Retting

In the Industrial Age of papermaking, whether handmade or machine-made, there is a saying: “Paper is made in the beater,” meaning that it is not the skill of the vatman that determines the characteristics of a paper -- first he must have the correct furnish. After all, cotton linter beaten for only a short time will make toilet paper, no matter how talented the vatman, while rags beaten all day will make glassine paper. All other printing, writing, currency papers, etc. are made from pulp beaten for a specific duration tailored for each category of paper. Such is the contribution of a beating engine to paper making in the Industrial Age; since the early 18th century, one could live by the motto: “Paper is made in the beater.”

Now I have changed my tune; I believe that in fact, “Paper is ruined in the beater.” Based upon my experience and research, the best paper is “made” in the selection and retting of the rags. A well-fermented linen rag, degraded by white rot fungus (like turkey tail mushroom) will need only a few minutes in the beater to complete its processing and make an exquisite paper -- a paper with dimensional stability and without the negative characteristics of prolonged fraying, cutting, and swelling of fibers in the beater. Avoiding all the harsh processing of chemicals and beaters allows us to preserve Mother Nature’s carefully made and encapsulated fibers. Now that I have made such a statement, I am hopeful future testing will prove this to be correct. To date we have completed only one test using white-rot fungus and one using worm-composted linen; both look very promising.

-excerpted from Donald Farnsworth's A Quest for the Golden Fleece, 2017

 

Photo credits: Nora Skully, Arlene Suda, and Donald Farnsworth