Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Part Two . . . To Quire by Victoria Chatham

In my last post I looked at the development of the fountain pen. In this post I’m addressing another part of the writing experience equation – paper. Where would we be without either?

We have the Chinese to thank for the art of paper making, possibly even 200 years earlier than the recorded 105 BC. Ts’ai Lun, an official at the Imperial Court so history tells us, became fascinated with the nests of wasps and bees. Inspired by their industry, he pounded mulberry bark into a sheet, let it dry and then wrote on it. This first experiment was improved with the addition of rags, hemp and old fishing nets a ll soaked together in water, the fibers then beaten into a pulp and strained through a cloth sieve onto a drying frame. Court officials were now able to discard the heavy and unwieldy bamboo strips or expensive silk previously used for writing. With the invention of woodblock printing circa 600 AD it was no wonder that by 740 AD China had its first printed newspaper.

Paper was used not only for writing, but also wrapping and padding, toilet paper and tea bags. Have you ever wondered how long paper money has been around?  The government of the Song Dynasty was the first to issue it. The earliest piece of paper, inscribed with a map and found at Fangmatan in Gansu province, dates from 179-41 BC while the earliest recorded woodblock printed book was the Diamond Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom) of 868 CE found at Dunhuang. The British Library states ‘it is the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book’.

The art of papermaking was a closely kept secret but it was inevitable that along with spices, jade, lapis lazuli and the lucrative silk that gave the route its name, knowledge of paper   made its way along the Silk Road. In 8th century Samarkand a water-mill was first used in the paper making process, a process that was repeated across the Arabic world and then medieval Europe. Modern papermaking began in earnest in the 19th century with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine, capable of producing rolls rather than sheets of paper. In 1844 inventors Charles Fenerty, a Canadian and F.G. Keller, a German, developed a machine that used wood pulp and forever changed the face of papermaking.

Paper is produced in many weights and sizes. We are all familiar with letter, legal, ledger and tabloid sizes. Some of these sizes have names such as Post, Crown and Double Demy. Imperial UK sizes include Antiquarian and Grand Eagle. The old adage ‘against the grain’ comes from the paper making industry for, if paper is folded against its grain, it can crack along the fold. The heavier the paper the more cracking will occur. A ream is 500 sheets of paper and a quire 1/20th of that, or 25 sheets of paper.

The word paper is commonly considered to derive from the papyrus plant, used by the Ancient Egyptians. The pith of the plant is processed quite differently and produces a heavier type of paper. Animal skins have been used throughout the centuries as a writing medium. Vellum is produced from calfskin, the very best being produced from unborn or stillborn animals. Today quality vellum is hard to find and expensive but is still produced in the UK by the family business of William Cowley of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. Established in 1870 they still use traditional methods passed down by word of mouth and use skills that are virtually unchanged for 2000 years. Parchment is a term for skins prepared from other animals such as horses, cows, deer and pigs. Today there is a form of vellum made from plasticized cotton.

One of the reasons I love old books is the paper they are printed on. As Helene Hanff writes in 84 Charing Cross Road, ‘I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch’. The most expensive book I ever purchased for myself was an illustrated edition of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. The grain in the paper is definitely a joy to touch.

I still like to have quality writing paper to hand, for those occasions when I actually take pen to paper for a letter at Christmas or a thank-you note. At one time I had my own design embossed letterhead notepaper but that was before the advent of the computer when letter writing was still fashionable and mail arrived twice daily Monday to Friday and on Saturday mornings.

In spite of technology, paper is still a big part of our lives. From official documents to brown grocery bags and parking or speeding tickets, it is not likely to go away any time soon. How does paper feature in your life? Do you like your magazines from the store, or online? Or both? The next time you handle a piece of paper, give some thought as to how it reached you. You may be surprised.

For more about Victoria and her books go to:


The Hardest Thing About Writing by Stuart R. West

Click to purchase! Everyone loves lists, right? So who am I to stand in the way of love? Here we go... As an author, the hardest thing...