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The World within your Hand: From rags to paper

What comes to mind when you think of the Wallace Collection? Old Master Painting? Rococo decadence? Perhaps even the hardened steel in the armouries? Over a series of blogs, Helen Jones, our Library Cataloguer, will be exploring the books in the Collection; the processes and science behind them. Should our books be celebrated? Read on to make up your own mind!

From rags to paper

First off let’s start at the beginning, with the paper. That at least should be easy. Shouldn’t it? However, 18th-century handmade paper was very different from the modern paper that is now produced. Today, paper is largely made with woodchip, which is cheap but also very acidic. Those paperbacks that have gone brown on your shelves? Well, the acidity in the woodchip means that the pages are basically eating themselves. Leave them long enough and they will crumble into little heaps of cellulose dust. Trust me, I’m a librarian, I’ve seen it happen.

18th-century paper, on the other hand, was made from undyed linen, mainly from used clothes; linen originally coming, after many intricate processes, from the flax plant. So, just to get the basic ingredient for paper, we have to go right back to the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum, if we’re going to be exact). Fast forward to the end of the lifetime of a piece of clothing (probably resized for many different owners and then turned into cleaning rags), at which time it would be picked up by a rag and bone merchant and sold to paper makers.

Unfortunately, the cold weather in England meant that linen was in short supply, our ancestors preferring sensible woollen garments. So while the paper-making industry flourished in the more temperate climates of Holland or France, England had to make do with importing paper until the end of the 18th century.

 

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But back to the linen process. The rags, once they reached the paper manufacturers, were sorted, washed and rotted, then cut up and pounded to pulp in various stages, interspersed with further periods of rotting to break down the fibres. This pulp was then placed in a vat with water, kept at a constant temperature and stirred with paddles to keep all the fibres from sinking to the bottom. Once the mixture reached the desired consistency of liquid porridge, the making of the actual pages could start. First a mould (an oblong rectangular wire sieve) was dipped into the liquid pulp until it was covered with fibres. The water was then drained off and the mould was emptied onto a rectangular piece of felt. This process was repeated until a good pile of paper and felt had built up.

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This stack of soggy paper and felt was then pressed to remove excess water, by which time the paper was strong enough to handle and could be hung up to dry completely, as the picture above shows. Interestingly, the picture shows women involved, at least in this part of the process, something worth noting as we remember printing as an almost exclusively male profession.  Once dry, the paper was dipped  into animal gelatine, which limited the paper’s absorbency by making the surface slicker and stopping the printing ink from spreading. Finally the sheets of paper were pressed, dried and pressed again and were ready for printing.

If you want to find out more about the journey from rags to piece of paper, I recommend this  video.

Most paper from this period will show chain lines (a faint ‘stripe’ in the paper from the mesh of the mould) and often watermarks identifying the maker. A new type of paper, ‘wove paper’, developed in the mid-1700s, was made on very fine wire mesh that left no lines.

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Linen-based paper is not acidic like woodchip-based paper and so does not tend to brown and crumble, though it might show signs of ‘foxing’, i.e. small brown dots or brownish edges to the pages. This is why a book from the 1960s might be beyond saving while one printed in the 1760s might still be in wonderful condition, with strong white pages almost as good as the day they were made. It all depends on the right storage conditions, of course; heat, damp and proximity to damaging substances are the enemies of books just as they are of art objects…

Click here for the next post: ink, illustrations and type

 

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