Since seeing a mobile papermaking display in the Netherlands, my husband has been keen to add this craft to our knowledge base, and when we learnt of a day-long papermaking course being offered at Frogmore Mill, Hemel Hempstead, we realised that here was the perfect opportunity to learn, at one of the most historic sites in Britain relating to the paper trade.
“Frogmore Paper Mill is the world’s oldest mechanised paper mill – the birthplace of paper’s industrial revolution. Today it is still a working paper mill producing around 100 tonnes of specialist grade paper every year on historic paper machines.” frogmoremill.com
It was about 10 days ago that we arrived, with ten other students, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of people who were interested and their different reasons for attending the day. For some the interest was purely artistic; for others, this day formed part of their historical studies.
We were greeted by Gary who was not just the course leader but a highly skilled, professional papermaker whose experience at the mill stretched back a fair few years. He explained the background and demonstrated the hand papermaking process.
The material used in the vat was prepared cotton pulp, mixed with water. The weight of the paper is determined by the consistency of the pulp. The more water – the thinner the paper, which is also harder to form properly. Then the two part mould and deckle is brought out to form the sheets, one at a time. Along with the more mainstream ‘wove’ moulds, there was an old-fashioned ‘laid’ mould such as would have been used before the 1750s. This type of mould produces the characteristic chain lines to be seen on paper of the 17th century.
Gary showed us the classic movements to create the sheets – dipping the mould vertically into the vat, then bringing it out horizontally and giving very small quick shakes to distribute the pulp over the mould. Then the deckle is laid aside and the sheets ‘couched’ upon a felt or blanket. Layer upon layer is built up in the same way and the stack is called a ‘post’. Surprising for me was to see how thick the paper was upon the mould. however, when the post was ready, it was then put into a large press and when it was screwed down, the water fairly poured out. It’s an activity that generates a whole lot of water! This post of paper is left in the first press for a while and then is taken to the drying room for further evaporation, From start to finish, a handmade sheet of paper takes 4 days to create.
After a lunch break it was our turn!
Some participants were keen to put in additives such as flower petals, seeds and even shredded banknotes. These were put in the small vats, and the large vat remained white which was more our interest. We tagged our sheets so we could be reunited with them later. On average we made 6-7 sheets each. Our last action was to create a sheet using the laid mould, to see if we could achieve the lines within the sheet of paper.
My conclusions were that the actual dipping and couching was easier that I had expected – but I’m aware that this process is possibly the least complicated stage. The real challenge, for anyone wishing to reproduce the historic art of papermaking, is to render linen rags down to their basic fibre, and this can be a long process, not to say a smelly one. There seems to be a few differing opinions but I don’t believe chemicals were used in pre industrial processes, except possibly some lime. To do it efficiently requires a Hollander beater which is an expensive bit of kit – to be completely faithful to the 17th century methods, you need to get yourself a watermill. Another expensive item is the mould and deckle. They can cost a cool £1000 – at its most basic two wooden frames and a mesh – but the skill required to build one is considerable. Sadly, the last mould maker left in Britain has now retired.
Some days after the course, we received through the post the paper we’d made. It was fascinating to see that the vat which had contained the most seeds and additives, produced a sheet which was nearly 3D in its bobbly thickness. The paper created in the laid mould did show lines, through rather faint. It was thin and very pleasing.
It may or may not be feasible to show papermaking as a Living History display, but I’m hoping very much that I will be able to use our own sheets in the layering of the Mark 3 cards.
Last but not least I should mention the shop, which carried a wide range of hand and machine made papers created at the mill. We took some sheets made with “Zoo Poo” which have proved very good, especially when damped.
Frogmore Paper Mill is open every Thursday and the first Sunday of each month from 11 to 4 pm.