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The enduring art of papermaking


May 1, 2008
By Pulp & Paper Canada

You’re touching it, reading it. Paper. Digitization promised us a paperless universe, handheld readers like the Amazon Kindle one of the latest gadgets to tempt us away from paper.

You’re touching it, reading it. Paper. Digitization promised us a paperless universe, handheld readers like the Amazon Kindle one of the latest gadgets to tempt us away from paper.

But paper has history on its side. It has that “je ne sais quoi” of tactile sensation, and it’s that mythic quality that David Carruthers and his St. Armand Paper Mill trade in, manufacturing handmade paper using a basic method developed in China in 105 AD.

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The mill doesn’t use pulp from new trees. It uses rags, making it essentially a recycling operation.

The green aspect attracts customers, but “you still need to make a quality paper,” Carruthers says.

“Intellectual papers,” a term Carruthers uses hesitantly, are what the mill focuses on: printing paper, note and sketch pads, material for artists.

But there are others, too: packaging and speciality papers made from linen, flax, straw and jute.

“Seed paper that actually sprouts has been really popular lately, especially in the U. S. It’s a novelty, a bit gimmicky. People want to be able to say, ‘Look, I’m green,’ ” Carruthers says.

The word paper derives from papyrus, a plant that grows along the Nile and was the first incarnation of paper 3,500 years ago.

It is along the Lachine Canal that St. Armand has been manufacturing paper for 30 years.

The mill has flourished in a difficult industry by staying small, producing paper both by hand and press, giving the company a niche. “I can’t think of anyone else doing that,” he says.

Carruthers grew up in paper mills. His grandfather opened Interlake Paper in Ontario at the end of the 19th century and his father was a salesman for the family firm. However, it was not so much destiny as boredom that led to Carruthers having his own mill: he had had enough of the desk job he was working.

He opened St. Armand in 1979, choosing Montreal because “it had the best and cheapest industrial space.” There’s history here, too, Canada’s first paper mill having opened in 1805 in what is now Saint-Andr-d’Argenteuil, just west of Montreal. Like James Brown, the operator of that mill (and one of the early publishers of The Gazette), Carruthers groped along in the beginning.

At first he used a Mixmaster to beat the pulp, but the fibres didn’t bond strongly enough. It wasn’t till the acquisition of a Hollander beater 10 years later that the business began to take off.

“Every day involves constant experimentation and failure, but in the beginning, when it was just me, it was difficult. I had to teach myself how to make paper.

“There’s nothing you can learn before coming here. It’s all on the job.”

One of the mill’s seven employees, Graham Thoem, just showed up at the door one day, wanting to make paper. Like everyone at the mill, Thoem learned as he went and is producing good product several months on. “If they’re not producing sellable paper after one or two days then it’s not worth it,” Carruthers says. “You lose money.”

St. Armand gets most of its rags from the textile company one floor up and other clothing manufacturers. Mountains of them sit in bags in one corner of the basement.

They’re a tiny proportion of the rags available, even though more local textile manufacturers are leaving Montreal.

“Hundreds of millions of pounds of rags get thrown out each year, enough to sustain a large-scale industrial mill,” Carruthers says.

“It’s twice as much work to use rags rather than pulp (and) costs more but I don’t lose anything like with pulp. If I have a thousand pounds of rags, I get a thousand pounds of paper. No waste. And rags make the best paper.”

From Rags to …

The way a rag becomes fibre is a violent journey through the thousand-pound Hollander beater. A sizing is added to the pulp, this additive determining the absorption of the paper. Now the pulp can either be pumped to the Fourdrinier press machine or used in the handmade papers.

Handmade sheets are made one at a time.

An employee lifts a screen up from a vat of water with a layer of fibre spread out. He shakes it and water sloshes everywhere. Once the cellulose of the fibres binds the paper, a press squeezes the water out. When they’re hung to dry overnight, the sheets are still 50 per cent water.

“All our production here is mechanical, no chemicals. I could drink the effluent if I wanted to,” Carruthers jokes. For the longest time, rags were the source of paper in Europe, but the proliferation of the printing press caused a shortage in the supply, necessitating the invention of paper derived from pulp in the 19th century.

Now, as in many artisanal fields, the skills to create handmade paper are disappearing.

“Making paper is a craft, and craft is art put to work,” Carruthers says. “Craft is understanding the material you work with. A cobbler repairs shoes but he knows leather. With paper you have to understand fibre, where it comes from and how to transform it into paper. It’s physical work but there’s something poetic about it.”

This sentiment is echoed by Stan Phillips, proprietor of Au Papier Japonais, one of four Montreal stores that carry St. Armand’s papers. Having known Carruthers since the store opened 14 years ago, Phillips says, “There’s a feeling about handmade paper when you touch it, it’s like a handshake across space and time with whoever made it.”

