Plugged in and turned on. All paper. All the time.
St. Cuthbert’s Mill is an English paper manufacture that has been in operation since the 1700s. Currently they specialize in artist papers that they produce on one of the world’s last operating cylinder mould machines. St. Cuthbert’s marketing executive Cathy Frood, and technical manager Steven Carroll sat down one afternoon to talk about their papers, their mould machine, and what it’s like working at the mill (including, maybe, one ghost story!).
The Fiber Wire [FW]: St. Cuthbert’s Mill is a centuries old paper mill operating South West England. Would you describe your location for us?
Cathy Frood [CF]: We are located near Wells, the smallest city in England. It’s a city technically because it has a cathedral. The old cathedral used to be part of GlastonburyAbbey, which is now in ruins, but the cathedral is still up and running. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building. It’s one of the pictures on our website. There’s a bishop’s palace with a moat and swans outside.
Steve Carroll [SC]: It’s a medieval city
[CF]: We’re actually just outside Wells in a little hamlet called Haybridge, which I think was actually built around the mill. There’s no real center to the hamlet.
[SC]: There are workers’ houses. Probably fifteen-twenty houses around the mill.
[CF]: Most of them are, say, 120 years old. It’s a nice little company and a nice area. I look out my window and I have landscaped gardens in front of me. We’re spoiled that way. The architecture has changed a lot. The front of the mill now is from Victorian times, mid 1800s. And the further you get back the older and scruffier the buildings become. The Victorians were good at sticking a very pretty frontage on some very tatty buildings to make it look all posh! There are the old marble lions, too. The mill owners in the 1800s brought back these marble lions from Italy and put them on the roof. Typical Victorian era. The frontage looks great.
[FW]: It all seems very idyllic! So, water is central to the papermaking process and you’re water source has some unique characteristics, right?
[SC]: We’re very close to a range of limestone hills called the Mendip hills. The rain that falls upon the hills percolates through the limestone, dissolving the limestone. The area above us is full of caves and the nearest village to us is called Wookey Hole. At Wookey Hole the River Axe, which is our water source, emanates from the hills. There are a few springs emanating as well that collect in the river. We’re probably one mile from the source.
[CF]: It’s a very famous set of caves, the Wookey Hole Caves, where the River Axe comes out.
[SC]: Because the water comes through the limestone hills it’s naturally alkaline. We make alkaline papers and the pH of the water is something like 7.5 naturally so it’s good in that respect. Between us and the source there’s only the village so there’s no actual incursion from industrial products going into the stream. We’re the first industrial site on this river.
[FW]: You abstract a lot of water but you discharge a lot of water, too. How is your mill involved in monitoring your environmental impact?
[CF]: The product going back into the river goes through a filtration system involving filtration ponds that usually have a lot of ducks on them. Then it goes down through a cascade or waterfall that reoxygenates the water before is discharges into the River Axe. [To Steve] Is it at the point we’ve got the trout?
[SC]: Yes. We’ve got the trout all the way down the side. We can abstract about 1,000 tonnes of water a day for paper manufacture. Presently that’s about a tenth of the volume of the actual river that is going past the site so we are a major impact on that river. We have a permit for abstraction of water and to discharge in the river. We have to ensure that the effluents we discharge leaves at a suitable quality as designated by our permit. We have a biological treatment plant on site to deal with that sort of thing. The water quality that we are putting back into the river is quite a lot of times better than the water we’ve abstracted.
[CF]: We have a lot of wildlife. There’s the trout stream. There’s been sightings of kingfishers, both of which would not be around if it were a dirty river.
[FW]: Are their environmental regulations related to the actual paper manufacture that you have to comply with?
[SC]: In the UK we have an Environment Agency, you’ve got one in the US as well. If you manufacture more than 25 tonnes of paper in a day you have to have an environmental permit. We used to have two paper machines at one stage. One produced about 10,000 tonnes of paper a year, making furniture products like facing foils for chipboards. That machine shut down in 2008, which left us with the cylinder mould machine. That produces only about 25 tonnes a week. So we fell out of that legislation for having an environmental permit for making paper.
[FW]: St. Cuthbert’s practices seem to indicate a commitment to environmental stewardship all the same. Can you talk a bit about the materials used in making your papers?
[SC]: Because of the quality of papers we make now, most of the products we use within the paper manufacture are not environmentally damaging. They are natural products. Our pigments are iron oxide pigments. They are naturally occurring pigments and can basically be determined as being inert. We use things like calcium carbonate, which is mostly mined. We do use some precipitated but mostly it’s mined (ground).
