Making paper

I recently went on a day out with friends – it was a treat for us all!!  We went to the village of Brousses-et-Villaret, where there is a bit of living heritage: a paper mill. The mill in Brousses (Villaret is the other part of the commune, but really a separate village or hamlet) is one of only five in the whole of France where paper is still hand-crafted.  There are many other paper mills in France, but they all produce paper on an industrial scale.

To get to the paper mill in Brousses you have to drive down a narrow road which winds across the village green, past the church and some houses.


You park your car in a grove of green oaks and then you set off on foot along the narrow road.  You can hear the mill stream running in the valley below.  After about a hundred yards, you leave the road and follow a path which runs through the woodland.


At one point, a wooden bridge takes you across a small canal and it’s shortly after that you’ll have your first ‘mill’ experience. (Note to e-mail subscribers: there’s a video following the next picture, which you’ll be able to watch on the blog website.)


The little water wheel is a ‘paddle wheel’ – the water flowing below the wheel moves the paddles to turn the wheel.  These kinds of wheels were used along rivers and also on the plains, where the water flows more sedately.  When you’ve finished admiring the little paddle wheel, you round a corner, and there, in front of you, is the mill building!


It doesn’t look like much at first glance – not very large, and the right hand side is a bit squashed against the steep side of the valley.  But there is a lot more to it, as can be seen by crossing another bridge and looking at the building sideways.


The noise of rushing water is everywhere!  The river is called La Dure, and during the heyday of manufacturing in the area (mid 19th to mid 20th centuries), there were 67 waterwheels on the river.  In the village of Brousses alone there were 12 watermills, half of them being paper mills.  The other mills would have been producing textiles, and there might have been the odd flour mill too.

This mill has belonged to the Chaila family since 1877, and it was in operation until 1981, producing cardboard for the packaging industry.  After the last paper maker retired, his children decided to preserve the buildings, and in 1994 they took up the production of hand-crafted paper, using the abundantly available water.  The mill has been open to the public for guided visits for many years, and it was during one of those visits that I learnt about the paper making process.

Our guide started the tour by demonstrating the old bucket wheel – a bucket wheel has the water running over it from above, as opposed to the paddle wheel.  The mill had three bucket wheels at one point, one on each floor, to drive the machinery in various parts of the building.


In 1920, two of the bucket wheels were replaced by a turbine – a much more modern contraption!! The same turbine still turns today, now powering an electricity generator rather than mill machinery.

P1010844 P1010850

Our next stop on the visit was one of the old workshops, where our guide gave an explanation of the history of paper.  Before paper was used, written records were scratched into stone or clay tablets – rather heavy to carry and fragile if not handled correctly!  The Egyptians invented papyrus around 3500 B.C.  Parchment, made from animal skins, appeared in the second century B.C. in Pergamon, Asia minor.  At around the same time (very roughly), the Chinese invented paper, using plant fibres.  It wasn’t until around A.D. 751 that the secret got out, and eventually paper reached the Western world with the Arabic expansion.  The 14th century saw the first paper mill on French territory.

Next, our guide explained that paper is made from cellulose fibres, which are found in every plant. There are various processes to extract the fibres from plants – one of them involves boiling the plant parts in a solution of soda and water for an hour and a half.  Sounds as though that would have been very messy!

In 1841 a Mr Tripot found that non-ruminant herbivores (horses, donkeys, mules etc.) do not digest cellulose, and he invented a process of making paper from horse dung – then abundant and easy to come by!  At the paper Mill in Brousses some paper is made using elephant dung!!  No, I’m not joking!!

Another process uses old rags as the basis for making paper  – you’ve heard of the rag and bone merchants of days gone by??  Rag paper is still made today at Brousses!

In olden days, it could take six months from the delivery of rags to a mill, to the finished paper.  The rags would be picked over for buttons and fasteners, and any seams would be unpicked.  Then the rags would be cut into strips, moistened and thrown into tanks, to ferment for two to six weeks.  The fermented strips would then be cut into tiny pieces, which would then be beaten to a pulp in a stamp mill.  A ten kilo batch would have to be beaten a day each in three different stamp mills.  In the first the mallets beating the pulp had sharp nails on their ends to smash the fibres.  The mallets in the second mill would have flat-headed nails, and in the third mill the mallets were covered in leather, producing a very fine paper pulp.  A noisy, smelly and laborious process!!  I’m sure that paper was much more expensive and more highly respected then than it is today!

Here is a model of a stamp mill:


To speed up the production of paper pulp, the Dutch invented the Hollander Beater  around 1670.  At the Brousses paper mill, two hollander beaters were in operation between 1877 and 1981. They were driven by a pulley system, powered by the water wheels and later the turbine.

The hollander beater makes short work of the rags – where it took three days to produce 10 kilos of paper pulp, the hollander beater could produce 50 kilos in the space of about two and a half hours!

In the same workshop also stood a huge mill with two great big millstones – the whole assembly weighs over ten tonnes!!  This was mainly used to crush old paper and cardboard, 300 kilos in 90 minutes!  Recycling paper is nothing new!!


We went into another room, where our guide showed us the actual process of making a sheet of paper.  The paper pulp is diluted with lots of water, to the point where you think there are hardly any fibres in the tank.  A sieve is then dipped into the water, catching an amount of paper fibre and water.  The water drains away, leaving the cellulose fibres behind.  This very wet sheet of paper is then laid onto a piece of moist woollen felt, covered with another piece of felt and the whole process repeated, until there are 100 sheets!  This pile of paper is then pressed with a hydraulic press, to extract as much water as possible and thus solidify the cellulose fibres.

Once the excess water has been pressed out, the paper needs to be dried.  We climbed the stairs to the top floor of the mill, which was used for that purpose.  The small sheets of paper that our guide had produced during a previous tour were put up on lines – much like washing!!

Paper which is dried that way is not flat, and needs a fair amount more work to get it into “shape”.


To overcome the waviness of the paper, all of the regular production at the paper mill is now dried on large sheets of interlining, a material used in garment production, which keeps the paper flat.

A hydraulic press flattens the paper, with pressure applied for a few hours – in the old days paper would have to be pressed for several months!

The guided visit provided a very fascinating insight into a product which we take for granted today – so much paper is used every day, and whilst a lot of paper is recycled, most of us wouldn’t think twice about discarding a piece of paper.  Handmade paper is very different to the paper we use in our computer printers – it really bears no resemblance!  The shop at the mill in Brousses has a wonderful selection of all kinds of handmade paper.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit as much as I did!



12 thoughts on “Making paper

  1. This is fascinating, thank you for such detailed descriptions. In my younger days I was a librarian and in my librarianship course we studied the history of books and printing, including paper making, but I have never before come across such full information about making paper from rags! Recycling of paper is something my family has always practised. Handmade paper is a wonderful product; the mill is something else to remember to visit when next we are in Langedoc.


    • I’m not sure how the make the paper with the elephant dung, but the rag paper is all pretty clean and non-smelly! Incidentally, the paper made from horse dung was mainly used as wrapping paper, including for food. But by the end of the manufacturing process there was not a trace of poo was left 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting subject and a well written post, I was fascinated reading it!
    I love industrial archeology and to see it being preserved and used in such a way is fantastic. I feel a visit it this little gem coming along on a future road trip! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much – so glad to hear that you enjoyed this post!! There’s a fair bit of decaying industrial heritage in the area too, some of it makes for very picturesque ruins!! Living heritage is great though, there’s so much to learn!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Pit stops | midihideaways

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