The earliest known fragments of paper were found in Xi’an, China and date from c.140-87 BCE, but it is interesting to note that it was a senior official of the Han Dynasty (105 CE), who is said to have invented a method of paper-making which was inspired by having observed the method wasps use when building their nests.
Attempts have been made to create a satisfactory medium to write upon for thousands of years. It has gone through many incarnations before becoming paper as we know it today; starting with clay tablets from 3,000 years BCE, through papyrus, waxed wooden writing boards, tortoise-shell and bamboo; not to mention silk, leather, hemp, birch bark and palm-leaves, until we arrive at paper in the early middle ages.
Even with the increasing availability of paper from roughly the 15th century, manuscripts were written most often on parchment. Parchment is usually the prepared skin of sheep or calves. However, parchment was expensive and there is a tale of how in the 7th century a member of a monastery in Italy decided that rather than have new folios prepared for a copy of the commentary on the Psalms, the leaves of an old manuscript should be rewashed to remove its original text. Sometimes small remnants of the older manuscript could be retrieved – but this showed how vulnerable these texts were when they were the only copy. The printing press was to change all of this, although as paper was considered to be inferior to parchment, for a while any important document was still written on parchment.
Producing manuscripts was a slow and laborious process, and the demand for plentiful and cheaper books which arose with the increase of centres of education in Europe, lent a stimulus to the printing industry, and increased the demand for good cheap paper.
Early paper was made from cotton or linen rags, soaked and pulverised into a pulp and then put in a vat of water and size. A type of wire sieve within a wooden frame was dipped into the vat to filter out the water, leaving the pulp in the frame. The pulp was then pressed between sheets of felt. It is the wires in the frame that form the chain lines which you can see when holding the paper up to the light. Patterns twisted into the wire by the paper producer created the identifying watermarks which are often visible. This method of making paper was started in the Islamic world, and it was during the Christian period that the techniques spread through Europe. It is believed that by the mid13th century the small town of Fabriano in Italy was already producing paper, and became an important centre for paper production by the 14th century; partly because the mills there refined the process to make paper sturdier. Methods for making paper were always being studied and finer pulps were experimented with in later centuries.
Paper making proliferated across Europe following on from this, with mills across the continent by the mid15th century. Britain came late to the party; not developing a tradition of paper-making until the late 16th century. Paper was cheap (one sixth of the price of parchment) and international trade in this popular product quickly developed. Rag paper had advantages over vellum for printers. Its absorbency meant printed sheets dried faster, so books could be finished faster. It was also very durable as it responded to changes in humidity and so could be stored in varying climates and conditions when being stockpiled for later use: ideal for the printing houses.