The store continues to see rising interest in its speciality papers, spurred on by workshops it offers in bookmaking, origami and painting, Phillips says. “I always tell people that this paper (St. Armand’s and Japanese) is a sustainable product. I hope it sticks.”

Colour, Naturally

Without using any chemicals or bleach, nearly all 32 colours that St. Armand manufactures come from coloured off-cuts (for example, blue from denim). “Recently we’ve had to use some dyes, like red and green because our off-cut sources for these colours have moved away. We don’t want to,” Carruthers says, but he has to keep these colours stocked to satisfy the loyal base St. Armand has built up over the years.

Looking at various samples of paper, it’s easy to recognize Carruthers’s passion. “What I love about paper is that each type is designed for a purpose. To make paper is to find the best paper to accomplish its specific task.” Geoffrey Farmer, a Vancouver artist exhibiting at the Muse d’art Contemporain in Montral until April 20, was allowed to chip up a piece of the museum floor and asked St. Armand to make a paper embedded with the wood chips. Another recent job was for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, manufacturing a few thousand botanical-sample bags. “They have to be strong and not contain any fluorescence as it could sully the test for certain lichens.”

Carruthers used the off-cuts from unbleached cotton bags made for IGA. “The proliferation of cotton bags has been a good new source for rags.”

What Comes Around …

A new angle Carruthers hopes to develop is building circular relationships with textile manufacturers whereby they bring him their off-cuts to make a paper-based product for their business.

He shows me a white box the mill has been working on. “A local businessman is making cotton underwear and toques and he came to me wanting to use his waste to make the packaging. We need more thinking like this.”

Another new market Carruthers has been eyeing of late is the growing need for paper shopping bags.

“We have to take back from the plastic industry what they took from the paper industry in the first place. It doesn’t make sense with the price of oil, the environmental consequences.”

But this daydream would require a new mill to be built. “It might not be me, but someone needs to build a proper mill in downtown Montreal to take advantage of all the rags out there, the urban forest.”

Papermaking is a risky venture, the past filled with examples of bankrupt mills and now the financial crisis of the pulp-and-p
aper industry in Qubec. Carruthers sees these problems as primarily the result of the huge capital investment it takes to make paper. Every day brings new challenges. Sixty per cent of St. Armand’s paper goes to the U. S., so the high Canadian dollar has hurt the mill. “We just have to be more careful now.”

During the mill’s busiest years, around 2001-2005, it was filling large orders for photo albums. “Then photo albums stopped being made. Why? Digital photography.”

It’s a fluid business, orders coming from artists, art restorers, limited-edition printers, bookbinders, etc. Some demands over the years have led to Carruthers inventing several papers that he has trademarked.

In the early ’90s, Carruthers saw the threat of cheap foreign paper and bought the Fourdrinier press so the mill could fill larger orders like annual report covers, artist pads and paper for packaging.

A group recently visited in search of paper for the cover of a recipe book celebrating Qubec City’s 400th anniversary.

While pulling some sheets to give me before I depart, Carruthers says, “It’s amazing, a whole generation now that doesn’t know the pleasure of putting pen to paper.”

Digitization has scored some victories, but paper clearly still has its believers. As Phillips from Au Papier Japonais says, “Paper has a simplicity, a directness of communication that a CD or mp3 file lacks.”

Carruthers gives me a sheet of his favourite paper: It’s made from linen, a challenging fibre to manipulate. “Just beautiful,” he says. The texture is sumptuous, a “je ne sais quoi.”

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Inside The Machinery of Papermaking

The technology in use at the St. Armand Paper Mill dates to the Industrial Revolution and earlier. Two pieces of machinery at the mill include:

Hollander Beater: Invented in Holland in the late 17th century, the oval-shaped beater breaks apart rags into individual fibres, keeping them long and pliable, which makes the paper stronger.

Fourdrinier Machine: Its invention in 1799 by Nicholas Louis Robert revolutionized the papermaking industry and is the basis for nearly all-modern papermaking machines. The Fourdrinier name comes from the two brothers, stationers in London, who financed the development, an investment that led to their bankruptcy.

———

St. Armand’s Trademarked Papers

Some of St. Armand’s papers have been trademarked for their unique qualities:

Neutracor Corrugated Board: Used for storage and archival purposes due to its neutral pH.

St. Armand Dominion Watercolour: A special gelatine sizing hardens the surface. Good for watercolour, acrylic, ink and embossing.

Sabretooth Sanded Pastel Paper: The marble dust coating resists turpentine and water wash. Ideal for dry pastel as well as charcoal, paintstick and oil pastel.


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