Neri (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I described neri and spoke of its essential role in sheet-forming. Now, in part 2, I’d like to start by taking a look at some of the common mistakes that are made when referring to neri.

1) Neri is sometimes described as sticky, or a kind of glue or paste, or something that makes the fibres stick together.
The material has similar properties to eggwhites, or to (the substance which exudes from) okra, so I suppose it is sticky in a way. But I don’t advocate the use of the word sticky because it connotes a kind of adhesive, which is not the intended role of neri. Gooey, mucilaginous, viscous, or ropy all seem like more appropriate ways to describe neri. Gooey is pretty spot-on, but unfortunately not particularly grown-up. I think there are two main reasons that neri is misinterpreted as a kind of glue. First, what is now almost universally referered to as neri was historically in certain locations called nori. The fact that nori can also mean “glue” in Japanese, has surely not helped to clarify the role of neri in the papermaking process. And second, while neri is not an adhesive as we normally think of them, it does in fact help the fibres bond to one another on a molecular level. This has to do with hydrogen bonding, the magic behind all papermaking. Neri made from tororo is hydrophilic (having a strong affinity for water), with a negative electro-chemical charge, which is also true of the fibre, leading to strong molecular bonds between the fibre, water, and neri in the vat. As water and neri are forced out of the sheet during the pressing and drying processes, the hydrophillic fibres will seek to replace those bonds they had with water with bonds to other fibres. It is thousands (millions?) of these molecular bonds between fibres that hold the finished sheet together. Remember that neri is essentially absent in the finished sheet. This is key in understanding neri as a formation aid, and not an adhesive. It encourages the hydrogen bonding process during sheet-forming, and in the end “disappears.”

2) Neri is occasionally introduced as a size agent or gum, with the purpose of preventing ink or pigment from bleeding when applied to the finished sheets.
As above, the presence of neri in the sheet-forming process generally leads to sheets with tighter chemical bonds and therefore a less porous surface, but it is not added to the vat with the intention of sizing the paper. To size a paper, the papermaker will not rely on neri, but instead will add a sizing agent, either during or after the sheet-forming process.

CULTIVATION, PROCESSING, AND VARIATIONS
In Japan neri is most commonly derived from the roots of the tororo-aoi plant. In English, the plant seems to be known by many different names, including Sunset Mallow, Sunset Hibiscus, etc. Its scientific name is Abelmoschus manihot, in the Malvaceae (or Mallows) family. Other members of the Malvaceae family include cotton and okra. Indeed, the seed-pods of tororo-aoi can be difficult to distinguish from okra, and okra is sometimes used by hobbyists as a substitute for tororo-aoi. Some papermakers grow their own tororo-aoi, but most order it from a supplier, who grows the roots specifically for the papermaking trade. She prunes back the leaves, stems, and buds of the plant during the growing season to encourage the roots to grow as big as possible. In the fall, she harvests the roots, and ties them into huge bales, and ships them to papermakers across the country. In appearance, the roots somewhat resemble ginger roots.

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At the papermaking studio, the roots are crushed and left to soak in water. The crushing is most often done by hand, with a mallet, but is occasionally completed in some kind of motor-driven stamping device. While soaking over the course of anywhere from a few hours to a few days, the roots will exude a gooey substance. The resultant liquid is strained through a plastic or metal sieve (or historically through cedar  branches!) to remove the roots. Finally, the mucilage is filtered once again through a fine fabric before being added to the papermaking vat.

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Most papermakers in Japan use a solution of a preservative called Creosol to store the roots, and may also use a small amount to preserve any neri that they produce. On rare occasions, the roots are preserved simply by drying them out, but the efficacy of the resultant neri is rather weak. The only papermaker I have met who still preserves his tororo in this way makes gampi paper. He says that since the gampi fibre is shorter in length, and naturally has a bit of its own gooeyness, the reduced efficacy of dried tororo is enough for his purposes.

