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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...