TYPHA LATIFOLIA, OR THE COMMON CATTAIL, is one of ten species of a tall aquatic herb found in marshes and ponds throughout both hemispheres. Its practical usefulness has long been known the world over. Native Indians of North America ate the tender spring shoots. The long flat leaves of the cattail were woven into mats and baskets and have also been used as caning material for chairs. As children at our summer cottage we would soak the dark brown, club-like spikes in kerosene to light as torches on the beach at night.
The abundant availability of cattails near my work place in western Canada led me to think about utilizing them as a source of fiber for papermaking. I had read of Jacob Schafer's experiments in 1765, when he used a multitude of plant fibers, including cattail, to make paper.
Cattails have two growth forms, the seed-bearing and the vegetative. The seed-bearing plant sports the familiar cigar-shaped head. The vegetative type consists entirely of leaves, as many as three times more than the seed-bearing plant.
One late summer day I collected a large bundle of about 130 vegetative stalks. Interested in seeing the result of using only fresh green stalks, I removed all dead and sun-bleached leaves. I was not ready to process them immediately, so I dried them on racks away from direct sunlight. The drying of the stalks served a second purpose: the dry weight of the raw material is needed to determine how much alkali is to be combined with water during the cooking process. Having noted the dry weight of four kilograms, I cut the dry stalks into ten millimeter lengths and soaked them in clear water for 24 hours. This rehydrates the fiber in preparation for cooking. Raw fiber can be cooked while green without adversely affecting the paper, but it's difficult to guess the correct dry weight.
I then boiled the raw fiber for two hours in batches using a 15 per cent cook of lye (sodium hydroxide) and water. A 15 per cent cook is explained thus: if one had 1000 grams (one kilogram) of dry raw fiber, this would be combined with 150 grams of lye, or 15 per cent of the weight of the dry raw fiber, along with enough water to cover the mixture.
Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is extremely caustic and should be handled with appropriate protective clothing, such as heavy rubber gloves, protective aprons, and goggles to protect the eyes from splashes. It also gives off poisonous fumes when cooked, so I did all of my cooking outdoors on a hot plate. Never use lye around children. An alternative to using lye to break down fibers is soda ash (sodium carbonate). The fumes from boiling this alkali in water may be unpleasant, but are not toxic, and cooking can be done indoors. Very tough fibers will only break down with lye, but an alternative is to use soda ash and cook the fiber for a longer period of time. Enamel or stainless steel pots must be used when cooking with the above alkali.
After a rinsing, I mixed the pulp by hand in a pail of fresh water to separate the fibers that were still clinging together. I boiled the partially processed pulp a second time for two hours in a 15 per cent cook of lye. The cooking and rinsing of the fiber was done in batches and seemed like an endless task. The cattail pulp was given a final rinsing with fresh water.
Next I beat the fibers by hand with a wooden mallet. The fiber was damp and in a mound in a shallow metal pan to keep the pulp confined. As I pounded away the pulp became flattened, so I scooped it up into a mound again. This continued for about 15 minutes producing a ball of pulp about the size of a softball. I found that if the fibers were beaten to a point where they could be easily formed into sheets, the resulting paper was featureless, appearing rather like a brown paper bag. A more interesting compromise was made by hand beating only half the fiber and then mixing it with the unbeaten half. Although the sheets were more difficult to form, they acquired the natural appearance that I desired. I formed three and three quarter by five inch sheets, four at a time, western style, on a maple wood mould with a surface of polyethylene screening. They were twice pressed between felts in my 16-ton press and then restrained dried between blotters in a forced-air dryer box. The 500 sheets of finished cattail paper weighed 500 grams, giving a 13 per cent yield (13 per cent of the original dry raw fiber).
Another paper-related material can be made from the seed-bearing cattail. The fresh pith within the lowest portion of the stem can be sliced into thin sections, pressed with a rolling pin several times, and laid side by side, slightly overlapping the strips. A second layer is made at right angles to the first, forming a cross-laminated mat. The resulting mat is then pressed between blotters which are exchanged with dry ones until the mat is dry. The dry sheet is very similar in appearance to the papyrus made by the ancient Egyptians.