Plugged in and turned on. All paper. All the time.
After graduating with an MFA in printmaking from Arizona State, Whitney Korstange and her sister Hilary purchased a fully equipped, 20-year-old handmade paper mill and moved it from Vermont to Michigan. They named it The Maple Street Paper Company, after the street they grew up on, and ran a successful manufactory for three and a half years. As she gets ready to move on to the next adventure in life, Whitney took some time to chat about what hooked her on paper to begin with, what it was like being a business owner and what she’ll be up to next.
The Fiber Wire [FW]: You were introduced to hand papermaking while in college. Would you tell us about that experience?
Whitney Korstange [WK]: I studied fine art and my degree is in printmaking. I long understood how paper was made and had been making stuff in the studio on my own. There was a papermaking course offered every other year and I decided to take it. I learned from John Risseeuw at Arizona State. He was really great and made us learn all of the science of paper. In the printmaking and fine art world I found that there are some instructors that really go into the science of what you are doing. In my paper making class it was very much you need to know the science because that’s very much a part of how to make paper- how to make good paper. So I really lucked out being at the right school with the right instructor who wanted to pass all of that on.
FW: How about the first time you made paper.
WK: Well, I’d been making paper already with things like cotton linter but in that class the first thing we did was go through our Goodwill bag and cut up everything that was 100% cotton or linen. That really opened my eyes to the capabilities and possibilities about what paper is and some of my preconceived notions changed.
FW: What were your preconceived notions of paper?
WK: I use a lot of cotton-based paper because I’m an artist but the idea that tree fiber is what everyone uses. I know how tree fibers work but it’s not the easiest fiber to use for papermaking. Like me, as a handmade papermaker, I couldn’t go chop down a tree and start making paper, whereas if I had some flax I could actually do the process by myself.
FW: I just got this great image of you trying to shove a maple tree into a Hollander Beater.
WK: Yeah, exactly. So, the class really taught me the fundamentals. It was a great learning experience and made me feel like I could go into business making and selling paper. The year I came up for graduation I was on an email thread and read that Langdell Paper Company was up for sale. I did some research and decided to try running a paper studio.
FW: You and your sister acquired a business with a twenty-year history. Was it a challenge to make the business your own?
WK: My sister’s background is in business; she’s an accountant and has worked in supply chain management so she’s been able to offer a lot of business advice and support that has been nice. You know, it’s an interesting way to start, with recipes and clients and suppliers and having some semblance that you’re not completely out there all by yourself. Still, you have to figure out what works for you. Handmade paper is a niche market and so it doesn’t equate when you look to industries for examples of how to run things. It was a lot of trial and error for both of us.
FW: Yes. There’s not much out there to compare your product to. Most people would look at a 19” x 25” sheet paper at $15 and think it’s overpriced.
WK: Yes. It’s like clothing, you know. There’s clothing you can get for twenty bucks and there’s clothing that will cost 200 dollars. Every industry has it but not everybody thinks about it like that. Not everyone wants to spend the price for handmade paper. Then there are people who only want handmade paper. It’s a niche market. So it’s just about learning how to talk to people about what you do and how you do it and understand that it’s not going to be for everyone. And you don’t want it to be for everyone because then you’re never going to go to sleep!
WK: You’ll be working round the clock! Then you’ll have to raise your prices and cut out some of your clients!
FW:Talking about working around the clock, your company offered an amazing range of papers and you were the only paper maker! How did you keep up with the orders?
WK: A lot of hard work! I’m at the point where if I were going to continue I would need to look into additional help. It’s learning to be upfront. My lead-time is 2-4 weeks. Ideally I’d like to ship the next day but it’s a handmade product and most clients understand that it takes longer.
FW:What would you have done exactly the same? What was your favorite part of the whole thing?
WK: I liked developing the papers. I developed a few new colors, one of which was a turquoise and that’s become one of the most popular colors that I have. I liked trying new things and experimenting with different paper types. Most of the recipes I had been using were for heavyweight card stock used for invitations, roughly 200 gsm. It was some really thick stuff. But having that art background and having made paper out of cactus, gampi, kudzu, that kind of stuff, I didn’t branch out as much as I would have liked. When you’ve got orders you’ve got to fill them, and the creative experiments fall by the wayside.
FW: I guess that’s a good problem to have, too many orders!
FW: For you, what did it mean to be a business owner?
WK: It was great. The best thing was how much it taught me about life. Everything. Having to think about how to sell and how to buy and who clients are, and who they’re not. It gave me so much more of an appreciation of everyone else. It’s opened up an idea of how society works in a totally different way. When you’re making all of the decisions you get to see how all of the dots connect. It was definitely a great opportunity.
FW: You’re selling your mill and moving on to your next great adventure. What part of that change are you most looking forward to?
WK: It’s been three and a half years. It’s been a lot of fun. When you decide to do something you do a lot of research and weigh the pros and the cons. When you decide to move on you do the same type of thing. My life has taken a different direction and I’m looking forward to a different kind of work-life balance. The fine artist in me is looking forward to moving away from paper manufacture and getting back in the studio to work with paper creatively.
Want to take on the adventure of owning your own paper mill? Here is the Maple Street Paper Company Sales Announcement. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.