It’s thin, soft, light, absorbent and seemingly indispensable in modern life. Tissue paper fulfils a myriad of roles in a range of environments. Whether it’s rolled into toilet paper or kitchen roll or scrunched into a gift box, this versatile wood pulp product is a daily necessity.
One of the original commercial uses for tissue paper was as a facial wipe. And whether it’s wiping a runny nose, cleaning up a spill or drying tears, tissues are still there for all issues.
So, how are tissues made? Or, more accurately, how are tissues manufactured? We’ll explore each question in turn, starting with a short history.
Tissue Paper: A Short History
Before asking how tissue paper is made, let’s delve back into its origins.
There is evidence to suggest that the Chinese, the first inventors of paper in the 2nd century, were also the first to use it as toilet paper in the 6th century. However, this was more crisp and tough than soft and pliable. In fact, a quote from a contemporary academic of the time, Yen Chih-Thui, would indicate that writing paper was used:
‘Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.’
Evidently, the particular paper on which this was written was spared the task.
In the 14th century, it was the Chinese who once again innovated in the toilet paper realm, creating it from rice. It’s even thought this was mass produced at the time. In the west, the first toilet paper would only hit the market in 1857. In 1890, Scott’s created perforated toilet paper. As for tissue paper, or softer paper, its origins are a bit less clear.
Some see the first step towards how tissues are made today as having begun with creped cellulose wadding. This was a material invented in Europe during World War I as a replacement for cotton. When the owners of American company Kimberly-Clark saw this, they marketed it first for use as medical bandages and then, after the war, for sanitary towels. It would eventually become Kleenex.
In 1942, Walthamstow-based company St Andrew Mills Ltd continued the roll towards tissue when they developed two-ply toilet paper. With all that cleared up, let’s find out how tissue paper is manufactured now.
How Tissues Are Made: A Step-By-Step Guide
This is a step-by-step breakdown of how tissue paper is made, specifically facial tissues. There’s definitely some overlap with toilet paper, but the format discussed here is the kind found in a box.
The makeup of tissue paper differs from one manufacturer to another, with some using recycled fibres from raw materials such as used printer paper. Others use new or ‘virgin’ fibres, often from sustainable trees. If new wood is being used, it’s first milled into wood chips and pressure cooked for several hours before it’s pulped. The following relates to the process for recycled fibres.
The recycled paper arrives as massive bales that may weigh about half a tonne or more. These are fed into the vat of a pulper, where they are broken down into fibres. Water is mixed in, creating pulp. If the recycled paper had ink on this, this is removed by injecting the pulp with hot air. The ink rises up and settles at the top of the pulp before being drained off.
Drying and Cleaning
In order to rid the pulp of the now dirty water, it’s passed through a series of corkscrew rollers. The water is wrung out and the pulp is rinsed again to clean it.
The pulp is transferred in an even layer to a mesh screen conveyor belt and into a paper machine. It’s then passed through more rollers, which press the pulp. This squeezes out the moisture, which drains through the holes in the screen. A hot air dryer is then used to complete the process. And, by the time it emerges from the dryer, the pulp has become paper. In a factory, it starts off as a large sheet, maybe 10-feet wide and many miles long. This is rolled onto a giant spool.
Conversion to Tissue
To make the tissue, two of the giant paper spools are transferred to a conversion machine. They are each unwound and the machine irons out any wrinkles using mild pressure and tension. The newly flat sheet passes through a cutting station, where a blade perforates them at regular intervals. These represent the individual tissue squares. Now it’s time to unite the two spools.
Making Two-Ply Paper
Each of the paper spools is placed on one of two adjacent rollers, each rolling inwards from opposite sides. As they do so, the paper is squeezed together, emerging as a single two-ply, perforated sheet. This is held together by suction in preparation for folding.
In the next phase of how tissue paper is manufactured, the long perforated sheet enters a folding machine. As it’s lowered onto a surface, it’s folded in half at equal intervals so that the end of one perforation folds into the next. This creates the interlocking system whereby every time a tissue is extracted, another one peeks through the top hole in the box for next time. The machinery can work at 16 folds a second. The folded tower of tissues that emerges is 5-feet wide and contains many boxes’ worth of paper. First, the machine divides up the big stack into the right number of tissues for each tissue box. Then, a cutter slices these to the correct size for the box.
At the packaging station, the stacks of tissues are compressed together on one conveyor belt while, on a parallel one, flat boxes are unfolded. The tissues are inserted into the newly formed box before moving to the glueing station, which unites the top flaps and seals them shut. And so, we’ve blown open the lid on how tissue paper is made, answering ‘how are tissues made’ and ‘how are tissues manufactured’ from pulp to paper. Thus, the next time you remedy a runny nose, remember the journey that soft ply took to help you out.