Types of Fibers
Kozo, or Mulberry, is used in 90% of washi. It is known for its very long fibers, giving the paper strength and durability. There are two types of Japanese Kozo: Nasu (Ibaraki Prefecture) and Tosa (Shikoku and Kochi Prefectures). It is also grown in China, Southeast Asia incl. the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Kozo is essentially a weed, and when it is harvested, will grow back the next year. It is a sturdy plant and grows basically everywhere. Kozo grown in Southeast Asia has a darker color than Japanese, and is thinner and oilier, and therefore is most often bleached. The difference likely comes from water quality, whether or not the water is being filtered through rocks as in Japan; the pH level of the soil; environmental humidity; and the distance between the cultivated plants. Japanese kozo exhibits thicker strands and a lighter color, generally requiring no bleaching.
Gampi fiber is rare and fickle. It is almost impossible to cultivate, and needs to be harvested by gleaners. The two most important factors for its happiness are soil and light: it should be not too much light, but not too much shade, and the soil should be a mix of soft and rocky. It takes 7 years for Gampi to reach its first harvest, and after that it can be harvested every 3 years. Gampi looks like young Sakura (cherry tree) when you harvest it, so you have to be very careful to cut down the correct plant! Its original purpose was to hold gold leaf.
Mitsumata will grow about anywhere. It is easy to identify by the 3-configuration of its branches.
Mitsu = Three. The tradition of using mitsumata as the raw material for Japanese banknotes began in 1879, and they still contain the fibers today, providing durability and strength. Mitsumata tree has beautiful blossoms in yellow, orange and purple and is thus often also cultivated as an ornamental tree.
Washi is a wildly flexible material to work with and can be applied to many creative pursuits including: Printmaking - Bookbinding - Lighting - Conservation - Sculpture - Drawing - Painting - Mark-Making - Collage - Encaustic - Interior Design - Architecture - Graphic Design - Scrapbooking - Sumi-e - Origami.
History and Future
Although now an integral part of Japanese culture, washi’s roots can be traced back to China. In around 610 CE the technique of hand-making paper was brought to Japan by Korean Buddhist monks who luckily also brought with them the knowledge of ink manufacture. Paper making was traditionally work done by farmers during the winter months when it was too cold to be out in the fields. They planted Kozo and Hemp in addition to their regular crops and took advantage of the clear ice water and bright winter sunshine in order to produce paper free from impurities.
The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) saw a steep decline in the use of washi, as demand for paper increased and Japan went through a process of Westernisation. Mass-produced paper became the norm and washi was generally only used for Buddhist and Shinto religious ceremonies and traditional Japanese architecture and decoration. Today, only one tenth of the original factories thriving during the 1980’s are still open. However, many craftspeople, conservators and artists are invested in promoting the fine properties of washi.
By bringing washi to Europe, we hope to introduce the paper and its makers to artists, designers, architects and craftspeople who may be unfamiliar with it, but who will find it to be an indispensable source of inspiration, versatility and beauty in their practices. By increasing awareness, we help ensure that the Masters in Japan can continue their craft, and keep the thread of history unbroken.