The Complex of All of These

Ten years ago this June I had recently quit my conservation job at Columbia University to be an artist-in-residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, an amazing place in a quiet town about two hours north of Manhattan. I had proposed an artist’s book based on work from my last year in college, the only thing I still like, really, and in the end I made thirty five copies of a book called The Complex of All of These, with handmade paper covering over a bradel binding, hand-sewn tiny endbands with etchings and letterpress inside. It was the kind of thing that invites obnoxious clichés in trying to write about it, but the whole experience of living and working in this gorgeous old studio, having interns to help me, exploring the historic towns nearby, making fast friends with many of the people who work there, and ultimately producing an edition I was really proud of was really just a critical one for me. The book is now in amazing collections like the Library of Congress and many university libraries.

While I was at WSW and in love with everything I took so many pictures that I started making a stop-motion animation of the whole process, which was originally on YouTube with music I can’t use anymore, and a lot of people have asked after it since it disappeared from the platform so I’ve re-uploaded it silent for now! If any music people out there have something I can use instead, I’d be grateful.

"How long do I have to leave it in the press?"

This is one of the first questions almost every new bookbinding student asks, and my answer is often a shrug. We're talking about folding sections: no matter how hard you press with a bone folder, you won't convince the paper to go all the way flat and stay flat at that spine fold without a bit of muscle in the form of a nipping or standing press. "Until it's flat when you take it out," I say. If you don't get the spine folds to lie flat, you often end up sewing the book too loose, and you'll have problems later. They look at me expectantly. "An hour? A day?" I shrug. 

And so I give you some very very lax folding experiments, for a visual of what kind of change you might expect over what kind of time. (I sort of want to do this properly now, and measure the change in swell, and use different papers to see, and measure the amount of force exerted by my press, but I'm not sure how much I'd get made fun of for that.)

Here's the unpressed textblock below (folded with a bone folder); it wouldn't even stay stacked so I had to use a weight at the fore-edge to get this image. This is 120 gsm Conquerer, 4 bifolia per section, grain parallel to the spine. You can expect a sharper initial fold for thinner paper, fewer bifolia per section, and with grain parallel to the spine, and the overall swell of the textblock will be less with fewer sections.

 Unpressed textblock

Unpressed textblock

In order to press the textblock, you can put weights on top, preferably with a board inbetween to avoid impressions, or you can put it in a press. It needs to be perfectly lined up so that all the folds receive pressure and so that you don't get any indentations. If your textblock is particularly bouncy, it will be hard to get it stacked like this, so you might find it helps either to flip half of it (so you have one stack, but half the folds are on one side and half are on the other), or to separate it into a few stacks.

 This one has already been pressed so don't look at the sharpness of the folds but see here how you can alternate the spine folds so that you get a more manageable stack.

This one has already been pressed so don't look at the sharpness of the folds but see here how you can alternate the spine folds so that you get a more manageable stack.

If you use a weight for pressure, use as heavy a weight as you can manage! I don't have a photo handy but when I mean business I have two cast iron 56 pound weights which I painted to make sure no iron will ever get in contact with an object (leaving a mark or a rust stain if damp) and they also have felt bottoms so they don't scratch the boards I put under them. The weights shown below are boxes I made around lead type scraps, covered with cloth and with felt bottoms. If I'm not in a rush I usually weigh down springy textblocks like this for a little bit before I try to press them properly, just to make it a little easier to get in the press. Using a smaller weight lets you actually hold the textblock in place while you apply the pressure, whereas once it's in the press, you can't really get your fingers around it. These would never apply enough pressure on their own to get the spines really flat, but they'd be better than nothing, of course. 

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Have access to a press? A big one? Have a lot of textblocks to press? You can press as many as you can stack and lay side-by-side while still keeping the stacks tidy. You can make a book/board/book/board sandwich until it's too heavy to carry. (Again, though, for more springy textblocks, probably one layer is more manageable as the more you add, the harder it is to press everything without something moving.) Go easy on the press as you screw it down, because you don't want everything to shake and get out of alignment in your enthusiasm for pressing. Do you see how mine are a little out of perfect alignment in the second photo below? I went for it, because I couldn't get them straight the first time, and after an hour or so I took them out again and squared them up properly since some of the air had been knocked out and it was easier.

press 2.JPG
press.jpg

The textblocks below have been pressed for an hour, a day, and a week. I left them in there for three weeks, I think, to get them perfectly flat—the answer to the question is "as long as you can." 

Binding club

Some recent West Dean graduates & I started a binding club: we take turns researching a binding and showing the structure to the others. DIY professional development. First meeting: a trial run of the 18th century French model we'll be making at Dartmouth at the end of this week. We also managed to fit the three of us in my little studio and still have room to make a mess!

