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Uzbek Silk Papermaking

01/01/2023
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    A worker soaks mulberry tree branches at the Meros paper factory. Soaking is the first step to turn the branches into paper. (Sergey Pyatakov/Sputnik via AP)
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    Next, a worker boils the fibers. (Sergey Pyatakov/Sputnik via AP)
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    The pulp is pressed into sheets. (Sergey Pyatakov/Sputnik via AP)
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    After drying and polishing, the silk paper is finished. (Sergey Pyatakov/Sputnik via AP)
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Near Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ancient paper production techniques thrive. Local artisans maintain this nearly lost craft—leaving a remarkable paper trail.

Samarkand’s so-called “silk paper” production started 14 centuries ago. Khababa Pulatova, an employee at Meros paper factory, relays a brief history: “The Arabs fought with the Chinese. Then the Arabs won. They captured Chinese soldiers, and among them there were scientists, there were artisans, and . . . a soldier who knew the secrets of paper[making].”

According to Pulatova, craftsmen restored the art of making this paper in the 1990s. Now Samarkand paper is in demand again.

“The paper is called silk because it is made of mulberries,” says Meros representative Sanzhar Mukhtarov. Silkworms feed on mulberry leaves, so the paper got its name partly by association to the tree. But that’s not all. Mukhtarov continues: The moniker is also appropriate “because it was carried along the Silk Road, [and] because it is smooth and shiny like silk.”

Today, workers at Meros share eighth-century papermaking techniques with anyone who visits.

The multi-stage papermaking process begins with soaking mulberry branches for a day. This causes the bark to become elastic. It’s then easily removed with a knife scraped along the length of a branch.

Workers boil the bark fiber for several hours. Boiled fibers head to the watermill for pounding into a dough-like pulp. After days of more soaking and drying, the paper gets pressed for 24 hours into sheets.

The final stage is polishing the paper with a stone or shell to remove bumps. Papermaker Zarif Mukhtarov credits Samarkand papermakers with adding this step: “In China and Japan, the paper was rough, as people wrote with a brush,” he says. But “in Central Asia, one wrote with a feather, and therefore needed a smooth paper.”

The entire painstaking process takes about 10 days to generate 200 sheets of paper. The creation uses neither automated technology nor chemicals. Workers say silk paper naturally has a yellowish hue. That color creates a look of antiquity.

Pulatova says that until the 18th century, Samarkand was the center for silk paper production in Central Asia. People prize the paper for its smoothness and color. But its best feature is its durability. Research indicates silk paper can last for centuries.

Today, Samarkand’s handmade paper is used around the world in artwork, postcards, wedding invitations, diplomas, and especially restored ancient manuscripts. Branch by branch, Samarkand silk paper is once again making its mark.

Why? Painstaking processes and durable traditions speak of history, heritage, and fine craft—all of which are worth acknowledging and remembering.