The most commonly used plant for neri (by far) is tororo-aoi, but some papermakers use nori-utsugi (hydrangea paniculata Sieb) or a combination of the two. Despite its higher price, some papermakers swear by a combination of tororo and nori-utsugi, saying they could not make their characteristic paper if forced to use tororo or nori-utsugi alone. Historically, neri was made from other plants such as ginbaiso (deinanthe bifida), binan-kazura (kazura japonica), and aogiri (firmiana platinafolia), but I have personally only come across one living papermaker who is trying to make and use neri made from these other plants.

As one might expect, synthetic neri is also available. It is a polyacrylamide powder, and when mixed with water, it produces a liquid like that derived from tororo-aoi. Synthetic neri has its advantages, as it is not susceptible to heat, friction, or bacteria in the way that natural neri is. Additionally, the papermaker can store the powder indefinitely under the right conditions, and there are no roots to process or store. However, it does have a variety of disadvantages as well, the most serious of which is that it does not seem to break down and disappear the way that natural neri does. The long-term effects of synthetic neri remaining in sheets, though mostly presumed to be benign, is still not fully understood. Sheets made in the traditional manner (including the use of naturally derived neri) have been shown to last hundreds, even a thousand years or more with little or no degradation. As a selling point, this is an advantage that most papermakers are not willing to cede. Synthetic neri is standard in the machine-made papermaking world, but is still widely frowned upon among hand-papermakers. In the end, however, even the most diligent papermaker may add a small amount of synthetic neri to the vat during the most dogged days of summer.

USAGE
Once the papermaker has prepared his neri (from whatever source), it is ready to be used to set up the vat for papermaking. Once he has mixed the fibre thoroughly with the water in the vat, neri is added. The mixing-in of neri is usually done with a bamboo pole, using long, circular, and sharp strokes. The papermaker will be careful not to mix the solution too long, as neri’s efficacy breaks down with extended manipulation. The papermaker uses his careful understanding of the desired thickness and quality of the paper being made, the base stiffness of the neri, the ambient temperature, the type and quality of the prepared fibre, and possibly other factors, to judge the amount of neri to add, and the length and intensity of mixing. Some papermakers know if they’ve added enough neri based on the sound the bamboo pole makes running through the solution. Others will pick up a handful of solution and tip it back into the vat, observing the condition of the solution as it falls. Some papermakers (especially novices), may need to try forming a sheet to determine if the ratio is just right.

CONCLUSION
I sometimes refer to neri as “the magic ingredient” in the Japanese papermaking process. It really is what allows washi to be washi-like; it gives washi many of its unique characteristics that set it apart from western papers. I hope this description is helpful. Please let me know if you have any ideas or questions about neri by leaving a comment.

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4 thoughts on “Neri (Part 2)

  1. Hello, I really like your article, it is well written and informative. I am a college student in Massachusetts, United States. I have begun to grow crops for art materials, including tororo-aoi root. Where can I buy the phenolic preservation solution so I can preserve my harvest?

    • Keith:Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately, I’m not sure where to get a preservative for tororo. The Creosol I mention in the article is not available in the US. I don’t know if Formaldehyde is easily available in the US, but it is another preservative that is sometimes used in Japan. I freeze my tororo; it’s quick and easy, and best of all, non-toxic.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for writing about neri, your two articles have just compiled hours of research on my own.
    I do think (well, this is just my opinion) that neri in the form of tororo aoi was introduced from Korea. But the debate may advance if etymological and botanical study may be done in Korean and Japanese, i.e. look at the ‘roots’ (:P) of the word use to designate the plant or the substance.
    I also have questions above the chemistry informations you’re giving. Do you have references for that, or did you yourself analyze the chemistry during paper process? I’m a bit of chemist myself, and always wondered if chemistry studies have been conducted on that subject.
    Also, I live in Osaka and I’m always happy to meet people involve in washi making. I may schedule learning washisuki later (soon…maybe…one day…). So, if you’re willing, we could meet 🙂 Thanks!

    • Emilie:
      Thanks for your comment! I didn’t do any chemical analysis on tororo myself; the info on chemical charge, etc is from conversations with Tim Barrett — the info is also in his book, Japanese Papermaking. I think Tim’s info is based on research done by Katsuhiko Masuda and others.
      I don’t get down to Osaka much, but if you’re ever in Tokyo, shoot me an email!

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