1. Pulp making

Paper making may have been invented in China in 105 AD. By 795 AD there appears to be evidence of a paper mill in Baghdad. Gutenberg’s invention of printing from moveable types is what gave the use of paper its big boost in Europe. From then until the beginning of the 19th century the process of making it remained relatively stable.

There are four basic steps in making paper by hand. First the pulp preparation, then the sheet formation, next couching (pron. cooching, from presumably the original French), and finally laying/drying. If the paper is to be used for writing or printing, another phase, sizing, will be added. Till the early 19th century the raw material was flax, hemp, linen and more rarely cotton fibers, mainly derived from cloth rags, collected by rag and bone men.

Sorting rags (From Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

At the paper mill the rags would be sorted into grades. Sorting was key to success in making fine paper. Much depended on starting out with consistent raw material.

Cutting rags (from Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

Then the rags would be cut into small pieces and buttons, pins and other extraneous material removed.

Retting vat (from Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

After that the pieces of cloth would undergo retting — fermentation — to soften up the fibers. They might be left to this rotting process for about a month. Only in the 19th century was cooking with chemicals introduced to replace retting which had relied on the action of local enzymes whose existence was obviously a mystery to the craftsmen who guided their action.

After retting, the stuff, mixed with water, would be fed into beaters, where the material would be broken down by the action of hammers stamping them to separate the fibers and to break up their outer surface so that they would adhere better in the final paper sheet.

Stamping mill (from Zonca: Novo teatro di machine et edifici, 1607)

Cross section of stamping mill

Cross section of stamping mill