As for fibers we’re using a lot of cotton. Two thirds of our production is cotton based. It’s a very pure product. Not much in the way of impurities there. We source our cotton from the US, China and Spain. Our suppliers source their cotton from all over the world and then blend them for us for our particular products. We try and get a statement from these producers that they are being environmentally friendly with how they source their products and they all give us that assurance but we have to base ourselves upon their assurances. We can only use certain products for our papers so we are stuck with these two or three suppliers for cotton.
With regard to wood, we make a product called Bockingford, which is a watercolor paper. In Europe now, any wood pulp that is used has to comply with European timber regulations. You have to ensure you have a chain of custody of where the wood is sourced from and how it’s channeled into you. Because of this we can point to the pulp producer and they can identify where the wood for that particular batch of pulp was sourced.
[FW]: Do you find that a lot of your customers are concerned about where your fibers are sourced from or what materials are used in making your papers?
[CF]: Occasionally we get asked. We often get asked about FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) but we’re not accredited. That tends to be more for commercial papers and we’re outside of that.
[SC]: I think the European Timber Regulations are at a higher level than FSC. But I don’t think people in this country are actually concerned where you obtain your pulp supply. I think they’re concerned about the quality and the price at the end of the day.
[CF]: Occasionally we get asked if we’re vegan.
[SC]: Yes, if we make papers that are suitable for vegans as well.
[FW]: Is that because of the gelatin sizing you use?
[SC]: Absolutely. Cathy’s got it listed on the website about the gelatin sizing on the Saunders Waterford grades so we’re quite explicit that we use animal byproducts within our paper. But there’s Bockingford and Somerset with no gelatin, which is super for vegans.
[FW]: So, you used to make papers other than artist papers. What were the driving factors behind your specializing in the artist grades of paper and getting rid of the other paper machine?
[CF]: We used to have two sides of the business. One side was the furniture laminate business. That vanished at the start of the worldwide recession because the building industry collapsed and along with it the hotel and office refurbishing vanished over night. That’s why that part of our business disappeared and the paper machine was sold to Mexico. The other side of the business was the artist papers and that’s been going since 1973.
[SC]: The artist papers transferred to St. Cuthbert’s Mill from the Wookey Hole mill up the road. They brought their cylinder mould paper machine. They also brought their handmade operation. So we started making Bockingford and Saunders watercolor paper. A little bit later we brought on line the Somerset printmaking grades. The operation went quite well.
[FW]: Would you expand a bit on the cylinder mould machine and the differences between it and the Fourdrinier?
[CF]: The wet end of the paper machine is the big difference between the two. The Fourdrinier machine squirts pulp onto a wire belt and the fibers all tend to run down in the same direction. The cylinder mould machine has a big cylinder that rotates inside the pulp vat and because it’s picking up the fibers randomly, like handmade, they’re all crisscrossing over each other it makes the paper with much more surface stability. This is important to artists because you’re going to add water to it and you need the surface to be stable. Otherwise it would naturally expand and contract.
For example, if you take a piece of newspaper it’s very light and Fourdrinier-made and if you put water on it the paper will wrinkle up. Also, you can tear it easily in one direction but not the other. That’s because of the fibers all lining in the same direction. Mould made papers don’t tear easily because the fibers are random. It will expand and contract when it does get water on it but tends not to move in any one direction. You’ll still get cockling but it is not as pronounced. The mould process also allows us to make very heavy papers. When you see heavier sheets made on a Fourdrinier it is usually two sheets of paper that have been laminated together. Cylinder mould machines also make security papers, make bank notes.
[FW]: Do you think you would ever diversify again, add industrial grades back into the mix?
[CF]: If there was demand for it. Our main business is artist papers but if there was demand for something else…
[SF]: It depends on the value of the product because if you start going into those products you have to make sure you’re not going to contaminate a cotton product. Inside a paper machine you’ve got lots of hang-ups. In a situation of contamination, we wouldn’t want to be throwing away a lot of paper because our products are very expensive, even for us to make, so it may not be worthwhile doing.
[FW]: Your website mentions that you do bespoke papers. Any made-to-order projects that were particularly memorable?
[CF]: Most of them are variations on a theme, aren’t they? They’re like a Saunders Waterford but with a slightly different color.
[SC]: Yes. We also make a watercolor for the Royal Watercolor Society in conjunction with a paper merchant in this country called John Purcell. They were looking for a product that had a certain percent of linen added. Linen would give an extra strong sheet. Essentially you go through a series of trials to try and produce the paper they require. Theirs is a gelatin-sized sheet with, I think, 20% linen in it. They’ve got their own bespoke watermark in it, which is RWS, isn’t it?
