Making Paper at the Basel Paper Mill Museum

In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.   Mark Twain

Curious about a museum I’d read about in Basel, I set out to find it after a morning spent critter-watching at the Basel Zoo.  Known as the Basel Paper Mill Museum in English, it’s referred to as the Basler Papiermühle in this German-speaking part of Switzerland.  Not your typical museum, the site houses not only a thorough selection of exhibits detailing the history of paper and bookmaking, but also an active paper mill where visitors can make their own handmade paper.  If you have a chance to visit this place, jump on it.  It’s really fun!

The waterwheel to the left of the Basel Paper Mill Museum is still used to turn cranks and operate machinery for the paper-making process inside.

The Basler Papiermühle found its humble beginnings in the 12th century as one of 12 mills built by members of the St. Alban Monastery.  Located just a stone’s throw from the Rhine River, a series of canals was also built to harness hydro energy for powering these mills.  The site operated as a corn mill for the Klingental Monastery until 1428 and was then briefly used as a hammer mill before Antonious Galician converted it into a paper mill and first began producing paper in 1453.

I really can’t even begin to fathom how long ago that was.  Though it hasn’t operated as a paper mill continuously since then, it formed the very heart of the Swiss paper industry during the 16th & 17th centuries and was restored and turned into a museum in 1980.

As soon as I entered the front door, I felt transported back to a time when life moved more slowly, before computers and technology, back to a time when  every page and book was lovingly handmade by a master craftsman, sometimes taking days, weeks, or even years.

Paper is produced on the ground floor of the building. A fast-moving, shallow stream that runs past the museum provides sufficient energy to turn the massive waterwheel just outside the building, which in turn powers the entire crank system in this room.

While the warmth seeped back into my chilled hands and feet, I browsed past a series of old metal screens once used for pressing paper and made my way to the ground floor.  There, I met Carlos Poete, an Argentinian artist and paper artisan.  He explained the relatively “simple” 18th century process the museum still uses to make their paper.  Old cotton cloth is soaked in a water bath for several days, then pounded into pulp with metal-tipped timbers powered by the waterwheel.

cotton pulp soaks in a tub at the Basel Paper Mill Museum
Cotton pulp soaks in a water bath to help break apart the fibers.

More water is added to the pulp in a wooden tub.  A metal screen is dipped into the soupy mixture and then raised and tilted, allowing the water to drain.  The piece of soupy paper is carefully peeled from the wooden screen and laid between pieces of felt, where it’s gently pressed to absorb some of the water.  Wooden blocks are placed on top of and below the felt sheets with the paper sandwiched in between.  Much of the remaining water is then squeezed out with a hand-operated wet press.  The sheets are again carefully peeled from the felt and hung over lines to dry.

Voilá !  Paper!

Damp paper fresh off the press hangs to dry in the studio.

After explaining the process, Carlos asked if I wanted to try my hand at it.  I definitely did!

Rolling up my sleeves, I plunged the metal screen elbow-deep in the tub of watery cotton pulp.  After draining and pressing my page, I lifted it too quickly and the corner crumpled into folds.  Carlos encouraged me to try again.  My second attempt left me with a soft, warm sheet of freshly pressed paper to proudly take home.

paper i made at the basel paper mill museum
What’s most astounding is that the ingredients are so simple – no glue, chemicals, additives, or dyes. Just cotton and water.

Below the main floor, a side room explains how cotton textiles were historically prepared for making paper.  After being washed, remnants of clothing and cotton material were chopped up at a cutting table with a wicked-looking blade.  The rags were dampened to assist in breaking down the cotton fibers naturally and were then thrown down into a deep stone pit (marked in the photo with an orange square and a round viewing window in the floor).  They were left to rot for 8 or 9 days.  This process allowed the cotton fibers to be broken down into pulp for making paper.

After cleaning, old cotton sheets and clothing arrives at the cutting table where they’re sliced into smaller pieces for soaking.
Workers once prepared cloth material to be made into paper in this room.

Folks interested in the ancient history of paper making are sure to like one particular room full of exhibits.  Tucked away in a cozy side room are some of the earliest known samples of Chinese and Arabic writing on ancient papyrus, along with a piece of parchment on display.

Ancient writing sample, Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland
Parchment sample, Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland
Papyrus scroll, Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland

The second and third floors of the museum are dedicated to illustrating the progression of different methods of writing and printing and techniques for creating images in printed materials.

A wall exhibit displays historical book-binding tools.

One of the more interesting rooms holds several wall-mounted displays with an impressive variety of old tools.  It also includes a video demo, samples, and machinery that was used in cold-needle etching, a style popular with Picasso and Van Gogh.

A cubby in one corner is set up as work space for cold-needle etching.
Cold-needle etching creates art samples such as this, with distinctive hatch marks.

For some time, I watched a short video of a bookbinder painstakingly stitching together a book, one page at a time.  It gave me a new appreciation for the work that would have gone into a partially bound book on display.

Of course, I found it entirely comical next to what was, at least in 1962, the smallest book in the world.  I left my nose print on the exhibit glass in an attempt to read the tiny writing.

Thick strings are ratcheted tight in a frame for a partially bound book.
the smallest book in the world
Not even a centimeter across, the Lord’s Prayer was the smallest book in the world in 1962. It’s now on display at the Basel Paper Mill Museum.

The third floor of the Basel Paper Mill Museum is dedicated to printing.  It’s home to a family of old printing presses and thousands of typeset letters which are still in use for making printed materials.

The printing presses on the third floor of the museum are hulking metal machines that still smell like fresh ink.
Row after row of tall specialty wooden shelves hold trays of metal typeset for printing.

The last floor to visit is the 4th floor.  Tucked away in a corner under the eaves is where I found my very favorite exhibit – designing your own paper.  After a friendly demo from the resident artist, she set me free.

An artist dyes paper on the 4th floor of the museum, encouraging visitors to design their own paper.

Starting with a blank “palette” of clear glue in a large rectangular tub, I chose several colors and shook drops of yellow, blue, and white ink into the clear glue.  With a wooden stick, I swirled the colors together the way cake makers do with vanilla and chocolate frosting. Then I laid my piece of paper directly in the glue bath and pressed all over gently until I could see the dye being absorbed by the paper. After slowly peeling the page up, I squeegeed it off with a special scraper, hosed it off with a water sprayer, and waited for it to dry.  I could have stayed all day long experimenting with different colors and patterns!

I plan to frame my sample paper from the museum.
There is just something about the smell of paper and books that makes me feel at home.

Before leaving, I stood in this room for a few minutes, breathing deeply and letting the smell of old wood, ink, and fresh paper take me back to my childhood love of books.  Through years excitedly wading through summer reading lists, browsing rows of tattered paperbacks at our tiny town library, and greeting the sunrise after many an all-nighter with a particularly good novel, this place held the soft smell of nostalgia.

Know Before You Go:

What’s up next on our agenda?

Taking a little polar plunge among the icebergs in Lake Schiffenensee…





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