In the 17th and 18th centuries papermaking required great expertise and without an experienced journeyman or master, the process was likely to fail. It was essential to have an abundance of "clean" water i.e. free from leaves, sand etc. Water filtered through chalk was considered particularly suitable and possibly added to the whiteness of the finished product.
The European papermaking industry (found originally in Holland and France) relied on the recycling of old rags to provide the fibrous base. Rag merchants would collect old clothes, sheets etc. from the populace and sell them in bulk to the papermills. Some rags were apparently also imported from other European countries. The quality (and coloration) of the finished product would depend on the type of rag used - sailcloth, rope and string would, for instance, be used to manufacture coarse brown wrapping paper.
The rags were handsorted and cut into small pieces, usually by women workers. The pieces were then boiled in open tanks (so a nearby fuel source, usually wood, was essential). After boiling, the pieces of rag were rinsed in shallow tanks and then "disintegrated" by pounding them for several hours. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, a shaft driving many pounding hammers would be powered by a water wheel. There was a piece of equipment known as a "Hollander" for beating rags, but it is not known whether the mills mentioned in this web site possessed such a machine.
The resulting pulp was then diluted (5 parts fibre to 95 parts water) into a consistency known as "stock". A wire mesh held in place by a removable wooden frame would then be dipped in a vat of "stock". The water would drain away and the wet fibres would form a sheet. A pile of wet sheets were sandwiched together between absorbent woollen felts and submitted to considerable compression. After this, the sheets, now 50% water, would be removed to the drying lofts where they were hung on ropes, or laid flat on frames. Moveable shutters in the walls of the lofts would allow the natural circulation of air to evaporate the water until the paper was dry.
Finally, the paper would be sorted, checked and counted into reams (480 sheets) and this again was done mainly by women..
In the 19th century, with an increasing demand for paper (especially for newspapers and books) and a decrease in the availability of rags from Europe, (as a result of various wars), alternative sources of fibre were investigated. Wood pulp was found to be the best substitute.