A Short History of Mulberry Paper

Asiacreations Showroom: Mulberry tree branches with mature and immature fruit - Broussonetia papyriferaHere in Thailand, where our Mulberry paper products originate, the Paper Mulberry tree is known as "Ton Saa". It literally translates to "Tree Mulberry". Since people always veer toward the shortest, most effective way to convey meaning, here in Thailand we usually refer to Mulberry paper as "Saa paper".

As we see that Saa paper is generally made from bark, we realise that there are quite a few historic language connections. The English word "book" by its old English meaning derives from the current word “bark”. Related to the olde English is Dutch which now uses "boek". Also German uses "Buch", which in turn relates to "Buche" (the beech tree).

Back to the "timeline" of paper history. Saa paper or otherwise said Mulberry paper, plays a dominant historic role here.

Writing on Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) began well before 3000 BC in Egypt. Papyrus is a solid structure as opposed to matted structures from individual fibre material that defines the term "paper" (2). In Europe, animal skins were used to make Vellum or Parchment, both basically referring to the same material, Vellum deriving its meaning from the Latin word "vitellus" (calf for calf-skin), and Parchment deriving its meaning from Pergamus, an important early production base for high quality vellum. Other writing materials included stone, lead, brass and bronze (3). Early Chinese writing was often on hemp, bamboo and silk.

According to some sources, mulberry paper was invented and first used around AD 105 in China by Ts’ai Lun as documented in his announcement to emperor Hi-Ti. Whether this was the first time that it was used as paper is not entirely certain, as other sources say that paper fragments exist from two hundred years earlier, also in China (4,5). In all cases, it appears that paper making may have remained a Chinese secret until the Battle of the Talas River in 751 AD, where an army of Mohammad captured a complete Chinese paper making workshop and its artisans among a total of about 20,000 POWs. The actual transfer of technology occurred in nearby Arab Samarkand, now the second largest city of Uzbekistan, which then quickly became the Arab/Islamic centre for paper fabrication (6). Even today, the air of Samarkand is marked by the sweet smell of Mulberries (7).

The Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera, syn. Morus papyrifera L.) is a deciduous (8) tree native of eastern Asia and grows up to about 15 meters tall. It forms part of Southeast Asia’s natural diverse forest flora and grows abundantly in Thailand’s north-eastern and northern farming countryside. During summer, it bears a red to orange oval fruit of about 3-4 cm (male tree) and round 1.5 cm (female tree) in diameter (9), which are an important food source for wild animals (10).

Aside from handmade paper making, the mulberry tree forms the basis of nourishment for silk worms in natural silk production (11) and is also used for its medicinal properties (12). The term "rice paper" often refers to papers not made from rice but made from the mulberry tree (13).

Asiacreations rticles: Mulberry tree, bark of a grown tree - Broussonetia papyrifera

Mulberry paper apparently has a history of longer than 700 years in Thailand, with some mentions around AD 1300 by using the inner bark of the Khoi tree Streblus Asper (L.) Lour, which also has significant medicinal properties (14). As Khoi trees became scarce, papermaking subsided. During the second world-war, the Japanese recognised the local Mulberry tree, known to them as the "Kozo" tree, as the source of their own traditional handmade paper and revived paper making to alleviate the occupation's severe paper shortage (15). Mulberry paper making has continued since.

Mulberry paper is made exclusively from the bark, or bast, fibres of the mulberry tree (16). The tree may be fully grown yet it is already harvestable as a shrub of about 3-4 meters. Its traditional, handmade production follows a process essentially unchanged since the invention of mulberry paper:

  • the bark and small branches are stripped from the tree and boiled in vats of water and ash
  • the soft, soggy bark is pounded to separate the fibres and remove the soft tissues
  • the remaining fibers are suspended in water and stirred
  • the fibre pulp is picked up on a fine-mesh screen, which is set in the sun to dry
  • the fibre pulp dries to form paper, and is peeled off the screen (17,18)

Dyes are added during suspension in the water and various techniques are used to achieve texture or add materials such as pressed flowers and twigs into the paper. Often, the paper is also hand painted using various techniques and designs.

The Mulberry tree has a very high initial growth rate of approximately 3.5 meters within thirty-eight weeks. Growth similarly continues, albeit at somewhat slower progress, as the tree gets more mature (19). The tree survives the stripping process of bark and entire small branches. After the bark has been stripped from the tree it regrows and other small branches emerge by following season. In some practices, young trees or shrubs may be fully harvested, and will quickly re-branch from the tree trunks, ready for harvest by next season (20). New Mulberry trees are also propagated and planted (21). As there is no dipping into long-term natural resources, Mulberry paper may therefore be seen as a relatively environmentally friendly product.

Mulberry paper in its many variations is a beautiful product resulting from a very work-intensive and time-consuming handmade production process. With paper making almost exclusively in small-scale family workshops, the greatest part of the effort’s value-added (benefit) goes directly to the paper maker families themselves, which we hope may help sustain the traditional craft of handmade paper making. We do see, however, hardly any young people in our partner artisan paper making workshops (22).

Both northern and north-eastern Thailand show an abundance of Mulberry trees, whereas the northern Thailand area is stronger in production and artisan craftsmanship. Handmade Mulberry items range from gift wrap paper to carry bags, boxes, photo albums and greeting cards.

(1) Papermaking: http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Papermak...
(2) Ibid.
(3) Curiosities of Literature, Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848), Origin Materials of Writing: http://www.spamula.net/col/archives/2005/07/origin_of_the_materials_of_w...
(4) UCLA, Papermaking: http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Papermak...
(5) Georgia Tech, The Invention of Paper: http://ipst.gatech.edu/amp/collection/museum_invention_paper.htm
(6) National Library of Canada, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGili University, The Development of Chinese Islam during the T'ang and Song Dynasties (618-1276 AD) http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk1/tape10/PQDD_0016/MQ549... (PDF 6.3 MB)
(7) UK, Paper in Samarkand, http://uh.edu/engines/epi1456.htm
(8) It sheds its leaves during the cool season.
(9) Unpublished own observation: AsiaCreations team
(10) WikiPedia, Mulberry Paper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_Mulberry
(11) MulberryFarms: http://www.mulberryfarms.com/
(12) Agroforestry Database http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb2/AFTPDFS/Broussonetia_papyrifera... (PDF 489 kB)
(13) Wikipedia, Rice Paper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice_paper
(14) Streblus asper Lour. (Shakhotaka): A Review of its Chemical, Pharmacological and Ethnomedicinal Properties http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2006/615675/abs/
(15) History of Paper: http://www.recoverusa.com/mat_hist_pap.htm
(16) Origin of Paper: http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/rpaper/paper.htm
(17) Ibid.
(18) Unpublished own observation: AsiaCreations team
(19) Evaluation of agronomic characters of mulberry varieties in South East Queensland, Loko Anota, Madan Gupta and Doug George: http://www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2003/c/11/anota.htm
(20) Unpublished own observation: AsiaCreations team
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.

Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry (www.traditionaltree.org), Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). Good images of trees, shrubs and growth. Focus on Pacific Islands, no mention of paper making: http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/index.html (Find the PDF 786 kB).

A Short History of Mulberry Paper
by our team, December 2011