Traveling bibliophiles will be excited to discover a rather unique attraction in Basel, Switzerland. It’s known as both the Basel Paper Mill Museum and the Basler Papiermühle in this German-speaking part of the country. Not your typical museum, the site houses a thorough selection of exhibits detailing the history of paper and bookmaking, as well as an active paper mill where visitors can make and even dye their own handmade paper. If you have a chance to visit this place, jump on it. It’s pretty fascinating.
The Basler Papiermühle found its humble beginnings in the 12th century as one of 12 mills built by members of the St. Alban Monastery. As it was conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the Rhine River, they also built a series of canals to harness hydro energy for powering these mills.
The site operated as a corn mill for the Klingental Monastery until 1428. It was then briefly used as a hammer mill.
In 1453, Antonious Galician converted it into a paper mill and first began producing paper.
Though it hasn’t operated as a paper mill continuously since then, it was at the heart of the Swiss paper industry during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was later restored and turned into a museum in 1980.
The Process of Making Paper
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.
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 walked me through the relatively “simple” 18th-century process the museum still uses to make their paper.
First, remnants of clothing and cotton material are washed, dried, and then chopped up at a cutting table with a wicked-looking blade.
The rags are dampened to assist in breaking down the cotton fibers naturally and are then thrown down into a deep stone pit.
The opening of the pit is marked by a round viewing window set inside an orange square on the floor.
There they’re left to rot for eight or nine days. This process allows the cotton fibers to be broken down into pulp for making 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.
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.
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.
When I finished making my own handmade piece of paper, I set out to explore the other three floors of the museum.
Ancient Writing Exhibit
Folks interested in the ancient history of paper making are sure to like one particular room full of ancient artifacts on display.
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.
The Evolution of Print
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.
One of the more interesting rooms holds several wall-mounted displays with an impressive variety of old tools.
Cold Needle Etching
The room also includes a video demo, samples, and machinery that was used in cold-needle etching. The style was popular with Picasso and Van Gogh.
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 must have gone into a single partially bound book on display.
Read the World’s Smallest Book
Do you love tiny things? Don’t miss the world’s smallest book!
Or at least it was the smallest book in the world in 1962. Any idea what book it is?
I’m pretty sure I left my nose print on the exhibit glass in an attempt to read the tiny writing.
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.
Dying Your Own Paper
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. This means designing as in coloring or dying, not just making regular white pressed paper. If you love being creative, this is where you’ll find your groove.
After a friendly demo from the resident artist, she set me free.
An artist dyes paper on the 4th floor of the Basel Paper Mill Museum, encouraging visitors to design their own paper and have fun!
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.
After whiling away hours at the museum, I finally meandered back down through the rooms of neatly laid out exhibits.
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.
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.
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, the Basel Paper Mill Museum holds the soft smell of nostalgia.
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