Papermaker Spotlight: What’s to Come in the World of Cave Paper

In 1994 under the earth of Minneapolis, in the basement that houses Cave Paper, Amanda Degener and Brigette O’Malley set off on a journey to develop some of the book making world’s most cherished papers. Now, nearly 25 years later, Amanda shares some stories and anecdotes about Cave Paper and leads us into the new phase of the company–transforming it into a worker-owned coop. Here is my interview with Amanda. For information about how you can help Cave Paper transition into a coop click here.

HIROMI PAPER: What is the strangest or most unique usage of Cave papers that you have encountered?

AMANDA DEGENER: Perhaps the most unique usage of Cave paper was making one sheet of 15 meter by 15 meter (that’s 50 foot square) paper for an origami artist in Switzerland. Sipho Mobono wanted to make a life-size elephant and he needed a sheet with foldability and strength which Cave knew Belgian flax would deliver. In order to achieve a truly strong paper it is necessary to press the freshly made wet paper, simply air drying the 50’ paper would not work. It seemed impossible to press such a huge piece of paper so we embedded over 2000 sheets of 18” x 24” paper into the unpressed poured pulp. In a warehouse we laid out plastic window screening material and poured pulp to create the first layer. Freshly made, but not dry, 18” x 24” paper covered that bottom pulp layer, then another layer of pulp was poured over the top of the pressed paper.  When it was dry this three-layered sheet became one. The final project used 300 pounds of fiber and was completed over the Christmas Holiday by Cave staff and many many volunteers. It takes a village.

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Elephant by origami artist Sipho Mabona (pic: Design Boom)

For geek papermakers here is another little tidbit. The freshly made pressed (but not dried) papers were going to need to overlap onto that first poured layer. Because the final paper was going to be folded we were concerned about the double thickness when overlapping the pressed sheets. So each of the 2000 papers that were embedded were actually double dipped and double couched; we couched 17″ x 23″ sheets in the center of 18″ x 24″ sheets. Thus allowing us to carefully overlap the sheets into the bottom poured pulp so their overlap created one sheet thickness and still provided the strength needed for folding.

HP:  Do you find that the seasons or the weather have a bearing on the production of Cavepapers? For instance, can rainy days and humid air lend themselves better to dying Indigo Layered and Night?

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Cave Paper staff making sheets that will later be dyed in unique styles (pic: Cave Paper)

AD: Certainly weather, seasons, sunlight all effect the final paper. The indigo vat is very effected by temperature and weather, there is far too much to write about that here alone could spend a whole book on the chemistry of indigo and dyes. For 23 years Cave Paper was in an unheated space. Minnesota has a cold climate for about five months of the year. The cold keeps microbes from growing in the fiber, fresher fiber makes fresher looking paper. More importantly is that the weather affects the attitude of the papermakers and shows directly in the paper. By March we are tired of winter and sometimes this grumpy-ness shows in the paper. In April the papermakers, and thus the paper, bounces with the joy of Spring. 

HP: How much of developing papers, creating custom orders, or just tweaking recipes to meet user needs, requires play and how much is science? 

AD: As a female growing up in the 70’s I was told girls did not study science or become scientists but through hand papermaking it wormed its way into my life. My educated guesses are rooted in science but really all of life is play. I play with water and fiber, play in the garden, play Tai Chi. I don’t see much of a difference between art and science except scientists have a more socially accepted career and also make more money. There are certain recipes or tricks that have worked for other artists that we follow, but in the end, each paper will be different than the last, and adjustments must be made. A science lab is like a art studio; there is an atmosphere of planned experimentation. 

HP: Cavepapers is now transitioning into a worker owned Coop and will move into a new location. I’ve attached the link to the Indiegogo campaign and information about it above and here. But for those new to Cavepapers or are just hearing of this change, can you talk a little bit about the impetus for the change as well as some of the long term goals for Cavepapers?

AD: The story of why Cave Paper has to change is very straightforward and clear. My business partner Bridget O’Malley became disabled and I am trying to retire. Long term goals are just hand it over to the young people and see what they do with it. We have had many interns who are interested in a space and place to work beyond just completing an internship with us. Evolving into a Coop allows for new ideas and people to be involved. 

HP: How will the availability of Cavepapers be affected by the change?

AD: We currently work very hard to keep the current inventory on the shelves. When more people get involved as worker owners they have their own ideas and add these onto to what Cave already does. The guaranteed income from our current client base will keep the coop financially solvent. There will be some start up costs but not as many as beginning a new business. This transition into a Coop will allow our current inventory to flourish as well as make room for more growth.

HP: Cavepapers has an internship program, how can someone apply to the program?

AD: There is a description on our website about the internships. We have never had a formal application. Anyone who wants to come and learn has been welcome. We have had over 120 interns, ranging from printmakers to college students, from digital artists to art conservators. After completing an internship, there was no automatic path to studying papermaking more in depth at Cave. We hope the membership system in the future Coop will provide this. 

HP: Is there a dream paper that you’ve been wanting to make but for one reason or another you just haven’t been able to make?

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Students making Brown Crackle Cave paper (pic: Cave Paper)

AD: Many years ago I spent a day making a variety of crackle sheets using many colors. I look at these papers from time to time and wish I could play more with this. Amazingly Joe Steko from Charnel House Papers picked the “Name That Paper” perk for our Indiegogo Campaign and is commissioning a purple crackle. I really look forward to working on that in the near future. 

I am often inspired (to the point of wanting to make) by other people’s handmade papers both from the USA and abroad. Especially the high quality Japanese papers, the patterned papers from Nepal, and many papers from China I am just recently discovering. I am impressed with the consistency of Twinrocker’s whites and off whites, University of Iowa’s case paper, The Circle’s origami paper, Mary Hark’s momigami, Rick Hungerford’s almost airbrush techniques, Helen Heibert’s skin-like paper, and Andrea Peterson’s plant based papers. There certainly won’t be enough time to explore making half the paper I dream about in what is left of my lifetime.

Best of luck in the future.
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