Adapt & Evolve: East Asian Materials and Techniques in Western Conservation

Icon’s Book and Paper Group Committee organised the Adapt & Evolve 2015 conference, which was held from 8th-11th April at The School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The four-day event included lectures, panel discussions, a day of studio tours, trade stands, in-conference and post-conference workshops focused on East Asian materials and techniques.

East Asian materials, particularly handmade Japanese paper, have a long history of production and use. Their durability and known ageing characteristics have led to their widespread and successful adoption by Conservators of Western and non-Western materials.

Thurs-WSP by BM conservators demoWheat starch paste made in various way

Above: wheat starch paste made in various ways.  Attendees were given a chance to feel the differences between each method of preparation including hand stirred, microwave, and le saucier.

The conference lectures spanned two days and the topics discussed included papermaking in East Asia, the use of Japanese paper in western conservation, adhesives, repair and drying techniques, to name but a few. I was particularly interested in the panel discussion titled, Coming Unstuck: Hirayama Studio Conservators Discuss Paste and Paste-making with Dr Vincent Daniels, Jin Xian Qui and Carol Weiss. During this discussion, the method of preparing wheat starch paste was discussed alongside the qualities of the paste. Paste needs to have real inherent strength, although this will vary depending on the purpose the paste is used for. The conservators highlighted the main factors in making a good paste, which include ensuring enough heat reaches the mixture, long duration of mixing, and vigorous stirring to break up the swollen granules. The British Museum keeps their paste in a glazed, earthenware jar with a lid for one week. After this discussion we had the opportunity to handle a selection of pastes made using various methods by the conservators; the British Museum paste proved to feel the tackiest.

I was fortunate to attend a series of in-conference workshops alongside the lectures. The East Asian Paper Identification workshop given by Megumi Mizumura (conservator at the British Museum) and Nancy Jacobi (President of the Japanese Paper Place in Canada) was very informative. In this workshop we learnt about the papermaking processes in East Asia. We had the opportunity to examine and compare various Chinese, Korean, and Japanese papers in order to identify differences in quality. Paper quality is largely dependent upon how long the fibres are cooked for.

Kozo is the main fibre used for papermaking and this comes from the bark of the mulberry trees grown in Japan, Thailand, China and Paraguay. There is a difference in the kozo fibres chosen for papermaking in each of these countries, and a real difference in the price. For example, an unspecified quantity of Thai kozo would cost $1, whilst the same amount of Chinese kozo would cost $5 and Japanese kozo would cost $15. Japanese Kozo is considered to be by far the best quality kozo. It has been produced for 1400 years and it is known to have been made in the same way for at least the last 100 years. The raw materials for Japanese kozo are harvested carefully and very well processed, resulting in a strong and long-lasting paper.

In contrast to this, Thai kozo has only been produced since the 1950’s but it is often readily available in large quantities.  As the mulberry tree grows faster in hot countries there can often be a fault in the paper made with Thai kozo fibres. This fast growing can result in deformation of the raw material that appears as oil spots, which can take as long as two or three years to become visible  in the paper.

I found this workshop incredibly useful in understanding the importance of choosing the correct papers for conservation treatment. As the different kozo papers showed, there can be unfortunate consequences in selecting poorer quality papers.

The conference concluded with a day of post-conference workshops at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was a lovely way to end the event. The first workshop, the Use of Natural Dyes in the Work of Kwang-Young Chun was given by Susan Catcher (Senior Paper Conservator at the V&A). Here we had the opportunity to hear about Susan’s research into natural dyes; her aim is to see what natural resources are available in the UK to use as dyes for toning repair papers.

Composite images

Above left: having a go at dying Chinese Xuan Zhi paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Above right: the raw materials used for creating dyes including alder cones and sappan wood.

Susan discussed her experiments using mordants to modify colours and create fast colours. We were able to see the raw materials used to create the dyes, which included sappan wood (pink), mugwort (pale green) and alder cones (brown). A practical session followed where we had the chance to apply the dyes Susan prepared to three eastern papers, including Chinese Xuan Zhi, Korean Hanji and Japanese Sekishu-Shi. We learnt two ways of dying paper using Japanese and Chinese brushes. The first is to apply dye directly on top of the sheet, and the second method involves brushing the dye on a flat surface such as polythene and then letting the sheet soak up the dye from underneath.  Using this method, additional sheets can be placed on top of the first to create different intensities of colour. Once we finished brushing the dye onto the paper, the sheets were placed on felt and left to dry.

The second workshop, Hanji Paper, allowed us to observe Korean papermaking in action, demonstrated by Chun-Ho Kim, a paper craftsman specialising in Korean paper. He has been making Hanji paper for 15 years and is part of a family of papermakers. There are a great deal of different steps involved in making a sheet of Hanji paper so the process was reduced to give us the essence of this process.

No chemicals are used in Hanji papermaking. All of the natural materials used are found in Korea and are gathered over a period of six months. The paper is made from kozo fibres from the bark of the mulberry tree and mucilage from the root of the hibiscus is mixed with the fibres as a formation aid.


Above left: Chun-Ho Kim demonstrating Hanji papermaking in a vat. Above right: Feeling the gooey mucilage inside the hibiscus root © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hanji paper is made on a mould, which is anchored to the vat. The method of making the sheets consists of dipping the mould in vertically, front to back, followed by dipping the mould right to left about five or six times. This creates a layer of cross-hatched fibres which makes a very resilient sheet of paper. The sheets of Hanji can be made with one or two layers couched together.  The sheets are then dried in sunlight on a wooden frame or heated panel. For a fantastic video showing this method of making Hanji paper click here.

Alongside the demonstration and discussion, we had the chance to see the raw materials used to make the pulp and even take some mulberry bark and hibiscus root home with us. To top off the wonderful day each participant was also given a large sheet of Hanji paper to take away with them.

The conference was a real delight to attend; I found it extremely informative and enjoyable. Having the chance to learn about the qualities of Japanese paper and the methods of dying paper with natural materials will be especially useful for the objects I am currently treating at the Chester Beatty Library. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the ICRI for awarding me the generous bursary to attend this event and to the Chester Beatty Library for granting me study leave to attend.

Puneeta Sharma, Paper Conservation Intern

Springing into action

Welcome to the new Chester Beatty Conservation blog!

Thanks to the wonderful Spring weather and the sense of new beginnings and possibilities we have been inspired to finally develop and launch our conservation blog. We thought we’d start by highlighting the Chester Beatty Library’s beautiful setting within the Dubh Linn Gardens of Dublin Castle.

We hope you’ll enjoy reading about interesting projects from our conservation laboratory and we look forward to sharing some behind-the-scenes stories with you.

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