Paper making (commercial handmade)
The hand-forming of paper, often using a mould and deckle to gather and form the sheet (see also studio papermaking).
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||15th Century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||6-10|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
The first paper was made around 150 AD in China from plant fibres which were beaten in a pestle and mortar. Papermaking spread to the Islamic world in the eighth century AD, and the earliest use of water-powered pulp mills date from this time. The technique gradually travelled towards Europe providing a substitute to animal skins for writing. Literacy was poor and mainly restricted to religious organisations and the legal profession. Imported paper from Europe, and later the early production of paper in England coincided with Gutenberg’s invention of moveable printing type.
The beating process could be mechanised using redundant water-powered corn mills which were converted wherever the mills were near to towns for easy transportation. Clear spring water was a necessity for making white paper. By this time cotton and linen rags were being used as raw material (re-cycling). In the mid-1700s a new improved method of beating the rags into pulp was introduced from Holland improving the beating process, from days, to hours whilst also improving the pulp quality.
The size of the hand mould limited the size of sheet produced unless sheets were glued together. Many people tried to improve the quality and size of paper produced but it was not until 1803 that this was successfully achieved at Frogmore Mill. That first machine was rapidly improved and enlarged so that within a few years machines were being sold so that hand papermaking had almost ceased by 1900.
Machine made paper was more consistent and much cheaper. Being made on a roll it could also be used in the new printing presses so that newspapers and books became readily available leading to improved education and literacy. The world of postal communication developed too so that the need for hand-made paper became restricted to speciality papers for artists and for special uses like certificates.
Before World War II there were 5-6 small commercial paper mills around the country, making batches of hand-made paper. Their main market was to produce ledgers for double-entry book keeping. These ledgers were unique to each counting house or company, with their own marbling and watermarks for security. Because the runs were in the hundreds of sheets, rather than the tons, it suited small enterprises. However, electronic banking has changed everything and removed this market. Today, the main market for batch-produced hand-made paper is for fine art and use by artists.
Making paper by hand is not that different from making paper by machine. In this context, both commercial and studio paper making is done by hand; the processes of commercial and studio making are largely the same, but the scale of making is different.
Paper is primarily made from cotton and linen flax, but other materials such as hemp, seeds, petals and recycled rag are used to add texture and character. The fibres are first beaten in water and internally sized (to reduce the paper’s tendency when dry to absorb liquid, providing a more consistent, economical, and precise printing, painting, and writing surface.). For coloured paper, lightfast and permanent pigments are added at this stage. The sheets are formed individually using hand moulds and deckles, and then each sheet is laid onto cloth felts and pressed. The paper is then surface sized and left to air dry.
Cellulose fibres are softened and refined to make a paper stock (or stuff) which is added to a vat in a consistency of 1 per cent (- 5 per cent) fibre to 99% water. The vat is stirred and using a wire mesh covered mould, with deckle on top, fibres are scooped from the vat, levelled and gently shaken to form a sheet. This sheet is then couched (a rolling action) onto a felt. The sheets are then placed in a press and once a full post has been transferred, the post is wound down and the sheets pressed to extract water. The sheets can then be handled and are air dried. Sheets may be hand dipped into a further bath of gelatine size if a surface sizing is required. The sheets are the dried again.
- Paper mould and deckle making – now extinct in the UK.
- Studio paper making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Loss of skills: The difference between a hand-made and a machine-made product is perfection. But the measure of craftsmanship is how little variation there is within the imperfection. In a commercial setting/batch-production setting there is very little variation, which takes an enormous level of skill that comes from practice and repeat-making on a larger scale. Furthermore, the treatment of the fibres is all-important in papermaking, but this is a skill that a lot of studio makers do not have because they haven’t been trained in it.
- Contraction of the mainstream industry: Smaller enterprises rely on the mainstream industry for raw materials such as acid free sizes and cotton lint for pulp – the manufacturers only sell in extreme bulk so smaller enterprises cannot buy materials directly from the manufacturers and instead buy from the mainstream industry (smaller enterprises may then sell materials to studio paper makers who require even smaller quantities). The contraction of the domestic mainstream industry therefore has a knock-on effect on the smaller enterprises.
- Contraction of the mainstream industry: In the mainstream papermaking industry, people were promoted through the mill and learned from the poeple they were working under and progressed. They were also offered training, e.g. City and Guilds, HNC, HND, and a degree in paper science. However, that infrastructure was dismantled about 25 years ago because the industry couldn’t support/afford it. As the mainstream industry has matured, fewer people are employed, so the pool of talent in the industry is much smaller and many technicians increasingly come from abroad. This also means there are fewer people with the skills who may wish to set up in a more handmade setting.
- Market issues: Paper is proverbially cheap (‘not worth the paper it’s printed on’) and you are therefore producing something for a market in which people are used to paying very low prices. Most people are not prepared to pay £4 or £5 for a sheet of handmade paper.
- Market issues: While in some cases you might be making a product that is not available by mass manufacture, in many cases you are not creating a new product or a new market and instead have to convince an artist that handmade paper is better than mass manufactured paper. The market is there, but the challenge lies in reaching it.
- Market issues: Marketing is a big issue. The market could probably support another 2-3 businesses of 2-3 people around the country, if you were able to market well enough to reach both the domestic and export markets. However, marketing is expensive – but social media is making a noticeable difference.
- Market issues: demand (painters and textile artists), willingness to pay the price of a handmade sheet, as opposed to machine made watercolour (requires appreciation of the skilled handmade paper process and the impact of quality on users work)
- Loss of associated crafts: paper mould making is now extinct in the UK, so it is difficult to acquire moulds if you are setting up a new. Lower quality moulds are available, but they don’t compare with the real thing. There is a new maker in France but no one appears to have taken up the craft in the UK yet. Similarly, wool blankets are the best for transferring marks but it is getting harder to find the right type of blanket.
- Cost of equipment: To make paper on a commercial basis, you need a Hollander beater – these are very rare second hand, and very expensive to buy new – which poses a challenge for anyone setting up in the craft.
- Supply of raw materials: The price of fibre has increased.
- Cost of premises: Anyone wishing to set up as a commercial paper maker will require suitable premises, which would be prohibitively expensive for anyone learning the craft.
- Lifestyle: Paper making on a commercial scale is hard physical work, which many people aren’t prepared for nowadays, and often involves subsistence living.
Craftspeople currently known
- Two Rivers Paper Company, Somerset. The only full-time commercial handmade paper makers, with two craftspeople, Jim Pattison and Neil Hopkins, and one apprentice, Zoe Collis.
- Frogmore Paper Mill, Hemel Hempstead. Working museum, education and heritage centre, with an archive, makes hand and machine made paper on a 1902 Fourdrinier Machine, with two craftspeople, Gary Fuller and Luke.
An accredited UK paper industry papermaking apprenticeship has been introduced under the Government’s ‘Trailblazers’ initiative. While aimed at the mainstream industry, rather than at hand-making, many of the skills are transferable, and Two Rivers’ Zoe Collis is currently on the scheme. Zoe was recruited through the Heritage Crafts Association’s 2017 pre-apprenticeship pilot programme funded by the Ernest Cook Trust.