Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Art of Washi

Washi is the Japanese word for the traditional papers made from the long inner fibers of three plants native to Japan  - kozo, mitsumata and gampi. 


The kozo plant (Broussonetia papyrifera) or paper mulberry bark is thick and strong. Its long, tough fibers produce durable, textured, stable papers that are the most commonly used in the making of Japanese paper or washi.

A craftsman makes washi paper at his workshop. (Hikaru Uchida)

Kozo or the mulberry bush is indigenous to the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu islands. Kozo fiber makes very strong paper (it can even be use to weave textiles). Kozo washi is especially strong when it has been specifically treated for water resistance.

Samples of washi - kozo, gampi, mitsuma.

Samples of Japanese washi called kozogami.

Tissue made from kozo or kozogami comes in varying thicknesses and colors, ideal for the mending of books. The majority of mending tissues are made from kozo fibers, though mitsumata and gampi papers are also used.

The mitsumata shrub (Edgeworthia chrysantha) provides graceful and delicate fibers. The bark fibers of this plant is used for making the handmade Japanese tissue called mitsuma. Some early printed banknotes used this paper because it is quite durable.

Sugiharagami - another kind of washi.

Washi in Ikat prints at 188 Galerie

Native to China, the mitsumata bush has been used since the 17th century in the production of some of the highest qualities of washi paper. Mitsumata paper is ivory colored and very fine. It is especially favored for use in traditional Japanese calligraphy and for printing on. 

The gampi (Diplomorpha sikokiana) is a deciduous shrub that can grow to about two meters and its fibers possess a beautiful natural sheen. Used for copy paper, tracing paper and for woodblock printing since 850 AD. gampi is also easily dyed and decorated and can be found as the support for screens, fans and parasols. 

Decorative washi in a variety of colors.

Calligraphy on translucent washi.

Native to mountainous areas of Japan, the gampi bush is called the 'king of washi'. It is almost impossible to cultivate and as a result the most expensive source of paper fiber. Gampi paper has a natural reddish cream color and a smooth, shiny surface. It is commonly used to make paper for high quality books and in special art and crafts. 

The word "washi" comes from wa [Japanese] and shi [paper] - a term used to describe paper made by hand in the traditional manner. 



Washi display at a shop in Kyoto, Japan

Other fibers can be used as well - such as hemp, abaca, bamboo, rice, wheat, etc. - which can be used to make paper or mixed in with other fibers - like all sorts of leaves, flowers, seeds, bark, rind, etc.

Unrivaled for their supple strength, elegance and variety, Japanese washi papers have been a source of inspiration to artists and admirers for centuries.


More inspiring ways to use washi.

This style of washi consists of two handmade sheets that have been embedded together to make its flower motif. The lightweight sheet has a rough natural texture and deckle edge. 



Strong and translucent, this particular style of thin washi paper was originally used to make prayer lanterns in Japan. 




This small sheet contains a block printed image of a Japanese guest house with a mountain in the distance.

This sheet has a pattern of figures with parasols along with Japanese characters.  Its crisp and smooth texture make it ideal for many arts and crafts projects or to decorate and brighten one’s space.



Washi is revered for its strength, endurance and elegance - due to its long fibers. These qualities make it a natural and prime choice for countless uses - such as bookbinding, lamps, lanterns, fans, screens, gift wrap, origami, collage and so much more. 

Traditional kozo process.