"The nature of the Rags"

From The Elder James Whatman, Appendix V, "White Paper And Its Cellulosic Content"

PART I is entitled "The nature of the Rags used for making White Paper in the 17th and 18th C. Paper Mills of the British Isles" and has the following sections.

Cotton, Wool, Hemp, Flax

The Quality of the Linen
The Flax Retting Process
The Rag Fermentation Process
Variations in other characteristics of the Rag
From Textile to Rag in the 17th & 18th Cs.
Rags to Paper

Here we present two of them:

FLAX (Linum usitatissimum)

The flax plant is the source of the linen textile which, as we have seen, is likely to have been the principal source of the rags used to make White paper for most of the period that we are concerned with here.

Flax is the strongest and oldest of the vegetable fibres used by man; it has been used by him since paleolithic times. The weaving of linen cloth had reached an advanced state in Ancient Egypt; it was in use in Roman Britain, but the spinning and weaving of it declined after the fall of the Empire. By 1400 its cultivation and use had been firmly re-established, but the quality of the domestic cloth was said to have been coarse. The industry, in spite of encouragement later from Acts of Parliament and Protection, never seems to have flourished in England, although there appears to have been no shortage of linen textiles in the country during the 17th and 18th Cs., a subject already discussed in the main text. Increasingly the industry felt the competition from cotton. By the mid-18th C. the domestic manufacture of cotton goods benefited from the protection afforded to the growing linen industry, partly because Fustian (linen warp/cotton weft) was an important outlet for the linen yarn. The earlier Calico Acts (1701 and 1721), which had prohibited the wearing of coloured Indian calicoes and which were primarily designed to help the wool trade, ironically stimulated the growth of the English calico industry instead. Cotton in the end helped destroy the English linen industry, which had mothered its early growth and had lived with it for a considerable period.

For the domestic production of textiles (and, subsequently, the supply of linen rags for the expanding paper industry) flax had considerable disadvantages when trying to compete with cotton, which ultimately superseded it in meeting the greatly increased demand for clothing and furnishing fabrics at the end of the 18th C., at a time when the early difficulties of maintaining an adequate and regular supply of raw cotton were being overcome as well as achieving an improvement in its quality.

The cultivation of flax, compared to that of cotton, was a very slow and demanding business; it lacked the flexibility for increasing production that its rival possessed. It has been said that flax is the most costly, troublesome and precarious of all crops to cultivate; Moreover, there were processing difficulties, the mechanisation of spinning linen thread lagged well behind that of cotton and even to-day, apparently, some hand feeding to machines is still necessary.

Though the linen rag was virtually the only material available to the maker of the best qualities of White paper in Britain for the period under consideration here, in terms of its cellulose content flax in its dry raw state is not as pure as cotton; these impurities had an important bearing on the method used to process the rags. There are many factors which also affect the quality of the linen and which have to be taken into account. These are examined next.

The Quality of the Linen

It has been said that the texture of some early European papers was coarse and that they had inferior felting properties (this means poor consolidation during sheet formation, a subject covered in Part II). Some of these defects may have been due to the inability of the beating equipment to cope with the materials properly; but evidently these papers also contained varying proportions of imperfectly retted flax fibres. The same source states that even as late as the 18th C. some papers, all watermarked, were quite brown from the use of unbleached "flax" (sic). The use of imperfectly retted flax fibres or of unbleached linen would almost certainly account for the presence of shive in inferior "white" papers of this period, papers that were otherwise of reasonable strength. This sort of paper probably found its way mostly into printing rather than writing uses. It can be seen then that the use of strong linen rags did not automatically produce the top qualities of White paper. In the passages that follow we shall be looking briefly at some of the possible reasons that may have led to variations in the quality of the linen rags that reached the paper mill.

There were, for instance, political, geographical and cultural factors that could have affected the quality of the linen thread; and there were, in addition, process differences that would have caused variations in the quality of the finished textile. Over and above all this by the time the linen rags reached the paper mill and came to be used for making paper, the cloth would have passed through a whole series of random as well as organised selection processes which effectively prevent positive identification of any single factor as the cause of the defect that we may observe. All the same any one of these influences could have had an overriding effect in determining the general level of the quality of the linen produced and thus the rag reaching the paper mill.

One can reasonably assume that in the course of the long history of the linen industry the skills needed for producing thread from the flax plant would have been perfected as far as the empirical procedures for control at the disposal of the producers would allow. This assumption is important in that the quality of the fibre is greatly dependent on both the method of cultivating the flax plant and on the processes used subsequently to isolate and purify the fibre, methods involving stages of great technological complexity. Though the skills may have been there, it is necessary to qualify this assumption by saying that this does not imply that the quality of the production of linen from flax was universally high at this time.

It will be recalled (see Chapter II) that during the early part of the 17th C. the British paper industry was very small and, in fact, as Professor Coleman has pointed out, such rags as were available in this country were being exported to France. But by ca.1670 the situation was changing and an expansion in the domestic paper industry was taking place with a consequent demand for raw materials to support this growth and the supply of these depended, though not necessarily proportionately, on the level of textiles available in this country. But the conditions that determined this supply were complicated at this time and remained so for the next century. Both domestic and foreign sources have to be taken into consideration and these changed radically during this period.

