What makes paper good quality?

In case you couldn’t tell by the in-depth description of the paper we use for our invitations, I am kind of obsessed with paper. I learned how to make handmade paper when I was about eight, and did a presentation on how to make paper in 11th grade for a public speaking assignment. In college, I remember buying huge pieces of expensive paper from the bookstore to use in drawing and printmaking classes. I’ve always found paper making and the history of paper fascinating. The best papers can be beautiful works of art unto themselves.

When I was looking for my own wedding invitations, I ordered samples from about fifteen different wedding invitation websites, and was not impressed with many of the paper options. In order to figure out exactly what makes good paper, and where I could find it, I did a lot of research about how paper is made, and what to look for as markers of quality.

Kind of like the “4 Cs” used to describe and rate diamonds, there are four as attributes used to describe paper. They are content, weight, thickness, and finish.  Paper is rated as high, medium, or low grade by taking all four of these qualities into consideration.   


A paper's CONTENT, WEIGHT, THICKNESS, and FINISH combined make it high, medium, or low grade. 


Content is what type of fiber the paper is made of. True paper is made from cotton, linen, flax, rags, wood pulp, cellulose pulp, straw, reeds, or synthetic materials. Although sometimes called paper, writing surfaces made from animal skins are more accurately referred to as parchment, a product invented by the Ancient Greeks. Some people consider papyrus, made famous by the Ancient Egyptians and their hieroglyphs, a type of paper, since it is made from the papyrus reed that grows along the Nile River. Others say papyrus is not technically paper as we know it today, and the first real paper, made from cotton, was created by the Chinese in the 1st century BC.

Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant, a reed that grows along the Nile River. 

Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant, a reed that grows along the Nile River. 

Artisans continued to use cotton fiber to make paper for almost two thousand years. During the industrial revolution, people started making paper from wood pulp instead, because it was lower cost and trees were easy to come by in North America. The much more deeply-rooted history of 100% cotton paper is one thing that adds to its cache, and one of the reasons we only use 100% cotton paper at Charley Paper Company. Cotton is the perfect material for paper, because it is both soft and strong. It is also a renewable resource, is easier to process than wood pulp, and does not require as much dying or bleaching as wood pulp because it is naturally white.

Pure white cotton pods. 

Pure white cotton pods. 

The part of the cotton plant that is usually used for cotton paper is called linter. Cotton linter is the very fine threads of the cotton seed pod, which are too small to be used by the textile industry to make fabric. This actually works out perfectly, as textile producers are able to take what they need from the cotton plant, and the paper industry can use the leftovers that would otherwise be thrown away.  

The content of paper is the first major indicator of whether it is high, medium or low grade, as summarized below:


High grade paper: usually 100% cotton, can also be made from linen or flax

Medium grade paper: mixture of cotton and wood pulp – the higher percentage of cotton, the better the quality

Low grade paper: mixture of cellulose pulp straw, reeds, and synthetic materials


Low grade paper is the kind you probably buy in packs at the office supply store to use in your home printer. High quality, 100% paper feels completely different. If you’ve never handled it, please request a sample of our invitations and feel the difference.

The second factor to consider in grading paper is weight. Paper weight is defined as how many pounds one ream (500 sheets) of the paper weighs. For example, a good quality paper might be 120#, meaning that 500 sheets of it weighs 120 pounds, while everyday printer paper might be 80#. Paper is sometimes called heavy, medium, or light weight for ease. Some places – like PaperSource – divide their papers into “cover weight” (heavier) and “text weight” (lighter).  Thicker paper is also sometimes generically called card stock.

The third factor used to rate paper is thickness, which is the actual, measured thickness of the paper. Paper thickness has its own unit of measurement, points, which is different from the points used to measure text and font size. One paper-measured point is 0.001 inches. A lot of people confuse or conflate paper weight and paper thickness, but they actually measure two different things. For example, you could have two types of paper that are each 100#, but different thicknesses, if the fibers are more or less densely packed.

Our "double thick" paper is 38 points thick. 

Our "double thick" paper is 38 points thick. 

The final quality used to describe paper is finish. Paper finish encompasses a number of elements, including the paper’s surface texture and appearance. Some paper is finished with a coating, making it look glossy or pearlized. These coatings can affect paper’s receptiveness to ink and ease of writing, which is why we avoid them for our invitations.

Paper can also be “laid,” or pressed at the finishing stage to create a lined texture, or embossed to look like woven linen. Some finishing processes can be used to create a faux handmade, parchment, or vellum look, by rippling and puckering, and aging the paper.

Laid paper is pressed to create a lined texture, just for aesthetic reasons. The lines can go either horizontally or vertically.

Laid paper is pressed to create a lined texture, just for aesthetic reasons. The lines can go either horizontally or vertically.

Two of the most well-known, high quality papers in the world are Crane's Lettra and Reich's Savoy Cotton. We use Savoy Cotton for our invitations because that is what our printer is most comfortable with. People can be kind of cultish about which paper is better and why, but despite personal preferences for one or the other, they are both famous for their quality. There are plenty of other excellent papers out there, and by keeping in mind paper content, weight, thickness, and finish, you can find a luxurious, high grade paper for your most important paper projects.  

REFERENCES:

Haar, Amanda R. The Wedding Blue Book. Dalton: Crane, 2007. Print.