed because we had a hard time understanding one another at first, but moreso because we both felt guilty not being able to communicate well! I just smiled and motioned that I could watch and learn. 

The first step was seeing how the bark was stripped from the tree with a utility knife. The tree is a Mulberry species native to Asia, but is able to grow in other continents such as North America, Europe and Africa. It's scientific name is Broussonetia papyriferaThe trunk and branches are rather small but can grow very tall. When the inner bark is harvested, it is cut in strips so it does not kill the tree. If the cut went to close to the core, it would cause the tree harm. The strips should be long to extract very long fibers, which end up being about four or five feet long. The long fibers are essential to Eastern papers, which allow the paper sheets to be very strong even when they're thin.

The inner bark of the mulberry tree harvested for pulp. Look at all that sticky goop!

The inner bark of the mulberry tree harvested for pulp. Look at all that sticky goop!

The inner bark becomes the raw fiber of the paper. Here they leave the bark for two days to dry in the sun and later strip the outer brown bark off from the cream-colored inner bark.

Bark that has been dried and still needs to be stripped of the outer bark.

Bark that has been dried and still needs to be stripped of the outer bark.

There was a beautiful Lanna style wooden barn on the property full of raw fiber on a loft. It looked a lot like the way my dad would pile bales of hay in the "hay mound"!


The next stop was the boiler, where the raw fiber is cooked to be soft. The bark is boiled in water with 1 bag soda ash at 200 degrees celsius (392 degrees farenheit) for five hours.


I'm not sure how much soda ash was in one of their bags, but I'm guessing maybe 5-10 pounds.

Bag of soda ash.

Bag of soda ash.

Then 50% hydrogren peroxide solution is added to the boiling water, stirring the fibers about and letting it boil for four hours. The hydrogen peroxide bleaches the fiber and helps it become the light creamy color we all love in Sa paper.

Bags of raw fiber ready to be beaten.

Bags of raw fiber ready to be beaten.

After the fibers have been cooked, they must be beaten to become even softer! At the preservation house, the fibers are formed into pancake shapes and pounded with wooden mallets. (They showed this part the first time I went, and we all pounded in unison sitting on tree stumps!) The pancake is about 1 kilo (2 pounds) of raw fiber, beaten by hand for 1.5 hours. 


As we waited for the beater to fill up with enough water from the hose, Tip and I took the oppotunity to document the moment. She instagramed this with a caption that said, "my new friend"! So sweet.


The fibers are beaten by machine for only 15 minutes. He gradually filled it with 25 kilos (55 pounds) of fiber. Tip informed me that the beater is 70 years old, same age as our demonstrator! Which of course led to a conversation about ages. I told them I was 25 to which she said, "I could be your mama!" He pointed to himself and said, "grandpapa!"

The fibers drain out of the beater through a hole into mesh bucket that allows the water to seep through. Once they're drained, they are collected in another bucket and ready to make sheets with.

Fibers after they are beaten into a pulp.

Fibers after they are beaten into a pulp.

One scoop of pulp was lifted from the bucket and stirred with water in a 5 gallon bucket before poured into the very large vat of water. Once poured, the mixture was stirred into the vat with a big wooden paddle in even circles.

Pulling sheets was more difficult than I imagined, and really requires a mindful, patient Zen attitude! Making Eastern paper is very different from any experience I've had in the States, and was quite difficult for me to explain to them.

For example, the mould and deckle are built into the same screen. The owner builds the screens with a simple mesh and wooden frame with edges that allow two of them to rest on one another as the sheets dry in the sunlight. The sheets are also not couched (pressed) into wet felts nor are they dried in a stack of pellons and cardboard with a fan.


In the West I learned it was important to keep the screen parallel to the water, pulling it straight upwards. They had me stop and watch them do it the right way for Sa. First, they make sure that the pulp was evenly stirred in the vat, as the pulp to water ratio was very low, as to pull very thin sheets.

Then the screen was tapped (deckle side up) until the water penetrated the mesh. The screen was dipped down into the water in a gentle "U" shaped motion from right to left. As the screen came out of the water, it would drain out of the top right corner. It's important to see that there are no holes or dents in the paper (called papermakers tears) that can be caused by water moving the fibers unevenly. This ensures you made a nice, even sheet!


The papers are dried on the screen in sunlight for about two hours before they can be peeled off. The paper sheets are pulled off gently by hand. You wouldn't think it'd work, but it does! Very satisfying to do as you can tell from my smile.


After I was satisfied with making sheets, we continued the tour. Every time we passed the tree he would say, "SA"! Here he is modeling with one. 


I was taken into a "showroom" or museum. This was essentially a collection of really awesome Thai gems the owners had collected over the past 40 years of being married and in business together. My eye caught a bowl of golden Bodhi leaves, which are hung from the cieling or rearview mirrors for good luck and decoration. He must have seen that I liked it, because he gave me one as a gift! I almost cried, it was so special!


By the end of my lesson and tour, we were very sad to leave one another. I tried my best to say "nice to meet you" and "I love Thailand" in Thai to them. They told me to come back! And to tell my friend (Heather) to come back. I only have a few days left, but if I lived here I would love to work for them! Stay tuned for a Youtube video that will be a compilation of the process in real time. :)