Who would have thought that old paper could be transformed into something new – paper, that is soaked in water and then held together can be the foundation for some incredible art and craft pieces! Papier-mâché, which in, French literally means chewed paper is commonly known as paper mache, has been around for the longest time and has been the material used to create some of the most interesting décor pieces. In continuation with our series on the arts and crafts of India, we today, delve deep into the history and the art that is paper mache.
Papier Mâché
In simple terms, paper mache is a composite material that is made using pieces of paper or the pulp of paper that is bound together with some type of adhesive to create a hardened material, which can be moulded into a range of shapes. Even though most of have seen some form of paper mache gifts in our lives, most of us would not know about the history that is associated with it.

How far back does the history of paper mache go?

If one were to look at it, the history of using paper mache goes back several centuries and through several countries too:
  • Imperial China – The Han Dynasty was perhaps the first to start using paper mache around 200AD, which was not long after they had learnt how to make paper. Theory is that paper mache was also discovered during the process of learning how to make paper. Items like ceremonial masks, snuff boxes, mirror cases and even helmets for warriors.
  • Ancient Egypt - Layers of papyrus or at times, linen would be covered with plaster and then used to make death masks as well as coffins. These were required to stand the test of time and evidences have been found during archaeological excavations.
  • Middle East – In ancient Persia, paper mache handicraft items were all the rage – they used this form of art to make small painted boxes for knick-knacks, cases for jewellery and trays.
  • Europe – It is believed that paper mache first made its appearance in Europe around the 1700s, when gilded paper mache became the replacement for carved wood, as this was cheaper. In 1772, Henry Clay of Birmingham created a process by which laminated sheets of paper would be treated with linseed oil and that would lead to them becoming waterproof. These sheets would be used to build coach door panels and for other structures. About 75 years later, another man named Theodore Jennens patented a process by which he would steam and press the laminated sheets into all kinds of shapes, allowing them to be used to manufacture trays, backs of chairs and other products like paper mache Christmas ornaments. The lacquering of the paper mache gave it a pearl shell like smooth and shining finish. Russia too had a booming paper mache industry and it created some exceptional ornamental paper mache pieces. Over time, paper mache became the most loved material to make doll heads.
  • Mexico – In Mexico, paper mache is known as cartoneria and this is the traditional handicraft – sculptures made using this method are used for certain celebrations, especially the Holy Week and the Day of the Dead. The method is used to make pinatas, which are used even today for birthdays and other celebrations. Paper mache crafts would be made for ceremonial purposes of the church as well.
  • Kashmir – In India, Kashmiri paper mache crafts have been popular since ages – everything from small painted boxes to trays, from bowls that are lined with metal to open shelves to display décor pieces, everything has bene made using paper mache in Kashmir.

How is paper mache made?

There are several ways of making paper mache - method one involves the need for some form of adhesive to hold the paper strips together, while the other uses pulp. The traditional method of making paper mache is to se a mix of water, some form of starch and paper pieces, all of which are mixed to create the consistency of heavy cream. The mixture can be thinned using PVA glues or other such thinner adhesives. This mixture can then be placed on whatever mould and once dry, it should have taken the shape of the mould. The second method uses paper strips that are soaked in the adhesive paste and then placed immediately on top of the mould or the wire structure, which is why they will dry. Another way of making the same is to leave the paper in water for several hours or is boiled in water, till the time the paper breaks down into pulp form. All the excess water is drained off and then adhesives are mixed in to create paper mache.

In order to create any paper mache art, you need to choose the form to use first, which could range from balloons to cardboard pieces. So, while balloons would be the ideal choice to create bowls, masks and faces, cardboards would be perfect to create jewellery boxes. By using flexible wire like chicken wire, lanterns can be created and eggs can be used to make heads of smaller dolls. By using pure paper pulp, you will be able to make several freehand objects. As a matter of fact, easy paper mache art is a beloved activity with parents and kids and even at schools, all over the world.

What all is made using paper mache?

Over time, paper mache has been used to create a whole range of products including those related to day-to-day life and those which have a more decorative purpose, such as home decor items. For instance, paper mache panels were used to create lightweight domes that were used in observatories during the 19th century. Even today, carnival floats are made using this material and you should be able to see some interesting versions at events such as the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Given that doing paper mache is super easy, it is a popular choice for crafts in schools and is used to make masks, costumes and sets for school plays. The material can also be used to make puppets and props. In the olden days, during the times of World Wars, paper mache also found use in military purposes including to form sabots in firearms, and drop tanks and decoys.

Finally, moving onto some of the most commonly asked questions about paper mache:

How can you stop from paper mache developing mold?
You can add preservatives such as salt or clove oil while creating the mixture to avoid mold.

Can you paint on wet paper mache?
No, the paper mache can be painted only once it is completely dry, otherwise the product will start to form mold.
What is the correct way to spell paper mache?
It is actually a French term Papier-Mâché, which means chewed paper; but the interesting thing is that it was not created in France. The technique was invented in China in around 200BC!

How long does it take for paper mache to dry?
Each layer of paper mache can take up to 24 hours to dry completely, but during monsoons or winters, it could take longer. You could use artificial forms of heat to speed up the drying process.

How long will paper mache products last?
Depending on how well you take care of your paper mache handicraft, they could last you a lifetime.

Is paper mache strong?
Well, it was used in war time for decoys, to make parade floats on which people can stand and even furniture.

Whether you are looking for Indian handicrafts online or something that is a lot more modern, at eCraftIndia, you should be able to find plenty of options. Here, we encourage local artisans and craftspeople to practice their talent and showcase it to the world and with modern themes merging with traditional forms, there are so many interesting pieces emerging. As a matter of fact, you just might find some wonderful paper mache wall clocks online here too!