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A Brief History of Wove Paper

This week we have a guest feature from Marieka Kaye, Conservation Librarian and Book Conservator from the University of Michigan Library.  In this article, she will be telling us about a book she’s recently been working on as a entry into exploring, briefly, the history of wove paper.

As a book conservator for a large university, I receive a wide array of rare books to work on. Often I have little time to look in depth at the history of the book at hand. When I first received a broken copy of a 1757 edition of Publii Virgilii Maronis Bucolica, Georgia, et Aenis, printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville, my focus went more to how I was going to repair the broken sewing and flatten the severely warped boards. But when I opened the book I was immediately struck by the look, feel, and quality of the paper. When I looked closer I quickly realized that what I had on hand was the first example of wove paper made for western book production.

Warped boards, before treatment

Broken sewing, leaving the textblock in pieces

Broken sewing, leaving the textblock in pieces

Title page

Title page

While bindings are meaningful and decorative, they are mainly there to serve the purpose of protecting the textblock inside. Paper is always something I pay close attention to when working on a book. Historically there have been two types of handmade paper, referred to as wove and laid. Wove paper is defined as a paper having a cloth-like appearance when viewed by transmitted light (Roberts & Etherington, 1982, p. 284). In handmade paper, the finely woven wires in the papermaking mould achieved this quality. The mould was covered with a finely woven brass wire-cloth, which was referred to as brass vellum. This material was originally woven on a textile loom. James Whatman was likely to be the first to produce wove paper in the western world, and John Baskerville was the first to use it in this work by Virgil.

Wove paper in transmitted light from Baskerville’s Virgil

Wove paper in transmitted light from Baskerville’s Virgil


Wove paper in raking light from Baskerville’s Virgil

In contrast, laid paper shows thick and thin lines at right angles to each other, also produced by the layout of wires in the handmould. The thin wires are the laid lines and the thicker wires are the chain lines. Baskerville believed his finely designed type would translate better on paper that didn’t contain chain lines, because chain lines create small areas of distortion in the surface of the paper, while wove paper is smooth and consistent. The nuanced serifs of Baskerville’s type were not readily achieved on laid paper. To achieve a finer surface, Whatman wove the wire cover of the papermaking mould in the way plain cloth is woven, therefore giving the paper its name.

Laid paper in transmitted  light from Baskerville’s Virgil

Laid paper in transmitted light from Baskerville’s Virgil

Laid paper in raking light from Baskerville’s Virgil

Laid paper in raking light from Baskerville’s Virgil

Baskerville’s Virgil is not completely made up of wove paper, as seen in the photos above. The textblock is partially made up of wove and partially made up of laid paper. It is thought that Whatman was unsatisfied with his early wove paper and continued to perfect it, although Baskerville was pleased with the initial results. When looking closely at the paper in the Virgil, the pattern of the warp wires is very clear, so the surface remains rather rough. Since the early wire cover for the mold was woven on a textile loom, imperfections were widespread. A special loom for weaving wire was eventually developed, but not for another 20+ years. Change came slowly as Europeans were using laid paper for approximately 500 years before Whatman began developing this new variety for use in the book trade. Styles and attitudes had to change before wove became the dominant paper type in the age of machine-made papers.

Photo credit: Mass Moments: Isaiah Thomas Born

Image credit: Mass Moments: Isaiah Thomas Born, photo credit: Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

Benjamin Franklin first exhibited wove paper in America in 1777, where he showed examples from France (Wroth, 1964, p. 125). But, wove paper was not produced in America until 1795. It was first announced in a note appended by the Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas in a book he published titled Elegiac Sonnets and Other Poems by Charlotte Turner Smith (Baker, 2010, p.100). He too supported the idea that printing quality was superior on the smooth wove surface. Thomas wrote of his paper:

“The making of the particular kind of paper on which these sonnets are printed, is a new business in America; and but lately introduced into Great Britain; it is the first manufactured by the editor” (Wroth, 1964, p. 126).

Having been in use since 1759 in the UK, it was slower to catch on in the more conservative America. Eventually wove paper became the predominant type of handmade paper about 50 years later (c. 1810), holding its ground to the present day in current machine-made papers. Today more than 99% of the world’s paper is of the wove variety (Balston).


Laid and wove papermaking moulds (photo credit: APE Paper Blog)

Laid and wove papermaking moulds (photo credit: APE Paper Blog)

– Marieka Kaye, Conservation Librarian/Book Conservator, University of Michigan Library



APE Paper Blog

Balston, John. The Whatmans and wove paper. Retrieved March 25, 2015 from

Baker, Cathleen A. (2010). From the hand to the machine: Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: Technologies, materials, and conservation. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press.

Mass Moments: Isaiah Thomas Born

Roberts, Matt T. and Etherington, Don. (1982). Bookbinding and the conservation of books: A dictionary of descriptive bibliography. Washington, DC: Library of Congress. (Also available online.)

Wroth, Lawrence C. (1964). The colonial printer. Charlottesville: Dominion Books/University Press of Virginia.