The mill of Richard de Bas, situated above Ambert, lies on the side of the Laga valley, fed by leats from the river. It has been making paper since at least 1463 when it was acquired by Antoine Richard, from whom it gets its present name. Production was continuous from then until 1937, when the last active papermaker died. The mill and its equipment was taken over and restored by La Feuille Blanche, a charitable organisation and was opened as a museum in 1943, so this year it is proudly celebrating its 70th anniversary. It is the last of some three hundred paper mills which were operating in the region of Ambert during the 16th century. It claims to have been founded in 1326 by three crusaders who had learned the craft from the Arabs, but this would make the mill older than the one at Troyes, which is normally considered the oldest mill in France. Some of the buildings on the site date from the 15th century and the equipment and furnishings are mostly those left by the last papermaker.
The museum is a working mill and also exhibits the history and techniques of papermaking from its invention by the Chinese and its slow spread westward via the Arabs to Europe. Rags are still the raw material used, collected with increasing difficulty from hospitals and sources such as Emmaus. These are hand cut into short strips and beaten in tubs by trip hammers armed with a ferocious array of nails, which are driven by a cam shaft powered by a waterwheel. The mill does not seem to have used hollanders to macerate the rags. The resulting pulp is diluted as required, depending on the weight of paper to be made, and size is normally added at this stage to prevent the finished paper from being too absorbent. We were shown how the wire frame is dipped into the pulp, shaken to lock the fibres and stood to drain. The sheet of wet pulp is then turned upside down onto a felt and another felt placed on top of it in readiness for the next sheet. When there is a big enough pile, the whole team of workers is summoned to work the press to expel the water, finally using a capstan to exert as much pressure as possible. The felts and paper are then separated out, the felts retuned to the press for the next batch of paper and the leaves hung up on lines in the extensive drying lofts which are such a prominent feature of the buildings.
As well as the papermaking equipment, the living quarters of the mill owner and his family remain unchanged since the 19th century. The living room and kitchen has the original furnishings, including a salt grinding mill decorated with a curled up fox. About eight people would gather around the table to eat: the mill owner, his family and apprentices. The bedroom contained three box beds. The one for the mill-owner and his wife had a cradle suspended above it which could be rocked by pulling a rope. One bed was used by the apprentices who would begin work at the age of seven or eight. It was a long day; in the mill in Ambert they apparently worked from midnight to noon and then may have had to spend further time working in the fields. One of the first tasks of the apprentices, who were too small to manage the heavy frames laden with wet pulp, was to look after the lighting during the night. It was claimed that work was done during the night for reasons of secrecy, but the numbers of mills and the movement of labour makes this an unlikely explanation once the craft was firmly established.
The mill currently makes 2-300 sheets a day and the products have been widely used by artists, including Salvador Dali and Picasso. The original text of the constitution of the Fifth Republic was printed on paper from the mill in 1958, and it is used for the diplomas of the Nobel Prize winners. During the summer months flower papers are made from plants grown in the gardens of the mills. Petals are gathered twice daily to keep the colours fresh and the result is highly decorative. Copyright © Ian Maxted 2012
This page last updated 13 April 2014