Erin Merchant MacAllister was born to be a papermaker.
It’s a lost art not many understand, she said, but it was as if her life led her directly to the unique and complicated hobby of creating paper from natural fibers. An artist for as long as she can remember, Erin stumbled upon a papermaking class while studying at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in college. Then, her grandfather offered his basement to serve as her sprawling studio.
As she worked more and more on what she called a “lost art,” it became clear that it was a practice she would never give up.
“I love what you can do with it, that you can just fill a book with anything or sculpt with it,” Erin said. “It’s so much more than people realize. … You can do so much with paper and really turn it into anything.”
Now a mom of two still who works full time, she makes and sells her wares on the side as The Paper Merchant. She and her family live in the Marshfield home that was once her grandfather’s, where her papermaking takes up the entirety of its three-room basement.
Making paper is a messy, complicated and time-consuming process that most choose to forgo in favor of a quick trip to Staples or an online order. It takes hours for a single sheet of paper to be fully ready for use, and days for that paper to be turned into photo albums, notebooks or paper lanterns.
Unlike commercially produced paper, no two sheets of Erin’s paper are the same. When examined closely, the papers are different even from one side to the other. But no matter their texture, thickness, color or pattern, they’re all unique and delicate.
“People tell me they’re so hesitant to write in a book or use a page, but it’s just paper,” shesaid. “It’s meant to be written on. I like to consider a book an empty vessel.”
All paper starts with some type of natural fiber like Philippine gampi, Thai kozo, bamboo or denim. Once the raw material arrives, Erin cuts it, soaks it and boils it to break down the fibers. A 1-pound bundle of fibers will make roughly 100 pieces of paper.
She then transfers that to a homemade beater her husband made, which turns it into a wet, goopy pulp. It’s at the pulp stage that color or other ingredients – like banana peels or seaweed – can be added to give the paper pattern and dimension. The pulp then goes into a flat bin with water and a formation aid.
Once that mixture is ready, Erin strains it through a very fine mesh, transfers it to interfacing fabric and then transfers it again to a massive piece of acrylic on the wall. There, it will dry and, 12 hours later, peel off as a sheet of paper. It can take her up to two hours to make 24 pieces of paper – as many she includes in a standard notebook – not including the process to make the book covers and bind them all together.
“I love the process, she said. “When I’m just pulling page after page, it’s soothing. It’s messy and gross and sloppy, but you just go with it.”
The third and most set-back room in the basement is filled with at least eight paper cutters, binding supplies, wooden lamp frames and other materials to turn raw sheets of paper into usable objects.
“It’s a very long, involved process,” she explained. “I start with the raw materials and then have to do something with the paper once I have it. It becomes a book or a lamp. There are a lot of steps.”
Erin takes custom orders and sells her products at Hingham’s Artisans in the Square. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.