In our quest to get things just right, we took the train to the Lake District in search of a unique paper, a bespoke signature paper that would become our Lagom white. We wanted to find a product that was sustainable, made by people who are the best in their field. A company that could tell our story through paper.
Snow had not yet made its way to the North West, so we were able to experience the wonder of the landscapes as our train entered the Lake District National park. A place marked and shaped by the passing of time and the agricultural and industrial history of the area. Dry stone walls that snake across the fields, enclosing and circling the land and the grazing sheep; The low afternoon sun casting a peachy rose glow on the white-capped mountains inviting us further in with the promise of snow.
Image by Jack Anstey
The Lake District has over fourteen lakes due to its high rainfall and deep glacial valleys. It's the wettest part of Britain, but this has not dampened its industriousness and enterprising spirit. The landscape has been shaped and harnessed to great effect. Locally mined graphite enabled a flourishing pencil industry, local rivers powered the corn and wool mills and later, with the introduction of the printing press, paper mills. In the 17th Century, there were already four paper mills in Cumbria. The one we are visiting is a 6th generation family business started in 1845. Built on a site that housed a corn mill as far back as the 13th Century, we are here to visit the traditional yet cutting-edge paper mill James Croppers in Burneside on the River Kent.
By the time we reach the mill, powdery snow is thick on the ground, and there's something about the snow that sets a place back in time. Built in local stone, it's chimneys are smoking, and it's clock still ticking below an empty bell tower and weather vane. Mills can be drab looking, austere places, but this is smaller than we imagined and made more inviting by the painted Kendall green windows and doors. This is their signature colour, named after the colour worn by the archers at Agincourt and a shade of yarn made by the woollen mill that once stood on this site. James Cropper is a business that is proud of its history, and this site is steeped in it.
The entrance to Croppers Mill in Burneside
Croppers started life in an age where paternalistic mill owners took pride in caring for the needs of their staff
The mill stands proud in what locals call the Burneside triangle of life - villagers would attend the school, progress onto working at the mill and finish their life with a burial in the churchyard opposite. Croppers started life in an age where paternalistic mill owners took pride in caring for the needs of their staff and cottages were built for the workers next door to the mill. The mill was indeed the heart of a working community. The cottages are no longer part of the staff offer (they do get first refusal when one comes up for rent), but the company still take pride in their treatment of the workforce, care that extends beyond the factory floor. They are committed to ensuring that there is no modern slavery or human trafficking in their supply chains, acknowledging the issues involved with global trading.
It's easy to be seduced by the snow, the old stone and the history, but James Cropper hasn't survived simply on nostalgia. James Cropper is the best of British Tradition combined with high tech innovation and application. They are quite a small manufacturer of paper in the scheme of things – but they go for the high-end market and do it exceptionally well. Like excited visitors to Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory, we couldn't wait to get inside and see the magic.
Clad in hot pink high vis jackets, safety goggles and earplugs we began the tour. The paper mill was a hive of activity full of tall shiny vats, jets of water, and giant reels of fresh paper. We met with Malcolm Reekie, the Sampling and prototyping manager who would lead us the through the many stages of making paper - from the hard wood pulp to the fresh, coloured reels of embossed and specialist papers at the end of the line.
Cropper's employee adding dye to the pulp
We were drawn instantly to the vats full of what looked like industrial quantities of porridge. Each bale of pulp added is a ¼ ton, and six are dropped into the machine and pulverised with a rotating blade. Foaming white fluids and liquids gush from pipes with an exhilarating roar. Pulp, a mixture of water, paper and fillers, mulched and mixed and ready for the injection of colour - dyes mixed to an exact measure with computers that sit harmoniously alongside panels of dials, knobs and levers more reminiscent of an industrial age. When the die came flowing out of the pipe, the colours were breathtaking. The mill works on a four weekly colour cycle. Working from light to dark until the system is closed down for cleaning and the process starts again.
James Cropper specialises in the production of colour paper and they make bespoke colours using a mixture of technology and the trained eye. To ensure that colour runs are consistent they work with both a computer and physical samples to ensure perfection. The paper's spec is held on computer programmes, but even though they can programme the amount of dye used, this cannot account for the organic variations in natural products. And so the experience of staff who have worked with the company for many years, really adds a level of expertise to the colour matching process. All of the colour scientists working in their lab have world-class colour vision and have their eye-sight tested on a regular basis. As colour is altered by the light, they also create a standard light condition to ensure the highest level of quality. They also keep archival sheets of all the paper made – so that they can check the physical paper by eye as well as against the computer record.
Inside the Croppers Mill
Once pulped, the water added must now be removed and so we headed to the twin wire machine to find out how it's done. Raised above the floor, we climbed the steel ladders precariously in our winter boots to take a peep at what can only be described as a gently rocking conveyer belt. The water is sieved off, and the machine gently vibrates to enable the mixing of the long and short fibres. Steam and a felt roll are also used to remove even more moisture before the paper rolls on to be slowly heated, and is sent on to the size press . This stops ink penetrating the paper and becoming like blotting paper.
At the end of the process, the profile of the paper is sent to the computer, and the sheet is checked. Any paper that does not meet the client's specifications is classed as 'broke' and re-enters the papermaking system. Any 'cheese' (leftovers) are also added back into the paper mix. Paper has often been given a bad rap for its effect on the environment, but here at James Croppers, environmental concerns are a high priority. Waste paper is fed back into the process and they ensure that the water used leaves the mill in a cleaner state than when it arrived.
Not only are Croppers recycling the materials they work with they are on the cutting edge of innovation and have invented a way of recycling paper coffee cups ( CUPCYCLING TM) with the capacity to recycle 0.5 billion cups per year! Even recovered fibre from wastewater treatment is dehydrated and composted on local farms, cocoa shells from the chocolate industry used to make specialist papers. They have also risen to the challenge of reducing our use of plastic and have created Colourform, a moulded fibre packaging as a substitute. 150 tons of inserts created for perfume bottles have already made their way to France.
James Cropper is a small stone factory by a river, across the way from St Oswald's in a village with one pub and a grocers. A union jack flies on a pole outside - a testament to its history and a pride in the fact that they are still making British goods to a high standard in an era of globalised mass production. Their company tagline is ‘Tell your story in paper’, and that's exactly what they 've done. Their story is one of a proud tradition of craftsmanship, expertise, and a vision of a future that does not dispose of the past but adds it into the mix and creates something new. Technically advanced materials are being created that can be applied to the fields of aerospace, motorcars and even wind turbines. It was impossible before we visited to imagine the innovation going on inside - how paper can be used to secure the future of the planet.
As we handed back our hard hats and admired their work displayed in glass cabinets in the foyer, we wondered and hoped if they would be able to tell the story of Lagom through our very own paper. Something made to measure, beautifully crafted without being at the expense of the planet. Walking back out into the snow we get a good feeling that they'll come up with something Lagom, something just right for us.
All of our cards are now made from Lagom Kendall White paper made at the James Cropper Mill