Handmade Products in the Pandemic Era: Making Paper

Crafting and making handmade products have been a part of human history for centuries. From creating pottery and textiles to woodworking and bookbinding, people have always enjoyed using their hands to create tangible objects. Jennifer Rich and her husband Ron have grown their love of papermaking into a high-end boutique, Oblation Papers & Press, in Portland's Pearl District, offering artisanal stationery products, handmade paper, and custom wedding invitations. Jennifer recently shared her thoughts on the art of handmade paper and how the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a renewed interest in craft-making.  

Jennifer and Ron Rich from Oblation Papers & Press
Ron and Jennifer Rich, co-founders of Oblation Papers & Press

Handmade Products in the Pandemic Era

During the pandemic, people sought tangible things to hold onto, and some turned to crafting to connect with something meaningful. "People really love to be able to make things themselves," Jennifer tells me. In fact, a survey by the American Craft Council found that nearly 1 in 3 people picked up a new craft or hobby during the pandemic. Those who did probably experienced tangible benefits such as stress relief, an increased sense of purpose, and a stronger connection to others. In addition to learning something new, perfecting a skill leads to mindfulness and increased neural activity, which may have helped counter-balance some of the anxiety of the times. With the lockdown, people had much more time but nowhere to go. Making paper at home was one way to relieve the stress and fill the time.

Handmade Paper 

Handmade paper is a type of paper that is created entirely by hand using a traditional papermaking process. If you have ever written on paper, it was likely machine-made, produced in large quantities using industrial equipment. Handmade paper is made in small batches using simple tools and techniques. It is made entirely from recycled and upcycled materials, making it eco-friendly and natural.

The process of making handmade paper is simple but can be time-consuming. It involves creating a pulp from plant fibers, such as cotton or linen, then spreading it on a frame and leaving it to dry. When done well, the finished product results in a unique, beautiful page that is tactile and stylish. 

When they first started making paper thirty years ago, Jennifer fell in love with embedding flower petals and ferns in their handmade paper. On a bike trip around France, she and Ron visited different paper mills in the countryside. There they found a couple making similar paper, using bits of pink carnation petals, yellow calendula petals, and green ferns. It was a thrill for her to connect with people so far from her home who shared her passion for making beautiful paper from organic materials. 

Jennifer and her husband started selling handmade paper goods at craft fairs in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s. People asked so many questions about how the paper was made that Jennifer and Ron had an "aha" moment. They would sell papermaking kits so that people could learn how to do it for themselves. It took a trip to the hardware store that evening and a late night assembling 50 "DIY" papermaking kits, but the next day they were ready for the questions and promptly sold out of all the ready-made kits. 

Handmade versus Factory-Made 

Jennifer loved selling the handmade floral paper, but soon, everyone caught on, and the market became flooded with cheap, factory-made look-alikes, driving prices down. It got to where it wasn't feasible for them to sell their handmade paper, so they turned to other things for a while. 

It can sometimes be hard to compete with products made in factories for mass production. But there is nothing quite like a genuine, handmade product in terms of craftsmanship and authenticity. "When we started, we made the paper in chicken coops and goat barns,” she says, referring to the seven years that Jennifer and Ron had a farm on Vashon Island. We'd pull these big sheets of paper up, and there'd be slugs and potato bugs in there. You can't get that just anywhere," Jennifer jokes. 

They now make paper every day in their Portland studio. Jennifer reports that they've introduced a few quality controls that were absent in the early days on Vashon Island. But it's still a basic, very simple, handmade process. Jennifer's team makes paper using recycled cotton fibers and water without chemicals, glues, or additives. They print on it with soy inks using old presses, making it a 100% green process. There is an elegance to the process that permeates the finished products. 

Jennifer Rich working the letterpress
Jennifer using the letterpress

From Paper Making to Letterpress Printing

Papermaking in their goat barn led to letterpress printing after Ron acquired an old letterpress in 1994 and they started experimenting with it. They began selling letterpress printed cards and  their success at craft fairs led them to open a more permanent store in Portland's Pearl District. With the press set up in the back of the building, customers can witness the letterpress printing and the hand papermaking process while shopping for specialty paper from Italy or Japan. Jennifer takes pride in sharing her craft-making process with her customers and being able to offer unique, handmade products.

The store is a testament to the importance of community in crafting. From their humble beginnings at local craft markets, Oblation Papers & Press has since grown into a thriving small business with a staff of 20 people who create handmade paper, print by letterpress, design products, and work in the retail store. They share their love of crafting and their processes with customers who come into the store or shop online. Each handmade journal and letterpress printed invitation is a tribute to and celebration of artists and makers using heritage techniques worldwide. 

Old is New Again: Floral Paper and DIY Kits

With the seismic shift brought on by the pandemic, Oblation Papers & Press reintroduced some of their old favorites. You can once again find the handmade paper with flower petals and pieces of ferns speckled throughout. Jennifer says, "Most people have not seen it before and are crazy about it, just like we were in the beginning." They also reintroduced DIY papermaking kits in their shop. "It's just a simple mould and deckle with instructions, flowers, and screens to make paper by hand." The "mould and deckle" is the screen and frame used to hold the pulp and form the edges of the paper. "People like to get their hands into things, especially as the pandemic dragged on and they started to get tired of all the electronic communication." 

Craftsmanship in the Digital World

There are other benefits of using paper over digital alternatives. Writing on paper accesses a different part of the brain, allowing people to remember things differently. Similar to how the slow food movement encourages us to slow down and savor the moment, letter writing has a certain nostalgia and romanticism. In our fast-paced, digital world, sitting down to write a letter can seem like a throwback to a simpler, more authentic way of life. 

Overall, Jennifer's store focuses on preserving old-world craftsmanship in the digital world. She and her team take pride in their unique, handmade products and the natural process they use to make them.

The pandemic sparked a renewed interest in crafting and making handmade products. In pursuit of tangible and meaningful objects to hold on to, the rise of online communities helped people to connect with others who share their interests. Jennifer's store is a testament to the importance of community in crafting and the value of sharing knowledge and processes with others. As we move beyond the pandemic, it's clear that the desire to create and connect through handmade crafts is here to stay. 

The Oblation Papers & Press handmade paper journal is available while they last in the Here I Am Box shop

Next time you are in Portland, Oregon, you can see a letterpress in action at Oblation Papers & Press at 516 NW 12th Ave in the Pearl District. While you are in the neighborhood, check out the outdoor dining scene nearby, which flourished during the pandemic. Jennifer says it reminds her of Parisian outdoor cafes. 

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