Papillon Flora - History and Process

Papillon Flora: History and Process

April 09, 2019 1 Comment

Before paper was produced in rolls, paper was made as sheets, one at a time. The practice of covering walls with decorated paper began in the late 15th Century, and was done with individual sheets. This practice, originating in Germany, the Netherlands, and Northern Italy, was a way for people to display pattern on their walls without the cost of tapestries, which was the domain of the nobility. These papers were produced in great numbers in the 16th through the 18th Centuries.

simple repeating patternA simple repeated pattern on an 18th Century domino paper.

The early decorated papers were quite rustic and unrefined, the designs generally simple repetitive patterns. Though these were used to decorate walls, they were also used to cover objects, line furniture, cover books, and wrap things. They were also used as endpapers in books. As the trade progressed through the centuries, the quality of these papers increased, and many beautiful designs were produced, from striking floral patterns to ornate patterns including architectural elements and flora and fauna, both stylized and realistic.

more elaborate decorated paper

A more elaborate decorated 18th Century paper.

If the paper was intended to be hung on walls, the pattern would be repeatable from side to side and top to bottom. Eventually, sheets would be pre-glued together top to bottom and sold as rolls. This practice ended around 1830, when paper could be produced in rolls and continuous printing eliminated the need for single sheet decorated paper for walls. Decorated paper production in sheets continued on its own after this, developing its own identity and style, differentiating from wallpaper design. Because wallpaper design was often large and bold, it’s use in bookbinding was interesting but limited, but in the 19th Century, soon after wallpaper began to be produced in rolls, the designs of decorated paper sheets began to be smaller and more detailed. This can also be attributed to the change in printing technology, as a variety of printing methods replaced hand carved wooden blocks, enabling the printing of finer details and color. All of these developments resulted in a great number of decorated papers being used as endpapers in books.

There is quite a difference in character between the early block printed papers and the finely detailed papers of the 19th Century. They each have their qualities, but the block printed papers have a texture and richness that the "finer" papers don't have. The paper pictured below is one such example. Printed in only one color, the balanced array of stylized leaves and flowers make the design quite compelling. Notice that the design is repeated. This image would have been printed from a carved block. Printed in the second half of the 18th Century by Jean Charles Didier in Epinal, France.

block printed sheet

 Block printed paper which inspired our Papillon Flora paper.

We’ve used this decorated paper as a starting point, we've created our own block printed decorated paper in the 18th Century style. Following is a description of the process.

  1. The design is drawn onto paper in a soft pencil. The paper is folded as a flat tube both vertically and horizontally so the design can be matched up to make a repeatable pattern.

detail pencil drawingDetail of the pencil drawing.

  1. A panel of wood, or block, slightly larger than the design is prepared by rubbing soap onto the surface. This gives it adhesion characteristics. Often fruit woods are used for carving, as they are a medium density hardwood, with a clean grain. Many of the early blocks were pear.

  1. The pencil design is laid face-down onto the block and rubbed with a bone folder. This transfers a reverse image onto the block.

  1. The block is carved. Everything is carved away except those portions we want to see printed.

hand cut blockDetail of the hand carved cherry printing block.

  1. We mix the ink to the desired color.

Mixing ink.

  1. The block is inked with a roller. We use archival vegetable based inks.

inked blockInking the hand carved block.

  1. The block is lifted and placed on top of the paper and placed in a press. In the 18th Century the paper would have been laid on the block and rolled with a roller. This worked well for the paste-based inks used for these papers, but since we are using a denser, vegetable oil based ink, there needs to be more pressure on the paper.

  1. The block is removed from the printed sheet and the sheet is hung to dry.

A finished sheet of Papillon Flora.

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1. Musée de l'Image website,

2. Hoskins, Lesley, ed., The Papered wall; History, Pattern, Technique, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1994.



1 Response


September 28, 2019

Thank you for this helpful and inspiring overview of the history and process of printing. The designs are beautiful and I am blown away by how much of this is done by hand.

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