Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World

The Islamic Manuscript Association’s inaugural course and symposium on the materials and techniques of Islamic manuscript production was held at the British Library from 23rd- 27th March this year. Julia and I were lucky enough to attend.

This fascinating class was taught by Cathleen Baker, conservation librarian at the University of Michigan Library; Tim Barrett, director of the University of Iowa Center for the Book; Evyn Kropf, librarian for Near Eastern and religious studies and curator of the Islamic manuscript collection at the University of Michigan Library; and Katharina Siedler, papermaker and historian. The thirteen participants had travelled from around the globe to attend and included the authors of several pre-eminent scholarly publications on Islamic paper.

2015-03-24 10.37.35 2015-03-24 12.02.12

The intensive four-day course focused on the practical techniques of Islamic papermaking based on the methods used by hand papermakers in parts of India today. Our daily papermaking sessions considered mould construction, fibre preparation, sheet formation, pressing and drying, as well as sheet finishing techniques of sizing and burnishing. You can read Ann Tomalak’s lovely account of the processes here.

Whilst this was a wonderful opportunity to gain first hand-experience in an alternative (to European) technique of papermaking, for me it was the discussion that surrounded the class that proved invaluable. The varied experience of the participants meant that an active and lively discussion was soon underway, and the problems of discussing ‘Islamic papermaking’ were soon at the forefront of our minds.

One of the first discussion points was about terminology. The word Islamic is the commonly accepted term used to describe the cultures of the vast and diverse regions which have been ruled or inhabited by predominantly Islamic populations. This makes it a rather open-ended term, and we soon realised that rather than a generic Islamic form of papermaking, we were looking at a far more regionally specific variation of the craft. In particular, the living practitioners our tutors had studied and learnt from were working in regions of India. Our terminology reflected this, and we used the Indian word chapri to describe the characteristic flexible mould screen.

© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. CBL Per 196 f.135b

© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. CBL Per 196 f.135b

One of the key texts we reviewed in relation to the observations of papermaking in the field, was ibn Badis. This text was written in 11th Century northeast Algeria, and describes papermaking with flax from a raw plant fibre stock. This account contrasted with the observations made in India today (as in Europe) where only rag fibres are used to form the pulp. So ensued much discussion: Is ibn Badis documenting a particularly unusual papermaking process? Is he just an interested individual- a prince no less- with limited practical experience or understanding? Or could it be that ibn Badis’ source was protective of the true details of his livelihood?

We also discussed the only other known historic treatise on papermaking, an anonymous work attributed to al-Ghassânî (d. 694-1294) in the Yemen. Al-Ghassânî notes the use of raw plant fibres from the fig tree and fails to mention any use of recycled rags, but perhaps he is influenced by Southeast Asian trade with the Yemen, and documenting a Southeast Asian papermaking process. Our discussion served to emphasise the diversity of papermaking traditions over centuries and across a vast geographic range, as well as the potential hazards of relying upon historic treatises alone.

In the practical sessions, discussion focused on the materials our moulds were made from, and our sheet formation technique. We experimented with bamboo and grass chapri’s woven with thread or horsehair and tried a double-dip technique at the vat, similar to that seen in some Japanese and Korean papermaking traditions; but contrary to popular belief, neither double-dipping nor immediately couching wet sheets on top of one another produced a sheet which was easy to delaminate, a common misconception regarding Islamic papers. Having said that, only three of our number were professional papermakers. The rest of us were at best inexpert at this skillful craft. Our dry sheets were surface sized with starch and burnished with agates and bone folders to produce a crisp hard writing surface, a process which also masked a multitude of sheet formation flaws!

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We finished the fourth day with observations of historic manuscripts. Our session was spent looking at a variety of attributed historic manuscript fragments on a lightbox, which was hugely informative; the differences in paper production techniques across the vast Islamic world were obvious when they were seen side by side. On the last day of the week a symposium was held and I have no doubt that all of the participants’ minds were whirring. It was clear that the speakers had taken the discourse and experiences of the week into consideration in their presentations which added to the thought provoking atmosphere.

In conclusion, this fascinating week was extremely inspiring. There is still much to learn about the intriguing subject of Islamic manuscript production, and this course highlighted the range of unknowns. However, I left feeling enthused by the conversation between deeply passionate participants and tutors.

Another variation of Indian papermaking using a floating mould and textile separators

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

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