It has been estimated that in the late 16th and early 17th Cs. 14% of all English agricultural labourers were employed in producing flax (a further 15% hemp); the industry continued to grow rather than diminish, so it could be said that at the beginning of the 18th C. the English linen industry was an important one; but by international standards it was small and completely overshadowed by imports of textiles, chiefly those from France. However, several events conspired to complicate and change this situation, these stemming principally from the effect of raising the Duties on these imports (to provide revenue to pay for the current wars rather than to encourage the growth of the domestic industry). The consequences of the various rates of Duty imposed between 1660-1760 (too complicated to cover here) were far reaching and concern us at this point only to demonstrate that the sources of supply for the linen found in this country were very varied and altered frequently. Thus, besides having a domestic source, we were importing initially large quantities of linen from France; other suppliers included Flanders, Holland, Germany and, later, Russia.

The effect of higher tariffs from 1690 onwards was to hit French imports the hardest; as the duties increased Flemish and Dutch imports were also affected, though the bias still remained anti-French. The only source favoured by these actions was Germany. The rates of Duty were related to the width and not the quality of their cloth. The Germans made narrow width textiles and were thus able to improve the quality of their cloth at the expense of the French and at the same time pay much lower Duty. Harte maintains that it was the Duty of this period (1697-1712) that had the biggest impact on the realignment of the sources of imported linen. Imports of French linen declined sharply towards the end of the 17th C.; Flemish and Dutch by the early 18th; but German imports continued to grow until the 1730's, only declining after 1750. Some cloth continued to find its way into this country by the practice of fraudulently misrepresenting its country of origin. Also, as mentioned in the main text, it has been reckoned that about 33% of the linen entering this country by-passed the Excise and was smuggled in mainly from France and Holland.

At the same time as all this was taking place, an Act of 1696 allowed hemp and flax to be imported Duty free from Ireland, ostensibly to encourage foreign Protestants to settle there; but, be that as it may, it also had a galvanizing effect on the local linen industry of the north. Although earlier attempts had been made to foster a linen industry in Ireland, it was not until the early 18th C. that it really got under way and then in the northern provinces. This resulted from a combination of different events and conditions. Gill has identified the following factors that led to this rapid and unexpected expansion; the expulsion of the Huguenots from France brought capital and technical know-how to the north of Ireland (amongst other places); as seen above an Act of William III's permitted flax, linen yarn and cloth to be imported into England from Ireland Duty free; Antwerp, the main market for linen, was cut off by war; to these may be added the contribution made by Scottish, Dutch and Lancastrian Settlers together with the very important effects deriving from the local system of land tenure; the soil, the climate, the abundance of water and the fact that flax could be grown remuneratively on small-holdings; untapped skills in weaving and a ready market for the cloth in England. According to Harte by 1750 imports from Ireland and Scotland exceeded continental supplies (excluding the smuggled linen); by the 1760's imports from Ireland alone exceeded those from the Continent. Likewise by the 1730's imports of Irish linen were already driving out German cloth. By this time also the Northern Ireland bleacheries were eclipsing, though not completely, the famous ones at Haarlem.

Throughout this period the English linen industry had remained an important but small one; nevertheless it can be seen from the foregoing that the bulk of the cloth in this country (from which the papermaking rags would ultimately be derived) had come from many different sources and that these had chopped and changed dramatically between the latter half of the 17th C. and the first half of the 18th and continued to alter. The paper maker's interest in this altering situation would have lain more in the way it might have affected the quality of his raw material rather than the quantity. The industry itself was not confronted by any shortage of textiles but the scarcity of rags emanating from them. It was this, coupled with the inefficient methods employed in collecting them, that created the difficulties. To complicate this picture even further, as the 18th C. progressed because of the shortages it became increasingly necessary for the rapidly growing paper industry to import rags, the quantity of rag imports rising some twenty-fold between 1725 and 1800, a large proportion of them coming from Germany. It will be obvious from this state of affairs that the quality of the linen, whether in prime cloth or rag form, could have varied considerably. The question may be asked, did it ? Though one cannot identify today specific examples of this, it is nevertheless indisputable that this was the case.

The quality of the fibres in the linen rags would have depended to a degree on the state of the art employed in cultivating the plant and extracting the flax from it and this would have varied from locality to locality as indeed the special skills required in each case. For example, retting was carried out in ponds or flax dams in Ireland and in flowing water at Courtrai in Flanders. This would have produced important differences in the conditions required for this microbiological process and its control. Similarly, the density of the cultivation and the degree of ripeness when the crop was pulled up from the ground both affected the quality of the flax fibre, these leading to fine or coarse yarn as the case may be. In addition, the effects of other variables in the extraction process, could lead to variations in the quantities of non-cellulosic residues remaining in the fibre bundles. To all of these must be added the effects of the various processes that led to the finished textile, like bleaching, as well as to substances that may have become associated with the cloth later in its life such as applied starch etc.

Not all of these variables would have necessarily affected the manufacture of White paper, because the Rag Sorting process would probably have taken care of the more obvious differences between the textiles and the rags that they produced. But there were variables, such as those arising from the retting process, which would have been less obvious to the paper maker and which would have had an important influence on the effect of the treatment applied to the rags during the papermaking process. To-day, with the greater understanding that we have of the chemistry of the process, we can look back with hindsight and see the kind of dangers that lay in the path of a weaver who grew his own flax, as was the practice in both Ireland and Flanders. One wonders just how much control the producer had had over his process remembering that right from the outset he would have been saddled with all the other variables referred to above, the climate, the soil, the density of the crop etc. So at this point it would be instructive to examine the retting process at the centre of this issue.

From The Elder James Whatman, Appendix V, Part I, "The nature of the Rags used for making White Paper in the 17th and 18th C. Paper Mills of the British Isles", p. 187