As with so many other aspects of writing and book binding, it seems that the Chinese and then the Japanese have been marbling paper for centuries before the Europeans. Marbling consists of floating ink or paint on a surface to create a pattern. The colour may be simply dropped on to create random blobs or the ink/paint may be blown or swirled using an implement to create a pattern. A sheet of treated paper is then carefully placed on the paint and the pattern transfers to the paper. In China the pattern on the paper was called ‘drifting, or flowing sand’, and in Japan, a few centuries later, the paper was called ‘floating ink’, which is exactly what it was!
The process came to Turkey and here it was called ebru, ‘clouded paper’, which may relate to the specific designs. The Turks used it as a background for writing important documents because each sheet is unique and so the document could not then be forged.
In Europe, marbled paper was used both for book covers as well as for the endpapers (above). The patterned paper ensured that slight damage due to constant or rough handling wasn’t so obvious than if the cover had been plain. Intriguingly, even the edges of the book block was sometimes marbled (right).
Each sheet of paper produced by marbling is unique and workshops developed a number of different patterns. The tools and materials needed were, and are, quite simple (see below for easy marbling). A watertight tray is filled with a substance that will hold the ink on the surface. Water will do this, but to control the marbling effectively, something more viscous is better. Irish carrageen moss produces a gel which is ideal. One or more colours of paint is then dropped on to the surface and allowed to spread for a random pattern, or combed or twirled to produce more controlled patterns.
Paper which has usually been treated with alum is gently laid on the surface and the pattern on the gel transfers to the paper. The paper is then carefully lifted and washed to remove excess colour. This process is explained in this clip of Jemma Lewis marbling paper for the Folio Society here.
Cockerell and Son was probably the best known in the last century for their marbled papers used not only in the books bound and restored in his bindery but also by many other people. This is rather an old film, but it does show just how wonderful the production process is, and the craft skills involved in something that looks so simple.
If you want to make some marbled paper but don’t want to go to a lot of expense, here is a simple process which I have used for children and adults. You will need:
* a large watertight tray such as a baking tray or roasting tin (clean!)
* sheets of photocopying paper (of a size which will fit easily into the tray, you may need to cut the paper in half if it doesn’t go in easily)
* bottles of permanent ink in a small selection of colours (not more than 4 is best, and even one will do)
* a cocktail stick or chopstick or end of a paintbrush or something similar to stir the paint
* ink droppers if you can get hold of them or small spoons to drop the paint into the tray
* lots of old newspapers to cover the table or surface which should be done before you start.
* Cold water
1. Pour the water into the tray until it is about 1–2 cm, half to an inch deep. Allow to water to settle completely.
2. Have the sheets of paper ready, separated into individual sheets beside the tray (be careful not to splash any water or ink on them).
3. Open the ink bottles and select the colours you want to use. If the spoons won’t go into the neck of the bottles, decant some of the liquid into small bowls.
4. Use the ink droppers or spoons to drop ink on to the surface of the water allowing the ink to spread. Try as many colours as you want to but it’s best to limit the colours. Use a chopstick etc to swirl the pattern if you wish.
5. Quickly place a piece of paper on the ink ensuring as far as you can that there are no air bubbles. Lift the paper and the pattern will be on the paper. Place the paper, pattern up, on the newspapers. Quickly place another sheet on top and there should be the pattern again, although fainter. It is unlikely that you will be able to marble a third sheet of paper, but you could try.
6. Allow the paper to dry. It is unlikely to be flat but you can use the paper to cover books and folders, and even to cover pencils and make a set of them (ideal gifts from children!).
7. Tip the water away (be careful as the ink is permanent!) and repeat as often as you wish.