The wheel: water and movement

To run a paper mill, of course, you need water. A 17th-century Auvergnat Jesuit, Father Imberdis, wrote, "Choose a region with a mild and temperate climate, for the water of the stream must not freeze in the winter or dry up in the summer."

About the quality of water he added: "I take for the best the one whose pure and transparent crystal shows the smallest grain of sand below its depth."

From this point of view the Sorgue obviously offers all the guarantees. In the 18th century there were up to four paper mills in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. 

Water is both the energy of the mill and the chemistry of the paper. Carried  by the bay, narrow wooden or metal canal,  it flows "from below" the wheel, pushing its blades (wooden blades),  and  spins it.  The wheel at Vallis Clausa is 7 meters in diameter and 2 meters wide. It carries 48 blades.

The cam tree

The cam shaft, a 6 meter long cylindrical beam driven by a belt from the axis of the wheel, activates the mallets (hammers) by turning on itself.

It is equipped with cams, protruding ergots that come to hit the bottom of the mallet handle and lift it. The mallets fall back on their own weight and crush the rags contained in the beater. For each mallet there are 4 cams.

All along the tree, these ergots are arranged so that not all mallets rise at the same time. They hit one after the other.

The mallet

It is a huge 75kg fir hammer. Its handle, the mallet tail, rests on a base, the rear grip. Its base is crossed by an axis that allows it to rotate vertically.

At the other end of this handle is the spur, a metal piece that the cane comes to hit. The hammer then rises. Under the mallet itself, which is a metre long, nails will grind the contents of the beater

Each time this hammer falls, the top of the handle comes on to another guide, the front grip, which serves as a rail to avoid any lateral movement.

Note: the mallet is not quite perpendicular to its handle, so when it hits, it prints with the porridge of rags a rotation that could be compared to that which the pastry maker undergoes to its pie dough.

The mallet beater

There are five in Vallis Clausa. They are dug  by hand in granite. In  each  beater, about 15kg of rags mixed with water will become a paste, passing from one trough to another. For each beater three mallets strike alternately, allowing the raw material to be converted to pulp.  At the bottom of the troughs are two pieces: one at the bottom is made of wood (beech), it is the false platinum; the other, placed on top, made of the platinum. This set will endure for hours the pounding of the mallet. In the beater water circulation is continuous. A kind of bottom leap, the "kas", allows the evacuation of the washing water of the rags.

The grinding in the mallet beaters lasts 24 to 36 hours.

Ram Materials

The raw material is hemp, cotton or linen cloth.

In the past, these fabrics would rot for a few weeks to soften the fibres. This operation is no longer practiced today, and the rags go directly to a table where a worker cuts them into thin strips using a scythe blade and rids them of any impurity (buttons, elastics...)

Baskets filled with “chiffe”, i.e. thin pieces of cloth, are brought into what can be considered the heart of the mill: the mallet room. This is where the magic works: chiffe enters, pulp comes out.

Pulp manufacturing

The bits of rags mixed with water will pass successively in each of the five beaters and after 24 to 36 hours, become a fairly coarse dough. To refine it, it goes through a so called "Dutch beater". This equipment invented in Holland during the 18th century, offers the advantage of suppressing rot. The Dutch beater is an oval cast iron tank in which a cylinder with blades rotates, shredding the chiffe for an hour and a half while ensuring water circulation. This invention is a big step forward because it not only avoids the rot stage, but it also provides a thinner, smoother paper.

4 mallet beater can beat 700 strokes per minute while in the same time the Dutch beater offers 50 to 100,000 blade strokes!

At Vallis Clausa these two systems are used complementarily.

In the Dutch beater one can add to the dough eucalyptus or pine fibers as well as linters (cotton fibers), which improve the printability of the paper.

Natural resin-based glue is also added to prevent the paper from remaining absorbent like blotting paper.

The "Form"

Finally, the pulp is transferred to a copper vat.

It is white, relatively liquid, and maintained homogeneous through brewing. At that stage, one can add flower petals, fern leaves, and many other carefully selected natural products 

At this time the paper maker can show his skill. 

Leaning against the rim of the tank, after mixing the pulp with the”redable”, the papermaker immerses the “Form” (kind of sieve) same size as the future sheet of paper in the liquid.

This form is made up of two parts. First a wooden frame on which is stretched a tight frame of wires supported by wooden rods; this sieve will let the excess of water go through. Then a second frame, the “cover”that fits exactly on the first frame. The cover retains the fluid paste on the sieve and, as a result its height determines the thickness and size of the future sheet. The papermaker sews the watermark, and possibly a slice (brass thread or string) that will allow the sheets to be shared easily when dry.

The Sheet

This immersion is quite an art! The papermaker dips the form into the pulp and emerges it waving it with a back and forth movement to share and entangle the fibers. 

After a brief drip he can remove the cover: the sheet has taken shape.

Laying down

Now the layer takes over. He grabs the shape and flips it over to place the sheet on a wool felt mat. It will thus form a pile of 100 to 250 sheets alternating each with a layer of felt. This pile, called “porse”, will go under a press.

The press

At Vallis Clausa you can see an old press that was operated by a “cabestan” requiring four men.

To this rather dangerous process we prefer the use of a hydraulic press, also much more efficient (40 to 60% of the water is cleared out).

Lifting and hanging the sheet

Once the “porse” has been pressed, the papermaker separates the sheets of paper from the felts. This is a delicate action because the sheets are still very wet are fragile.  Then you have to climb up to the drying stack and lay the sheets on hundreds of meters of rope. Drying lasts between one and three days. The paper making operation is complete and sheets of dry paper can be stacked. While drying, the paper has curled. It is therefore necessary to keep this stack flat for 4 days with a certain weight so that these curls gradually disappear.

Then every single sheet goes through a roller In the past, there were no rolling machines in paper mills. Specialized workers polished each sheet of paper with a flint stone making it suitable for writing and printing. 

The paper has now to be sorted sheet after sheet, packed or printed.

The best sheets will be used by all kind of artists, calligraphers, painters, publishers, for watercolor... Or will be converted into stationery, business cards, correspondence, greeting cards...