Have Fibre...Will Travel
with Helen McPherson

The Deckle Edge
Newsletter of Papermakers of Victoria, Inc. Volume 15, Number 3
May/June 2003
American Odyssey - Again! Part 2 - Down to the Cave"

DURING the Paper & Book Intensive (PBI) in 2000,I met the famous Amanda Degener, co-founder of the Hand Papermaking journal. She was teaching one of the sessions at PBI, and distributing information about internships at Cave Paper, of which she is a co-proprietor, along with Bridget O'Malley.

I already had other plans for that northern summer, but I was so taken with the delicious paper samples in Cave Paper's brochure, that I filed the internship possibility away for another day. In 2002, when I knew that I was going back to the States, I contacted Amanda, to see if the internships were still happening. They were, so I arranged to work for four weeks.

I arrived in Minneapolis, where Cave Paper is situated, in mid-June 2002, and was met at the airport by Bridget As we drove into the city centre in Bridget's ute, we were deluged with rain from a passing thunderstorm, a prelude of the weather on forthcoming days. After a short tour of the city, Bridget dropped me off at Amanda Degener's house, where I was going to be staying.

Amanda was still away teaching at the Penland School of Crafts, and was not due home until the end of the week, but I was introduced to her husband, Bob, who made me feel welcome. I had a corner in the upstairs loft area, which also doubled as a computer room and recording studio, but nonetheless was a comfortable base to operate from.

The following day, Bridget picked me up in the morning, and we drove the route, which I would subsequently traverse using The Cave Bike. Cave Paper is located in the basement of an old warehouse, which houses a commercial bindery and several other small businesses. You enter the front door, climb the stairs to the bindery, then descend several flights to a heavy door marked "Cave Paper". Directly above the door, there appears to be the remains of something which resembles an old toilet cistern, although what its purpose was, I never did find out. Once inside, the whole area reminded me of something out of Dickens, and was certainly reminiscent of a cave. A series of catacombs connected by archways, houses an assortment of old bindery equipment, as well as Cave Paper's operations. Lighting was minimal, and underfoot was tricky in places due to the unevenness of the floors. Some very dark corners didn't invite close inspection.

The main work area has been set up by using temporary walls to block off part of one of the catacombs. This painted and insulated room contains Western and Eastern vats, a 20 ton hydraulic press, two small Valley beaters, benches, moulds and deckles, couching cloths and large drums on dollies for easy movement of pulp. Other areas accommodate the 25 lb Valley beater, the drying systems, paper storage areas, bales of Belgian flax, other raw mat-erials and marble drying racks.

After Bridget had showed me around, we began work on producing some flower seed/marigold petal paper. A client had ordered 500 sheets of 22" x 34" cotton paper with inclusions of seeds and marigold petals. Whilst Bridget pulled sheets, I couched them onto large pieces of blanket The post (26 sheets) was pressed, and I then hung the sheets to dry, in a marble rack. The rack consists of marbles which have been set into angled slots cut into two pieces of lumber. The marbles are pushed upwards with the fingers, and the paper is slid in between the face of the slot and the marble.

The marbles are then released, and they grip the paper with minimum contact. Initially, I was not blessed with beginner's luck in using this system, and some sheets broke away and ended up on the floor. Quelle horreur! I thought that - my wages would be gamisheed.

The problem was that there was still too much water in the sheets, and because of their size and weight, the fibre just separated. A second pressing between dry blankets, pulled out more water, and made the sheets firmer and easier to handle. Once hung, a fan was set up to get the air circulating, and to hasten the drying process.

After we had completed and hung a couple of posts of paper, we adjourned to the sewing bench to work on some journals. Varying sizes of textblocks are made from commercial cartridge-like paper, and sewn up by hand. A handsome, hard-wearing cover made from dyed Belgian flax paper, completes the journal. These journals are a popular addition to Cave Paper's product line.

The second day, I took to the streets on The Cave Bike, and without getting lost, cycled to work crossing the mighty Mississippi River en route. More posts of seed/petal paper were made, pressed and hung. In between times, I lightly spritzed (sprayed) some walnut-dyed Belgian flax sheets with water, to relax them and get rid of the wrinkles caused by the flax shrinkage.

