VG Paper Blog


Paper from Raw Cotton

Paper has been made from cloth & rags made of cotton… so making it from raw cotton should be easy! Not quite. The Hollander beater should be able to take raw cotton and pulp it. No matter how your beater is set up or how low or high the drum and bedplate are set, the cotton will still knot up and stop your beater! You must prepare your material for a smooth knot free beating.

Since paper has historically been made from rags and natural materials (hemp, flax, etc.) I didn't think that making paper from cotton would be a big deal. Wholly Molly! I could relay all the failed attempts but, I won't. Just know that it was a 'learning' experience. My thanks to Susan Clark for donating a garbage bag full of raw cotton. I only have used 2.6 lbs. for this experiment (half the bag).

Click to enlarge
half O bag of raw cotton

First, raw cotton has dirt, seeds, sticks and other debris in it. Heck it is a natural material. In order to clean it and pull the locks apart a bit, I built a vicious looking device used by some spinners called a 'wool-picker'. The wool picker opens the wool and prepares it for carding, combing and even spinning. It's basically opposing boards filled with sharpened nails that catch and pull apart the wool (cotton in this case). Three boards on the bottom and a sliding board on top. Click here for really rough wool-picker plans.

Click to enlarge
wool picker in progress

Raw Cotton
pile of wool before picking

Cotton that has been picked wool picked

To use the picker, place the material at the open end (right side in the images) and place the top sliding board on top (of course) with the nails facing inward. As you slide the top board back and forth, it should drag the material (cotton in this case) into the picker and the inner nails will start to pull the material apart. By the time the material gets to the other end, it will be cleaner and more open. The dirt, seeds and other debris will fall to the bottom. You may have to do this a couple of times to really get the cotton opened up.
Picker in usewool picker in progress

Hydrophobic to Hydrophilic

Cotton fiber needs to be "scoured" so it can be pulped in water. Raw cotton fibers contain natural oils & waxes. These need to be literally turned to soap, softening plant material and pectins so they can be washed away. Then neutralized and cleaned.

There is a fair amount of discussion about how the fiber should be "scoured". Some say use Sodium Hydroxide others soda ash or the easiest to get lye. But how much? One person bases amounts on the amount of water and another bases the amount of caustic material on the amount of natural material. You are just trying to get the material to 12.84 PH.

Here are the two different methods and my version after.

  • 1 gallon distilled water to 3 oz. Lye = 12.80 PH
  • 4.8 gallon of water for 2.6 lbs of fiber with 3.64 oz. of Lye = ?? PH

1). So my formula is 1 gallon + 2 cups of distilled water added to 3 tbs powdered Lye = 13.00 PH. A bit high but workable. Heated the water in a stainless steel pot and added 2 big handfuls to the pot and pushed it under the water with a stick. It really doesn't want to play in the water. Simmered for 1 hr. Removed and drained. That fiber is neutralized in 4.5 gallons of tap water with 2 tbs of muriatic acid (PH of 0.55, probably a bit much but workable). After 5 to 10 min in the neutralizing acid bath, it's off to 3 gallons of rinse water (PH of 8.5).

2). It took 2 days to scour 2.6 lbs. Change your water in all baths often, 'cause it can get the cotton kind of brown. If you change your water often, you won't get that. If you do, soak the material in 3 gallons of water with 2 cups 3% hydrogen-peroxide (H2O2). Note: It takes a while to dry the fiber. Sun and a fan helps the process along. I used my forced-air paper dryer to get everything dry.

Prepping for Beating

The drum carderIt took me about 1 week to card the 2.6 lbs of scoured cotton fiber into batts to pulp in the beater. I used a drum carder (that I borrowed from Susan Clark if I promised to fix it). The drum carder was infinitely faster than hand carding the fiber. It made batts that were 8.25" X 18.85". The finished stack of batts was close to 6' tall!

Beating the Batts
I filled the beater with 6.5 gallons of water (neutral ph). Since I do a "hydration" segment where the drum is at least 1" from the bed plate, I turned the beater on and fed in the dry batts. The cotton immediately tangled and stopped the beater. Hmmmm..... So I thought… I could:

  • soak the batts and/or
  • drop the drum to almost the bottom or drop it to the bottom.
I soaked the batts (about 6 or 10) and started the beater. I dropped the drum to almost the bottom (0.14") and started it. As I pulled the batts out of the water they came apart pretty easily. It was difficult to gauge how much I put into the beater. It was banging pretty loudly ripping apart those knots. I picked the random number of 6 for my gauge, 6 batts for 6 min.

After 6 minutes, it was pretty near to being pulp. So I kept adding 6 batts for 6 minutes without removing what was already in the beater. After about 30 or 35 batts, I started to worry that the fibers might get overbeaten. So I drained the beater, refilled it with neutral ph water, left it just off the bottom and started it. This time I didn't presoak the batts, I just separated them and added them at the back of the beater so they got hydrated as they went around the beater to the front and timed 6 minutes per bunch of batts. Total, it was 3 batches. The strained pulp was more like pudding and not so watery. I sheet formed with both watery and pudding like pulps. You had to replenish the vat after every A3 sheet with the more watery pulp but the strained pulp gave me 3-A3's before replenishing the vat.

Observations in sheet-forming raw cotton
  • It has a tendency to clump, so vigorous mould shaking (the vatman shake) is important
  • As previously stated, the watery pulp needs to be replenished after every sheet. Alas, this adds too much water to the vat. I ended with about 18 gallons instead of the starting 10 gallons. This had to be strained and reduced later.
  • When we got to the strained (pudding bucket) pulp I had to replenish less but still needed a vigorous shaking.
  • The color ended up ivory. Total sheet count: A3 = 64 + a lg paper block for Susan Clark (made from 1 1/2 gallon of pulp).