The History of Paper

Discover the history of paper, what was used before and how paper was invented.  Paper has been around in some form or another for a very long time.

The word 'paper' is a derivative of papyrus which is what was used to make the first paper sheets.

Parchment paper was made from animal skins and was extremely durable even in humid weather.

For many years we used cotton, linen and other plant fibers to make paper. 

We even recycled old clothing to make paper from rags. It was not until the mid 1800's that we started making paper from wood.

More About Paper

Exploring The History of Paper

Paper is used in so many different craft ideas that's it's difficult to imagine being creative without it. Even if you don't do paper crafts you will probably use paper to sketch ideas, create templates or package your finished products. I thought I'd take a little side trip from my crafting journey to discover the history of paper. If you have ever wondered how it all started then read on.


The history of paper goes back over 5,000 years. One of the first types of paper was made from the papyrus plant, cyperus papyrus. The first people to make a writing material from papyrus was the Ancient Egyptians.

The art of making papyrus paper is over 5,000 years old and was used in dry climates for thousands of years.

Papyrus does not last long in humid climates though and would rot if not kept in dry conditions.

Edited Photo of a Papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) at Kew Gardens, London, England. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in June 2005 and released to the public domain.
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So what is papyrus, is it the plant or the paper?

It is actually both, papyrus is the name given to the thick paper that is made from the papyrus plant.

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How was papyrus made into paper?

The inner part of the plant was cut into long, very thin strips. These were placed next to each other side by side. Another layer was placed on top of the first at right angles to the lower layer. The layers were then beaten and pressed together to form a single sheet.

The resulting sheet was quite thick and would not fold without breaking.  This is why papyrus was rolled into scrolls.

The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles.


Parchment is another form of early paper and became more popular than papyrus in countries with high humidity.

Parchment is made from animal skins, usually calfskin but goat and sheep skin were also used.

Very fine parchment is called vellum and is usually made from calfskin. Modern vellum is made from plasticized cotton paper rather than animal skin.

Manuscript on vellum. A portolan chart by Jacobo Russo (Giacomo Russo) of Messina, 1533

How was parchment made?

The skin was prepared in a similar way as making leather.  Hair was removed by soaking the skin in a lime bath, then stretched on a wooden frame usually held in place by leather strips.

It was then scraped with a sharp object to remove the rest of the hair and reduce the thickness of the skin. Then the skin was treated with powdered stone to form a smooth surface to write on.

Paper From Pulp

The history of paper as we know it started in China and hasn't changed a lot in 2,000 years. The first paper to be made by creating a pulp from plant tissues was first documented in China nearly 2,000 years ago.

Writing material in China until this time was either silk or bamboo. Neither was very practical, silk was expensive and bamboo was heavy.

Who invented paper?

Cai Lun was an officer during the Han's Dynasty. He discovered how to make paper from pulp around AD 105 he also developed the paper making process that is very similar to the one we use today.

The first paper was made from plant fibres, rags and old fish nets. The bark of paper mulberry tree Broussonetia papyrifera was used extensively in early paper making. 

Earlier paper has been found and it is thought that paper making from plant materials might go even further back in China but Cai Lun was the first to document his techniques. 

The original paper making process in 5 steps.

Click on one of the images to bring up the gallery showing a Ming dynasty woodcut explaining the ancient paper making process in 5 steps. Click outside of the image to return to the page. 

Public domain images of a Ming dynasty woodcut, describing five major steps in ancient Chinese papermaking process.

The Evolution of Paper Making

Paper is one of the most versatile, most unique, artful products available to us today. But the road that paper took from invention to current iteration is a twisting, turning path that tracks the development of modern society.

An informative infographic on the evolution of paper making can be found here.


Wikipedia, 2012, Papyrus. [online]Available at:
 [Accessed on 7 August 2012]

Wikipedia, 2012, Parchment. [online]Available at:
[Accessed on 7 August 2012]

Wikipedia, 2012, History of Paper. [online]Available at:
 [Accessed on 7 August 2012]

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