Individual sheets were then placed between blotters, with corrugated cardboard on both sides of the blotters. A pile of these units was built up to make a stack about two feet high, with a top board and buckets of sand as weights. A box-type fan was sited to blow air through the long channels in the corrugated boards.

Moisture from the paper is absorbed by the blotter, and thence to the corrugated board where it is wicked away by the air travelling through the channels. The paper was drying in about 48 hours using this system, but times can vary depending on the type of paper and the environmental conditions in The Cave.

Each day's activities varied, depending on what had been achieved in previous days. One of the first tasks in the mornings, was to check the paper in the marble racks, and remove any dried sheets. By the end of my first week, we had completed the seed/petal paper, and I had also pulled some of the sheets. Pulling the large sheets was made relatively easy by the use of a weighted system (a bucket of water) attached via rope and overhead pulleys to the mould.

Pushing the mould down into the vat causes the bucket of water to rise off the floor. As the mould is raised, the bucket descends to the floor, taking the dead weight of the mould and pulp. No more aching shoulder/arm muscles for the vatperson!

Amanda returned from her teaching stint, and we discussed arrangements for attending a calligraphy conference, about one hour north of Minneapolis, where Cave Paper was going to have a trade stall to sell their papers and journals. Bridget was manning the stall for several lays, and we would have an outing and go and visit for the day. The papers were popular, and they locked especially stunning laid out on racks and the display table.

The following day, Amanda started preparing material for the production of flax sheets. Finely cut Belgian flax is purchased in large bales. Twenty pounds of flax is cooked in a 3% solution of calcium hydroxide for two hours in a large stainless kettle, located in Amanda's home basement The unwashed flax is transported to The Cave in Amanda's ute, and loaded into the 25 lb Valley beater.

This beater is a large machine, and its history makes interesting reading. One of the half inch thick bars on the beater roll has a very pronounced kink, reputedly caused by an errant bolt falling into the trough at some stage. It must have made a terrible noise, as it wreaked havoc. A large washing drum attached to the beater's trough and a well-placed garden hose, washes the fibre as it circulates. Result was very clean fibre, after six hours of beating, although a fair bit of water is used in the cleaning process.

Amanda had previously made some large circular (about three feet diameter) flax sheets for a limited edition book which she is producing. I helped her pull some additional sheets, using a large mould and deckle masked to the circle shape. I really enjoyed using the flax fibre. It produced consistent results, a very strong bone-coloured sheet with a lovely feel.

The 18" x 24" and 22" x 30" natural flax sheets form the starting basis for the range of papers produced by Cave Paper. Because of the high shrinkage rate of the flax sheets, they are dried in spurs, to reduce the distortion. After the initial pressing, the sheets are removed from the blankets, stacked in bundles of four or five sheets between dry blankets and pressed again. The bundles (spurs) are hung in the marble racks to dry, after which the sheets are split apart.

Some sheets remain plain, whilst others are decorated using synthetic indigo, walnut dye and oxides, in varying combinations, to produce different effects. Exotic names such as Layered Indigo Night, O'Malley Crackle and Degener Black can be found in Cave Paper's brochure, which states that, "No two sheets are alike, however they evoke the same spirit" The hand colouring process is time consuming, but it produces a unique paper designed for book covers.

After the dye process is finished, a coat of hot gelatin on both sides of the paper, seals the surface and prevents the colours from rubbing off. Then the sheets are spritzed with water, allowed to relax, and put into the drying system. Once dry, sheets are graded, and stacked in a closed cupboard. The aim is to maintain a reasonable stock of each sheet type, so that orders can be filled promptly. Needless to say, the papers are proving very popular with artists, graphic designers and printers.

During my time at Cave Paper, I was involved in many aspects of the paper production. I also had the opportunity to produce some paper for myself, and to use the indigo and walnut dyes. With my woodworking skills, I helped Amanda with the construction of some new marble racks, and I rigged up a third paper drying system. It was a great experience to work with Amanda and Bridget, and they were very generous in sharing their knowledge and information.

For anyone who wants to gain first-hand experience of what it's like to work in a papermill, I would thoroughly recommend the internship experience.