Traditional Pre-industrial papermaking is alive and well in Angoulême

How well do you know your printmaking paper?
Did it originate in a Ukranian pine forest, or a textile dump in India?
How much does it matter?

A recent visit to the Moulin du Verger near Angoulême, and a conversation with the master papermaker there, has helped shine a light on the history of paper for printmakers.

Master papermaker Jacques Brejoux outside the mill

Pre-industrial papermaking rediscovered

This ancient paper mill has been in operation since 1539, and for the last 50 years Jacques Brejoux has been at the helm of the enterprise.

He has made it his mission to rediscover and revive the process of pre-industrial papermaking. Through a process of trial and error, experimentation and patient research he is producing papers with the unique qualities of the pre-industrial hand-made papers.

Hollander Beater versus wooden mallets

Much of the knowledge of the original process using worn linen fabric (cotton came later), and the beating action of mallets, has been lost since the introduction of the Hollander Beater. This machine processes paper pulp much faster than the traditional hammer beaters, but its macerating action reduces the length of fibre. This affects the properties of the finished paper, making it weaker and thinner.

Modern papermaking still uses the principle of the Hollander Beater, although on a huge industrial scale.

Hollander machine for making pulp for papermaking

Retting and pounding the fibres

Traditionally the linen rags were ‘retted’, or fermented, for several weeks to break down the fibres. Interestingly this process is now being revived in modern papermaking in order to save energy.

The heavy hammers pounded the fibres, which separated them while keeeping the length, rather than chopping them into shorter pieces like the Hollander machine. The longer fibres produce a softer stronger paper. Many of the old traditional papers for etching were, surprisingly, only 70-80 gsm, but feel much heavier.

Jacques Brejoux’s method involves a combination of the Hollander, and also beating with the hammers. For more detailed information on his research and development of the process see the article here.

wooden stampers for making pulp

Here is a short film from French TV showing the process of traditional papermaking at the Moulin du Verger, using a combination of Hollander and wooden mallets to prepare the pulp.

Bespoke artists papers

Jacques Brejoux’s unique hand made paper is not made for sale, but is produced to order for artists, printmakers, and book binders. This is how renaissance printmakers would have bought their paper 450 years ago.

The racks in the long drying room are filled with papers named for the particular artists who commissioned them. He showed me some specially made for Korean printmaker Lee Ufan, along with a series of his etchings.

traditional hand-made paper hanging up to dry

The creative process is a collaboration of artists

It is always inspiring to meet someone passionate and knowledgeable about their subject. Visiting Moulin du Verger for a conversation with Jaques Brejoux, (with my pretty rusty French, and his pretty good English) felt like stepping back several centuries to a time when the master paper maker was an artist in his own right.

It left me feeling wistful for an age when completed art works were a true collaboration between, paper makers, artists, engravers, and printers, combining many lifetimes of practical experience.

Each time I soak and press a stack of paper ready for printing, I will think of the Moulin du Verger and its immense long drying room with the sun and air filtering in through the old shutters. In our own small way when we wet and press our printmaking papers we are all links in the chain leading back to the mill in 1539, and before that to the silk road and the traditional craft of the earliest paper makers.

pressing traditional hand-made paper

Looking forward to post-industrial papermaking

The Moulin may feel ancient, however Didier Navarro, Jacques’ apprentice of 30 years, is a skilled assistant, and the Mill runs a programme of courses in paper making, marbling and bookbinding to help spread the joy of real hand made paper to new generations of artists.

If you are lucky enough to visit the Moulin du Verger, a day out in nearby Angoulême could also be right up your street. This beautiful French city was once the centre of a flourishing paper making industry dating from the middle-ages. The Paper Museum is one of the Angouleme’s many attractions, where you can immerse yourself in the massive industrial remains of the paper making factory on the Charente River.

a roll of traditional hand-made paper from the Moulin du Verger

My unique Moulin du Verger paper – soon to inspire a new print!

work table with stacks of traditional hand-made paper