Cattails
Typha latifolia/angustifolia hybrid

Sep 2, 2002 - My first paper attempt with cattails was less than optimal. Here's what I did and the result I got. I harvested about a dozen cattail tops in the last week of August. Several people on the papermaking list were having fun making terrific paper with them, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. I forgot to take into account I live at 4100' ASL and our plants mature a bit later than the lowlanders. So the tops I gleaned were not quite fully mature.

cattailhead001a.jpg (2805 bytes)This is one of the heads from the cattails I harvested. Pretty good sized compared to the paper grocery bag. cattailhead001c.jpg (2651 bytes) This is what the head looked like as I started to peel the seeds off. It's a little hard to get started, but once it's begun, the seeds come off nicely. Very soft, very sensuous.
cattailhead001e.jpg (3289 bytes) Looking into the bottom of the paper grocery bag, this is how much seed a single head yielded. cattailhead001g.jpg (4697 bytes)The fluff from the cattails is very stubbornly water resistent! I really had to work it to get the fiber wet enough for some of it to stay under water!
cattailhead001m.jpg (6842 bytes)The hot water eventually made the fluff more water soluble, but there still remained clumps that resisted breaking apart. I used a spatula and stabbed it into the water to help break up the bulk of the fiber. cattailhead001o.jpg (5808 bytes)After an hour of cooking on simmer with one tablespoon of washing soda per quart of water, this is what the cattail fluff finally looked like.
cattailhead001q.jpg (4932 bytes)This is my rinse set up. There is a strainer in the sink drain (similar to a tea strainer, but made just for kitchen sinks!) and then I draped some sheer curtain fabric over the sink. cattailhead001s.jpg (5858 bytes)I poured the pulp into the sink and ran cold water on it, stirring it vigorously. I did this several times.
cattailhead001u.jpg (3168 bytes)Every so often I would pull the curtain back and mash out the water, then replace the curtain and rinse again. After the water appeared to run clear, I used the curtain to mash the water out. cattailheadpulpa.jpg (4557 bytes)After unsuccessful blendering, I dried the natural and the bleached pulps on screens in the bathtub. The natural pulp had impurities in it from insufficient rinsing. The bleached pulp, on the right, dried nicely.

The pulp during cooking and rinsing was not slippery. It was very similar to tangled embroidery floss. No - not quite as slippery as that, either. It was like it was squeaky clean hair before applying a conditioner. When I blendered it, putting only a small handful in a quart of water, it just wrapped around the blade and went for a ride. So I dropped that bit back in with the rest of the cooked fiber and dried the lot.

cattailhdppr001a.jpg (5792 bytes)
Unbleached Frontlit
cattailhdppr001c.jpg (4271 bytes)
Bleached Frontlit
cattailhdppr001e.jpg (6152 bytes)
Bleached Backlit

Sep 6, 02 - I dropped the bleached and unbleached cattail fluff into a couple pots with washing soda in the water and let them simmer for an hour. I tested a small handful of cooked fiber in the blender and got the same results as before. So I plopped the test fiber back into the pot and simmered another hour for a total of three hours cooking. That worked! When I pulled out a handful, the texture was no longer that squeaky clean feeling; it was smoother - more satiny.

So I blendered a couple handsful of each pulp and pulled a couple sheets. The paper drains very fast so I let it settle a little under water and then pulled the screen and deckle up very slowly, controlling the placement of the pulp - sorta kinda. I managed to get a nice, thin sheet of unbleached that pulled from the screen after couching only when I got anal about removing moisture.  The bleached pulled even thinner and, while wet, was translucent like the skin of a prairie dog (see the backlit picture on the left). What surprised me was the similarity between bleached and unbleached in color after ironing! They are almost the same! So bleaching is actually an exercise in futility.

What was interesting was the bleached sheet, much thinner than the unbleached sheet, ironed out wrinkley! It's a really cool effect. The thicker unbleached paper is limp, but strong, giving an almost tanned leather feel to it. It is a very sensuous paper! The thicker unbleached paper also takes a fold without harming the paper and, if you want a crisp fold, would require a bone folder or fingernails to bring it out. The thinner bleached paper, on the other hand, is a bit crisp and gets a nice crisp fold with just one gentle pinch. The feel is also sensuous and is more reminiscent of the raw hide of a very thin-skinned animal.

cattailhdppr002a.jpg (4446 bytes)Sep 8, 02 - Hey! Check this out!!! I poured the pulp from the vat into my curtain and then squeezed the water out in my fist.  When I pulled the curtain material back, the pulp maintained the folds beautifully! And - the wad separated from the center and formed a kind of flower shape. "Well!" sez I. So I dried it just like that and I wonder what I'll use it with. I see beads, and polymer clay, and wire, somehow.... This stuff would make great sculpting and shaping pulp!! It stays where you put it. Also, I notice the dried pulp is a wee bit water resistent! The thin sheet wasn't, but the thicker paper was. The water drop hit and rolled right off. The residual moisture left behind did soak in and soften the paper somewhat, so you can control the amount of moisture you use when shaping and manipulating the paper! What's really cool is, the cooked fiber is one texture and can be bent and pulled apart fairly easily while the blendered pulp is VERY strong and takes some intent and serious finger pressure to bend. Actually, it won't bend - it breaks! So this pulp would be even better for sculpture. Also, it does't have to be very thick to have this strength! The paper sheets, because they are so thin, remain pliable, but get into 1/16th inch or more and wowzers! Can we say bowls? Free form sculpture? Designs for card embellishments? Delightful components to polymer clay and multimedia creations? The imagination is the only limitation!

