One of my favorite passages in Eric Hebborn’s memoir “Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger” is where he fills a hole in one of his faked drawings by chewing on a piece of paper, breaking up the fiber, and then pushes the pulp into the hole and flattens it. This is paper making at its simplest.
Fiber, water, and netting to catch the fiber are the three essentials of paper. Wool felt to absorb water, a flattening press, and gelatinous glue to size the paper are important refinements.
At Fabriano, in the region of the Marche, paper has been produced since at least the 13th century, and there is a wonderful museum called the “Museo della Carta e della Filigrana” or Paper and Watermark Museum. It is operated by the City of Fabriano and Cartiere Miliani, Fabriano’s huge mill which produces a range of papers, from high quality art papers to photocopy paper, and also is one of the five European mills that produces paper for the euro. The earliest piece of paper at the museum is a 1293 paper with a watermark of the Arabic figure 8, written horizontally.
The earliest European paper was made from rags, rags made from linen or hemp cloth. Linen is an ideal fiber since it is at its strongest when wet. Cotton was not used until the 18th century, when machines capable of processing cotton were introduced and supplies of cotton from warmer countries, including America, became more plentiful. (Cotton had been grown in Sicily, as was papyrus, but Sicily’s temperatures were not reliably warm.) Paper from trees was introduced in 1870. The availability of plant materials and rags has driven the history of paper. From the didactic film shown at the museum, we know that when the plague was raging, there would be shortages of rags and paper, because the clothes and bedclothes of the sick and dead would be burned, rather than sold.
The museum has exhibits, machines, and master paper makers demonstrating the making of paper. Rags were carefully sorted, washed, bleached, and then cut into small pieces. There are large wooden machines, once powered by water action, but now electrically, that pound the rag bits into pulp.
The most fascinating part of the visit comes from seeing the master paper maker scoop up the pulpy broth and with expert movements control and catch just the right amount of fiber for a sheet of paper. The tour guide said that it takes about six years for a person to learn this skill. The mold is a frame with chain wires and laid wires and it is never very large, never longer than a man’s arm, since that would make it very difficult to maneuver. (When artists needed large paper, as for preparatory cartoons, they would fasten pieces of paper together with glue.) Over time chain and laid wires and also watermark wires bend and degrade. This movement of the wires makes it difficult to study watermarks. Here is an early piece of paper at the Fabriano museum showing how wires can move.
After being molded, the paper is allowed to dry between wool felt slabs and then there are places for it to be hung to dry. Sometimes the sheets would be left in the fields to dry. It would then be sized by dipping the paper into a glue made from animal skins and allowed to dry again. The paper would then be pressed and finally burnished before it was sold.