Rag sorting was carried out on the uppermost floors of the main building at Stowford Mill and was dirty and generally very unpleasant work. The first stage was a process called dusting whereby the incoming rags were placed in a rapidly revolving wirework cylinder. This was particularly unpleasant work, with reports that ‘the air was impregnated with dust sufficient to make a fog’. Due to the unpleasant nature of the operation, dusting was generally performed early in the morning. The rags, which included fustian (a hard-wearing twilled cloth), canvas and even corduroy were then cut and sorted. Standing at a wooden table inset with wire grating, women would place handfuls of rags on to the grating allowing any loose dirt to fall through. Using a sharp vertical knife which was fixed to the bench with the blade facing away, rags were cut into pieces by drawing the cloth towards the operator against the blade. Other offending items such as buttons and fastenings were removed, and hems and seams un-picked and the sewing thread discarded.
To the side of each table a box divided into compartments served to segregate the different qualities of rags. After the rags were sorted into the relevant grades, only what was termed ‘fine’ and ‘superfine’ quality rags were used in the manufacture of the finest writing grades of papers. Such terms would often be employed within the watermark to denote the grade of paper.
Every woman and girl’s work was distinguished by a unique number and carefully examined by overlookers. Anything failing to meet the standard was returned to the individual for further processing.
It was not uncommon for family groups of women to be employed in the rag loft at Ivybridge. It was known that 3 generations of local families worked there, with one ‘rag girl’ clocking up an extraordinary 49 years of service!
It was normally the ambition of the rag girls to transfer to the cleaner environment of the ‘Salle’ as soon as they could; this was at the other end of the mill where the finished sheets of paper were sorted and counted.
Work in the salle was always carried out during the day shift, normally between the hours 8 am to 5 pm as it was generally considered that the sorting of the paper for quality defects could not be efficiently performed by artificial light. The salle in this respect was a large airy room flanked by a series of large windows allowing as much natural light to flood in as possible. The work required ‘a quick eye and light hands’ with women considered to be much more deft at it than men. Apart from sorting and counting the paper the salle was also the location where the paper was glazed. This was a final finishing process to render the paper surface super smooth. The process involved interleaving sheets between thin plates of highly polished copper and once in a pile passed between iron rolls to give the paper its final gloss. Each sheet was then carefully examined with any imperfect ones rejected. The paper would then be taken to the upper floor of the salle where further women would count the paper in quires (24 sheets). 20 quires would then become a ream (20 x 24 = 480 sheets). It would then be packed ready for despatch.
From rags to paper
Once the rags were cut into pieces they were passed through further dusting machines called “devils”. These machines consisted of large drums containing revolving spikes which tossed the pieces around in a vigorous manner. Devils were also referred to as ‘tearing engines’ gradually reducing the cloth into smaller pieces. The next stage of the process took place at the rag boiler house. Several large iron boilers heated the rags using steam. Along with a mixture of caustic soda and lime, the rags were boiled for four to five hours.
The boiled rags were then transferred to the washing or breaking engines. These engines were large oval troughs, with a support in the centre. On one side there was an iron cylinder, or roll, covered longitudinally with steel knives. The roll revolves over a plate fixed at the bottom of the trough, which is also fitted with knives. Once water began to flow in the trough and the roll set to work, the pieces of rag were dragged between the opposing knives of the roll and its plate. The dirty water continually drained away with a strainer preventing the escape of any fibre and fresh water flowing in, After two hours the rags had become in ‘a considerably advanced stage of cleanliness’. During the last ten minutes of the process a bleaching mixture, prepared in a separate tank and consisting of predominantly chloride of lime, was added.
The contents of the breakers were then pumped through pipes to the ‘potching engines’. Here the bleaching process was continued using “weak liquor”. This was the liquid taken from the rags that had already undergone the full bleaching process. From the potchers the rags passed to a large numbers of cisterns containing the bleach solution where they would remain for 36 hours. They would then be transferred to a large tank incorporating powerful hydraulic apparatus which would compress the rags in their semi-processed state into a thick block and expel the liquid (the weak liquor mentioned above). At this stage the rags were referred to as “half-stuff”. Documents describe this partially processed raw material as “fibrous, but all trace of the original form of the rags having disappeared, and their dingy hues generally given place to a whiteness rivalling that of snow.” This half-stuff was transferred into galvanised steel containers constructed to act as trucks to aid transportation to the next stage of the process.
The half-stuff was then taken to the beating engines. Stowford Mill had several of these. Similar in operation to the breaker engines, the fibrous material would be processed for another four to five hours until the raw material was broken down to discrete fibres suitable to make paper. The pulp or stock would then be held in large chests (vats) where it would be constantly agitated ready for the paper machine.
By the 1950s there were major problems with rags due to the growing use of synthetic fibres in textiles. Additionally, difficulties of river pollution from the caustic soda used in rag boiling and bleaching processes were becoming more and more acute. By the late 1950s the processing of rags was under question, but there was little option but to continue their use, as the core business at Stowford Mill lay in the production of rag papers.
In 1969, attempts were made to overcome the rag boiling problem by using a different method of processing. This employed the use of a large stainless steel commercial washing machine, known as the Cherry Tree Washer, and the idea was to recirculate and reuse the liquor, so it would produce much less effluent than the conventional rag boilers. The Cherry Tree Washer was used on and off for the next few years, but due to practical difficulties, it was not a great success, making it necessary to bring the old rag boilers back into use from time to time.
During 1973 and the so-called three-day-week, Stowford Mill experienced a sudden collapse in business with orders being cancelled.This proved to be the catalyst for the discontinuance of rag processing, bringing the 185 year old tradition to an end. Work began to dismantle the equipment.
While the loss of rag as a raw material was, at the time, regretted by some, it was considered by many as a blessing. The rag issue had dogged the industry for centuries. Supplies were always difficult and quality variable. Also, the working conditions in the rag lofts were unusually awful for the women rag-sorters.
Whilst we all may think of recycling as a modern phenomenon associated with preserving the environment, paper making of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was undoubtedly an industry of ‘recycling personified’, being based on the use of recycled fibre, mainly sourced from discarded clothing.