Going to Press in Nantes

The Musee Atelier de L'Imprimerie is a working print shop and museum in Nantes.

Their brochure begins with “Writing and graphic production are undoubtedly as old as the world. It is a part of this long chain of cumulative knowledge that invites you to follow the MAI on a journey punctuated with enriching discoveries for an unforgettable and unique visit of its kind… Before your eyes, machines melt lines of text, others print them, including an imposing nine-ton press. We also discover prints on stone, copper and lead because all the materials presented work in front of the public to awaken ‘the Beauty in Lead’ that was the printing press from the 15th to the 20th century.”

The entryway to the shop is lined with glass cases showing pigments, and embossing tools used to apply gold leaf to leather bindings. My favorite collections were the displays of ornate typefaces:

Illuminated fonts
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I then walked into the main room which is full of presses, about a third of which were being actively used. I believe this is a platen press, used to press the paper against a flat inked form. It was how letterpress printing was originally done.

Patten Press
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

This one’s a monotype. First patented in 1887 by Tolbert Lanston, an American lawyer. It was presented at the Great Exhibition in France in 1900. The placard next to this machine described how the monotype system was actually two machines which worked independently of each other, but which were ‘bonded’ by a paper ribbon that was perforated in a code that represented a character or symbol. Monotype keyboards have five alphabets and keys for functions like paragraph justification. The perforated paper is wound onto a caster and then threaded through the reader, and the perforations activate mechanisms “which move a composite matrix magazine into position over a mold, into which molten metal is pumped in.” When a line of text has been made, it is ejected into a galley tray and the process starts again with the next line of text.

Got that? Yeah, me neither. But it seems like a really fascinating process, and it would have been fun to watch it in action. The placard went on to say that this system improved printing because it allowed text to be set in groups or lines anywhere on the page (versus the straight lines required by individual type fonts) which was an important feature in typographic design.

Monotype machine
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

There was also a cylinder press that took up a considerable amount of space, it is used to print large sheets like newspapers and posters. I learned a little bit about an intaglio print press – the printing is done from ink that is below the surface of the plate. The printing ink is rubbed into the incisions and the surface is wiped clean. Unlike surface printing, intaglio printing requires considerable pressure. I was surprised to find a display case devoted to Braille printing, done on a desktop press.

Braille Printer
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I watched an engraver at work incising a printing plate, and another printer running a series of cards on what I think was a lithograph, though I didn’t take photos of either one, not wanting to distract them from the details of their work.

Admission is good for the entire day, and the staff do regular demonstrations. It’s well worth checking out if you are ever in Nantes.

Address: 24 quai de la Fosse, 44000 Nantes, at the Mediatheque stop on Tram Line 1. There is also parking in the Mediatheque and Petite-Hollande car parks.

Hours: Monday-Saturday from 10 AM to noon and 2 PM to 5:30, closed Saturday in July and August. Guided tours and demonstrations at 2:30 PM, groups are welcome by reservation.

Tickets: 8 Euros, good for the entire day.


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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.