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History of paper production

Most people would consider the earliest paper was made from papyrus grass in Egypt.  The name ‘paper’ comes from the word papyrus.  About 5,000 years ago the Egyptians cut thin strips from the stem of the marsh grass – Cyperous Papyrus – softened them in water, then layered these strips in right angles to form a mat.  They then pounded this mat until it was thin and allowed it to dry in the sun.  These sheets were lightweight, transportable and able to be written on, and was the ‘paper’ of choice at that time for Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for administrative records, spiritual texts and art works.  But this ‘paper’ is not true paper.  The laminated nature of the sheets means that technically it is more like a mat and therefore not a true paper.  True paper is made of pulped cellulose fibres such as, wood, cotton or flax. 

In other parts of the world, other cultures (eg Mayans and Pacific Islanders) used products for the same purposes as paper, but these products are also not true paper.  These ‘papers’ along with papyrus are predecessors of paper and are known more correctly by the term ‘tapa’.  Tapa has been found extensively in nearly all cultures within the Equatorial belt, as well as China, Egypt, and the Himalayas.

True paper, as we define it today, has its origins in China around 107 AD.  It is reported that T’sai Lun, a court official (some records say he was the emperor’s chief eunuch) invented paper making from textile waste using rags.  He experimented further with a wide variety of materials and refined the process of macerating the fibre of plants until each filament was completely separate.  These fibre mix was mixed with water, and a screen was submerged and lifted up through the water to catch the fibres.  When dried this paper was called T’sai Ko-Shi – Distinguished T’sai’s Paper.

Chinese paper making techniques became more specialized over the next few centuries with sized, coated and dyed paper, and paper with insect protection.  The art of paper making spread firstly to Vietnam and then to Tibet.  By the year 610 AD paper making had spread to Korea and Japan, and very soon after to Central Asia and then on to Nepal and India.  Arab expansion brought the technology to the Middle East and then on to Europe.

The rapid expansion of trade in the late Middle Ages included more and more merchants dealing in the commodity called ‘paper’ that was fast becoming an indispensable item for public and intellectual life.  The early European papers were made from rags.  Due to paper’s popularity a large trade built up in recycled cotton and linen rags.  It is believed that rags imported from Europe to England brought with them the black plague.  Scarcity of rags led to experimentation with fibres such as straw, cabbage, hemp, rattan, wasp nests and finally wood.  Softwood pulp became the favoured material.

Paper’s popularity brought with it more refinements to the paper making process and resulted in a better grade of paper.  At this time production moved from hand-make to mill-made and this allowed a much larger scale of operation.  Improved and more sophisticated technology further refined the process and product.

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Copyright 2005
Last Updated April 2005