Written by Kumiko Toya
Washi is a traditional paper having been made in Japan for over 1,500 years. It has been playing a fundamental role in Japanese culture and in people’s lives. Washi also inspires artists and crafters around the world for its unique softness and flexibility. This week, we are going to share the facts and secrets behind the beauty of Washi!
WHAT IS WASHI?
Washi can be translated to “Japanese paper” meaning wa (Japanese) and shi (paper). Washi is made from the inner fibers of tree barks, yielding sheets of expressive surface and impressive character.
In addition to basic uses such as printing, publishing, and household goods, Washi is beautiful and versatile enough that it has been used for almost any artistic projects in Japan.
WHAT IS WASHI MADE OF?
The barks of the plants, kozo (mulberry), mitsumata (edgeworthia), and gampi, all native to Japan, are the primary ingredients. Pure, icy cold running water from a mountain stream is also essential to the art of making Washi.
Plants of Kozo, Mitsumata, and Gampi
HOW IS WASHI MADE?
Making Washi is a long process. Though some of these processes have been replaced by machines over the years, the complicated and painstaking work is still necessary to produce a sheet of Washi.
1. The plants are harvested by cutting the stalks to equal lengths. After steamed for two to three hours, the bark is stripped.
Left image courtesy of http://blog.livedoor.jp/niyodogawa/
2. The bark is cleaned in water, then dried in a cool area.
3. The dried bark is cooked in a large pot with wood ash (alkali solution) for a few hours until they are very soft.
4. The cooked fibers are rinsed and cleaned. Any dust or discolored parts are carefully removed by hand.
Image courtesy of shoji
5. The cleaned fibers are beaten repeatedly with a wooden stick which results in a cotton-like material.
Images courtesy of shoji
6. The material is mixed with plant-based glue from the root of tororo-aoi (hibiscus plant).
Tororo-aoi (hibiscus) plant and its roots
7. The material is spread out onto a sieve, and the shive is shaken to help the fibers become entwined and the material is evenly distributed.
8. Once a desired thickness is reached, the excess water is drained.
9. The material is dried, finally becoming Washi.
10. There are several methods to dye Washi paper. Natural botanical dyes or pigments are applied with brushing or dipping onto the paper by hand, making no two pieces alike and lending them a unique charm.
TYPES OF WASHI
Although sheets of Washi paper are made using basically the same process, if you look carefully, you will notice there are significant differences in texture and thickness.
Washi which has been folded, pressed between wooden boards, then dyed to achieve a grid pattern.
Washi that has been crumpled then dyed to create a wrinkled effect.
This lacy paper is semi transparent and has holes. Rakusui means drop of water — the scattered dot patterning on this paper is created using a spray of water drops.
Unryu is translated to cloud dragon due to the kozo fibers seen throughout the paper. In Chigiri-e, it can be used to pull out the individual fibers to convey fine lines.
Tengujo is an extremely thin paper that is almost transparent. It can be layered on top of other Washi to create 3D effect in Chigiri-e.
IMPORTANCE OF PROTECTING CULTURAL HERITAGE
In the late 1800's, there were more than 100,000 families making Washi paper across Japan. The number dropped significantly after Japan was introduced to Western paper which was much cheaper and easier to produce. As many other traditional handicrafts, the problem of the successor to pass on the tradition impacted Washi manufacturing and by 2010, only 165 workshops produced traditional Washi in Japan.
Thanks to industry association, artists and local governments’ effort, the charm of the traditional Washi is becoming re-evaluated in Japan and gradually gaining recognition outside of Japan. In 2014, Washi was recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Learn Chigiri-e with us!
With our Chigiri-e Course package, you will get 30 sheets of the highest quality Washi papers of Itajime, Bokashi-some, Unryu, Rakusui, and Tengujo, each sheet hand-selected in Japan and imported directly.
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