A few months ago, I was invited to experiment with some Moringa fiber for Signa-Haiti, an NGO that is developing a biodynamic and sustainable economy in Haiti. They are promoting the growing of Moringa, a plant native to subtropical Africa whose leaves may be a superfood. However, as they continue their development, they are considering developing a artisanal paper out of the leftover stems and petioles.
Above, you can see the stems that were shipped to me. (For some reason they are being wonky about uploading, sorry if they are awkward in whatever platform or device you are viewing this on). I started by "pond"-retting the fiber. After the fiber had soaked for a few days in the sunshine, the bast fiber easily peeled off the inner stalk.
Click on any picture for a larger image.
I divided the fiber into two batches for cooking, so the second batch kept soaking while I cooked the first. I discovered that with this additional soaking, the outer green bark dissolved away, and was easily just brushed off the bast fiber with my hands! No picking chiri! However, even after cooking, the outer bark was fairly easily washed away, but if there's a next time, I'll just soak the fiber a few more days.
I was asked to keep in mind water disposal and water issues while working with this fiber, so I decided it would be better to cook the fiber in wood ash over soda ash (see here for an explanation of cooking with caustics for fiber preparation). However, I found the fiber extremely tough. I kept using the Korean fiber test, and the fibers would not tear and seemed reluctant to split. In addition, to my eye, the fiber itself just seemed harder than I felt comfortable putting in my beater. Yet after ten hours of cooking and no softening of the fiber, I switched to soda ash and cooked it for several more hours, yet the fiber still seemed like it was not getting any softer.
The second batch I began cooking directly in soda ash. Again, I cooked the fiber for almost fifteen hours, and it seemed pretty tough. However, at this point, I decided to give it a go with beating.
The fibers as they go into the beater:
After two hours or so:
To my surprise, the fibers broke down easily. I'm wondering now, if for large-scale production in Haiti, if they might not need the amount of cooking I did. Some of that might also vary on when the fiber is harvested, and of course conditions like soil and water quality. However, to answer these questions, I'd need to do more tests.
Another concern would be the smoothness of the sheets. Perhaps if I'd cooked them less, the fiber (and thus pulp), might have had a rougher quality.
Sheets were pulled without formation aid (remember, water quality), and the pulp drained on the slower side, but not ridiculously slowly. I used two moulds (Western style), trading off between draining into a small vat and pulling.
The final sheets - I got about 30 or so from the amount of fiber they sent me - are a golden color with a soft texture and little rattle. Signa-Haiti had originally asked me about bleaching sheets and mentioned their concerns over using severe bleaches, disposal, and water supply, and I had countered this with the idea that maybe they didn't need to bleach them. I personally love the natural color, however, further experiments with pool-grade hydrogen peroxide (which, I believe, would break down into water and oxygen) might yield a whiter paper.