The Good Life – In Praise of Paper

It’s one of the most commonplace materials in our society. Everyday we use it for a myriad of purposes, usually without giving it a moment’s attention. When it has served its purpose, we simply discard it into the nearest filing cabinet, recycling bin, or garbage can. And yet, as Paul Jackson and Vivien Frank point out in their book Make it with Paper, paper is one of humanity’s most important inventions. In its more exquisitely crafted forms, it can also be a source of visual beauty and tactile pleasure, and is a cheap, versatile and readily available material for all manner of arts and crafts.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, sending and receiving hand-written correspondence from friends and family is a great source of personal pleasure, something for which cold, impersonal e-mail is simply no substitute. For too many of us, the only tangible objects that find their way through our mail slots are bills, advertising materials, and the occasional hastily scrawled postcard. Too often, the type written messages and blinking computer icons we receive from utility companies and financial institutions cause us aggravation and add to the pace of our already frenetic days. It is a delicious contrast then, to spend an hour or more writing a letter to a favourite aunt to tell her what has been going on in your life. Or (as I recently did) make a pot of Chinese black tea and read a marvellously long letter from a good friend. A letter detailing the events of her life since she relocated to Manhattan.

As Jackson and Frank explain, it is the tremendous range of weights, textures and colours that makes paper and ideal material for arts and crafts. Every Thursday afternoon, one of the mothers from my daughter’s grade three class comes into the school and teaches the children how to make exquisite origami creations. She happens to be a painter and sculptor specializing in traditional Japanese art forms. Each week my daughter comes home with a delicate, jewel-coloured creation such as a dragon, horse or beetle. Besides this, my daughter’s room is decorated with papier-mâché animals and masks. A crepe-paper reproduction of the solar system is suspended from her ceiling.

One of my very favourite shops anywhere is Paper-Ya on Vancouver’s Granville Island. They carry a vast array of paper and paper-related treasures from all over creation that incorporate natural plant dyes and natural fibres. Some of the textures and designs include banana leaf, bird’s nest, coconut leaf, and papyrus. One of their papers really has to be seen to be believed. It includes such things as cucumber and beet slices, rice hulls and hyacinth stems. You can check it out yourself at

There is, however, no need to spend a lot of money to have fine handmade paper. A few years ago, I took a papermaking class at my local community centre. With an investment of a few dollars in mesh screens, I began making homemade paper. The first few attempts were a bit crumbly and fragile. But gradually, by trial and error, the finished product began to look better and hold together well. One of the best things about making paper yourself is your opportunity to experiment. Everything from wildflowers to gold thread to dryer lint has made it into my writing materials!

I truly believe that taking the time to appreciate the often over-looked beauty and small luxuries that surround us is one aspect of living a rich and enjoyable life. Paying attention to the varieties and potential of an everyday material, such as paper, is a good place to begin.

Jackson, P. and Frank, V. (1992). Make it with paper: the complete guide to origami and papercraft. London: Grange Books.