From bags to riches or how an unhappy accident ended up flat in my hands

When an event organizer received a load of canvas goodie bags in a non-sanctioned shade of blue, they could have ended up at a landfill. Instead, a clever employee called miller Arie Butterman at nearby windmill 'de Schoolmeester' (school master) in Westzaan, the Netherlands.

While around 40 mills produced paper in the Zaan-area (north of Amsterdam) in the 18th century, 'de Schoolmeester' is now the only wind-driven paper mill in the world. The mill is known for its production of 'Zaansch bord': a sturdy paper made from cotton.
Did you know one of the first copies of the US Declaration of Independence is written on windmill-made paper from the Zaan region?

The paper-making process

Rags enter the mills at the backside. Here women and children used to rip them into smaller pieces and sort them by colour.

Rags are then pounded by wind-driven knives to turn them into finer pieces.

Recycling, it's nothing new.

This millstone is located in an alcove besides the main millworks. Its purpose is to grind existing paper and cardboard into fibres that can be reused to make new paper.

Once the rags have been sliced into smaller pieces they are put into the 'Hollander', a beater where with the addition of water the fibres are turned into a slurry.

This slurry or pulp is then dried and ready to be made into paper.

making paper the old-fashioned way

Hand-making paper involves moving a screen or mould in a loose frame (the deckle frame) through a vat filled with a mixture of pulp and water.

When most of the water has drained from the sieve, it's turned onto a wet felt cloth ('couching') and some of the remaining water is pressed out.

The sheets can then be hung up to dry.

a mould with the Dutch coat of arms
a freshly made piece of paper from the above mould
a more modern approach

The dried fibres are mixed with water and through a series of gutters it ends on a conveyor belt. This belt allows the water to drip out, after which the pulp arrives at a large drum where it is deposited.

After collecting a number of layers onto the drum (the more layers the thicker and sturdier the cardboard), it is cut off by hand and placed on a stack to dry.


Once the sheets are dry they are pressed to expel any remaining water.


Sheets are air-dried on long lines. De Schoolmeester is unique in this sense in that it has a 60 m long drying shed attached to it.

Once dry, the sheets are unfolded and smoothed as much as possible. They are then ready for use.

results of a labour of love

The above process turned the 'faulty' canvas bags into a beautifully blue version of Zaansch Bord. A paper favoured by book binders and artists. I picked up a sheet, turned it over in my hands, feeling its material quality, but even more so admiring the dedication of Arie to preserving and explaining the traditions of this paper mill.

UNESCO recognised the craft of a miller operating a wind- (or water) powered mill as 'intangible cultural heritage' in 2017. Not that this international recognition changes Arie's attitude, his eyes light up when talking about his craft, which he has practiced since the age of 18. One of the stipulations of the UN is that miller's knowledge is passed onto successive generations, and here too Arie has been successful: his son Ron will be taking over, ensuring continuation of this rich Dutch tradition.

Words and photographs ┬ęSaskia van Manen, 2019

These photos have been taken solely for personal use. However, if you enjoy them please consider making a donation to the windmill.

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