During the months of September/October 2002, I cobbled up a few packets of cooked plant fibers into home papermaking kits and offered them for sale at my booth in the local Farmer's Market. I took with me the sample papers I had drawn from all the papermaking experiments. I found these papers lost their lovely color when exposed to the sun. I also learned while the kit was interesting, no one was interested enough to purchase one. Ah well. Maybe classroom kits?

Mar 20, 05 - Time to revisit cattail fluff. I have garnered a couple customers interested in fluff paper, so today I started cooking in Studio K (kitchen).

Funny -- I harvested overwintered cobs and the fluff stripped off so simply and beautifully, very velvety looking. I had skipped the step of baking them in the oven first to get rid of the little worms that set the fluff free figuring, what the hey? A little protein never hurt anyone. None showed up in the pot. ????  So I guess the little rascals matured into whatever and left the scene after loosening the seeds enough for the wind to take over.

I remembered the fluff is very water resistent and floats beautifully until the water boils. So this time I put soda ash into the water and put it on a hot burner. When it got hot, I started to put the fluff in one handful at a time. I'd just cover the top of the water and stir it in with a wooden stick. It was amazing. It worked! I was able to fill the pot with a considerable amount of fluff with minimum amounts drifting around the kitchen. Sure, it clumped a bit, but I stirred the pot every 15 minutes for the first hour and they broke up into a slurry like I wanted them to. Very obliging. *crooked grin*

I still had half a bucket of fluff to go, so I figured if boiling hot water works, what about tap water hot enough to wash dishes and laundry? We keep ours at a fairly high temperature. So I plopped the bucket into the sink, ran the water until it was hot then used the sprayer to wet down the fluff and fill the bucket a little ways. Nope. Nada. Not hot enough. Oh well, the good thing is the top layer of fluff plastered down and is holding the rest of it demurely while I wait for the first batch to finish cooking! Life is GOOD.

Drained the cooked fluff in a paint bag and didn't rinse or press all the moisture out. Dropped it back in the pot with no water in it and slapped in the back of my truck to play with while I'm taking care of a neighbor's elderly uncle. Promptly forgot all about it.

cattailfiber1t.jpg (9522 bytes)Mar 28, 05 - I rinsed and drained the cooked fluff today and pressed as much moisture out as I could. The pulp was a nice dark color, as expected. I decided to try bleaching again using a strong mix of Clorox™ to water. Put a lid on the five gallon bucket and left it to sit overnite.  cattailfluff1t.jpg (8343 bytes)

Popped the lid off the bucket with the uncooked fluff, figuring by now surely the fluff will have become waterlogged. Nope. Eight days and it's still sitting on top of the water pretty as you please. So it's gonna be one handful at a time again into boiling water next batch I cook up.

cattailfiber2t.jpg (9891 bytes)cattailfiber3t.jpg (9940 bytes)Mar 29, 05 - In the afternoon, I put on my rubber kitchen gloves, popped the lid off the bleach bucket and drained the fiber into another bucket lined with a 5 gallon paint bag. The fiber turned out just like the last time. I took a close up shot of the bleached pulp. See pictures to the right. Look carefully, you can see the seeds.

I was working with some bur reed at the same time and was having trouble getting it to bleach. So I pulped the bur reed and tried to bleach it again and met with resounding success. So, sez I, why not try that with the cattail fluff? I whirled it in the blender for 30 seconds, drained the pulp as much as possible and then plopped it back in a bucket of warm water with fresh bleach. Left it to sit overnite again.

cattailfiber5t.jpg (7983 bytes)cattailfiber4t.jpg (6956 bytes)Mar 30, 05 - Popped the lid off the bleach bucket and my eyes flew wide open. I grinned from ear to ear. I had achieved the lightness I needed for transparency!! Such a wonderful thing!!! I took a close up of the pulp so you can see the seeds are blendered so finely they "disappeared" into the pulp. Wearing ny kitchen rubber gloves, I drained the pulp and squeezed out as much of the water as I could and dropped it back into the bucket. This time, though, the water was tap hot with a couple good glugs of white vinegar. If you do not neutralize the bleach, it will continue to work on the paper, even after the paper has been pulled and dried. The paper will degrade over time. I mooshed the patty of pulp until it was thoroughly dispersed in the water and stirred it for awhile with my hand. When I could smell only vinegar, I poured the pulp into a net in another bucket, pulled the net out and rinsed thoroughly. I rinse until I can no longer taste the vinegar. Yep. I put the paint bag to my mouth while it's draining and taste it. It's not poisonous, anfd I'm not allergic to it. Besides, cattail IS a food source. I am now ready to pull paper and make lamps!

May 5, 05 - *sigh* I tried to make lamps with the paper I pulled last month and ended up abandoning the project. I went to the Papermakers' Western Gathering April 18-May 1 and learned why I didn't succeed with the cattail paper. The paper produced from the cattail fluff while the cob is still tightly packed in Summer is the strongest and that gathered after winter like this last batch is actually quite weak. On top of that, the paper was too heavy. When I draped a sheet over two twigs, the weight simply carried the center of the paper down, tearing it along the twig. Ah well, such is life!


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Copyright 1998-2008 Colleen D. Bergeron.
Last revised: November 14 2008