[SC]: I think it took several makings to get them to agree that this is what they required. There are print runs that we’ve done. Audubon’s Birds of America. We made the paper for a reproduction printing of engravings of plants done by Joseph Banks during Captain Cook’s first voyage. We made the paper for a literary guild’s reproduction of a book called The Book of Sark. They came to site looking for a particular grade of paper to do letterpress printing on. They decided they were going to get a 300-gsm paper that had certain surface characteristics. They were expensive books in the end, something like 3000 pounds each? A lot of things we produce don’t go into products we actually know about. We might see a product later and notice it says ‘printed on Somerset.’
[FW]: Is that a major difficulty in the marketing of your papers, that you don’t see the end use?
[CF]: Yes. We are an old fashioned manufacturer who doesn’t sell directly to our end user. It’s incredibly difficult to see what’s working and what isn’t. Our sales setup is that we usually have one or two distributors in each country who are our sales people essentially. In the US we’ve got Legion and Steiner. Legion specializes in the printmaking paper and Steiner in the watercolor. Our presence in the US for watercolor is really limited. Now, in the UK we’re known for watercolor and our printmaking. There are other areas of the world, for example in Australia we’ve got good presence in both printmaking and watercolor. In Canada, we’ve a better presence for watercolor than the US. It’s so difficult to tell what campaigns work and what doesn’t.
[SC]: We’re moving into Asia now, too.
[CF]: Yes, 10 years ago the market was small. We did a little bit in Hong Kong. But now it’s a lot bigger. It’s an emerging market. They’re crying out for a quality paper. It’s not something they can make themselves.
[SC]: <laughing> I think it has something to do with the ‘Made in England’ bit as well.
[FW]: Okay, this is a silly question but with you’re building being so old I’ve got to ask. Is your mil haunted?
[SC] <laughing> I’ve never seen anyone in the time I’ve been here.
[CF]: It’s a pretty spooky place though! And it’s huge.
[SC]: The only strange occurrence I know of was in the office block where the laboratory is. There’s a story about this guy who was up there in the middle of the night. As we’ve stated, it’s very rural around us and there were cows in the field beyond this office block. He’s in there doing paper testing and he looks up and there’s a cow looking in the window, his whole head and neck in the window. And he gets scared and goes running out. But I think that’s the closest we’ve got.
[CF]: <laughing> But underneath is pretty scary. And since it’s an old building it’s got some very strange place names that have grown with it. Like underneath the mill I’ve got a little storage area called ‘Jock’s Place’ because, I don’t know, in the 1950s there was a man named Jock who used to work in there. There are all kinds of places and areas that are known by these terms. I think there’s a place in the warehouse called ‘The Blue Floor.’ It’s not blue anymore. The paint’s run off, 30 odd years ago, but it’s still called ‘The Blue Floor!’
[SC]: There is the secret room…
[CF]: Is that the one that got blocked off? There’s a book on the history of the mill called Mill 364 and there’s a mention of the room.
[FW]: Why is it blocked off?
[SC]: <laughing> Because there were security papers in there and you weren’t meant to know they were in there. They were stored in the ‘secret room.’
[FW]: Maybe it’s my wild imagination but I expect there to be all sorts of secret passages in your mill.
[CF]: There are! Underneath. The paper machine is underneath the floor, below ground level, because of how the water used to come in. The River Axe actually goes underneath the building. So I’ve been down there and have taken the wrong turn and I look around and realize I’ve come to a dead end. Or when I go down to Jock’s Place, I don’t go down there on me own at night when it’s dark! It’s really wet. It’s dark and dank.
[FW]: Do you think that being around for so long, being in the same place for so long, contributes to a positive work culture? Are there a lot of third or fourth generation papermakers?
[SC]: I’ve worked here for forty years.
[CF]: I’ve worked for fourteen. <laughing> I’m the new girl!
[SC]: There’s not a great turnover of labor.
[CF]: Steve Gardner, our Quality Control Manager, inherited his grandfather’s nickname when we started to work here!
[SC]: We’ve got a workforce that’s worked here for a long time. They’ve got pride in the product. They know what they’re doing and they’re all reliable people.
[FW]: You’ve both been around a long time. Have there been changes that were hard to see? Or changes that were positive?
[CF]: I missed the number one machine going. I was on maternity leave when it got ripped out so I came back to the aftermath.
[SC]: That was a life changing moment. There was definitely a change in the culture of the mill when that machine shut.
[CF]: The workforce more than halved.
[SC]: It affected a lot of people at that point. But I think now we’ve got a very positive outlook now. Over the last 6-12 months our production has increased. Whatever we’re doing seems to be the right thing.
[CF]: Another thing that’s happening at the moment is we’ve got five new apprentices and it’s changed the culture for the better.
[FW]: How is that?
[SC]: You’ve taken on people for the future. You know, back two years you’re living day-to-day wondering if this is going to continue. Now they’re looking to the future to employing new people, young people, to actually learn the trade, which is definitely positive.
Want to learn more?
Watch the video story of papermaking at St. Cuthbert’s
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