Fontainebleau Aldine at the Montefiascone Conservation Project, Part II

Now pictures of books instead of gelato: the model we made in Monte was of an early 16th c. book in wooden boards, bound à la grecque by the royal bindery for Henri II, now held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It is a pocket-sized book from the Aldine press, bound in full dark maroon goat leather with gauffered edges. By the time of the Diderot encyclopedia, these edges were old-fashioned and no longer made, but it's hard to imagine not liking them! The endbands are Greek-style in pink and white over two cores, but then with a simple front-bead sewn over the top one in blue and white. The leather was blocked and tooled in blind and gilt, with lead white painted in some of the shapes created by the tools. And then braided straps were attached at fore-edge, head, and tail, that attach to brass pins on the back board: all in all kind of aesthetic overkill for my taste given the beautifully simplistic printing inside, but fun to make.

We brought sections cut to size on a board chopper, and sewed them with an unsupported link stitch on the first day. The boards were mostly shaped for us—beveled slightly on the outside shoulder, with grooves in the board edge along head, fore-edge, and tail, and beveled at head and tail near the spine edge to accommodate the endband). We just had to plane off a bit in the joint to fit the boards to the textblock. We cut little grooves between the drilled stations to accommodate the thread, and laced them in with the ends of the sewing thread. The shape of the boards helps create a very slight round in the textblock, and then we covered the spine and onto the boards a few centimeters with a nice Irish linen cloth.

I can't get enough of this endband; I'd never sewn such an epic one before. Like normal Greek endbands, it attaches both to the textblock and boards. I can't quite imagine the Fontainebleau binders sewing it, then thinking, "It needs a little something more," and adding the front bead to the top core—but they did.

Then we covered in quite thin leather; mine was from Steven Siegal in the US. Slanted slits are cut at the head and tail to accommodate the endband, since the joint isn't accessible as in a normal binding. The corners were just cut at a bevel and folded over. No worrying about trimming turn-ins even at this time period! I'm afraid I forgot to photograph it before the tooling started, so I just have this one of the cap now covering the crazy endband.

The blocking was something I had to see to believe. Stephania took a rubbing from the original and had a block made, but without a blocking press, we had to improvise. We made a blind impression in the leather while it was still damp from covering by more or less centering the block on top of the board and pressing it as tight as possible in a Dryad press. One side is blind and one is gilt, so we then had to block hot by putting the block on a stove, lifting it off and placing it on the book with pliers, hoping it was in the right place, then running off to the press to give it another squeeze. The first time I did this I miraculously got it in exactly the right place, but the pressure on the press was a little crooked so part of it didn't take the gold. I went back and forth about whether to risk a second shot, eventually did, and got the registration completely off (although the gold looks good!).

I have to say, working with gold leaf in a big room with a lot of people, a lot of heat, and an uncontrollable stove was not the most satisfying thing, but I'm glad we did it so that the book could look more like the original. The original isn't perfect in the tooling either, really, but that never makes anyone feel better about gold that won't stick! The leather I chose was nice to work with for covering but turned out to refuse to go dark for blind tooling (it didn't absorb water very well, I think because of some coating on the surface), so even the blind tooling wasn't as even as it could have been. I had thoughts at the time of watercolor? on a tiny brush to help darken the areas that wouldn't go, but that really does sound like one of those things you're still talking about doing in 30 years. Maureen Duke always quips about the shoemaker's children going barefoot.

Then we drilled holes in the boards and made tiny plaits for the clasps, which drove most people mad but wasn't so bad for me—I brought along leather from the edge of the skin, because I'm cheap, and actually the stretchiness really helped to get the strips through the holes in the board. We trimmed their ends, whacked them flat with a hammer, attached pins in the back board, and then the binding was almost finished—just needed the endpapers to be put down (I did that at home) and the lead white painted onto the boards (I did that in kind of a rush).  

So here's the finished book:

Finally, a grateful thank-you to the Clothworkers' Foundation and the Anna Plowden Trust, both of whom gave me funding towards this course and without whom I would not have been able to attend.

The Making of an Herbarium, Part III

It's been colorful on my desk the last few days: all the flowers came out of blotters livened up the paper-covered case I made for the book. Even normal vellum is a little transparent, and must be backed with paper—this skin is so transparent you can read writing on the back of a piece of paper through it. And so the case had to be covered in paper first, to make it all white, then the flowers were pasted to that, then the vellum pasted on top. A ton of pressure in the press first, to sink the flowers into the boards, then I pasted them into their shallow beds. In the end I thought it would be best not to lay flowers over the joints, although it looked really satisfying, because I doubt they'll stand up to the stress of folding as the book opens.

I think the pale blue iris is the best; it grows no taller than the stem it has here, and is the first to come out. All the veins in the petals and stem came out in such detail. The big poppy on the front board is another favorite—poppies already look like tissue paper when they're alive, and it retained all of that character pressed. Also present (amongst some long-forgotten ones): crocus, primrose, winter aconite, anemone, nasturtium, nigella, forget-me-not, viola, ceropegia woodii, campanula, passion flower, lewisia, heuchera, osteospermum, bleeding heart.

Some small pictures, to tide over until I get the "real" ones off the camera:

The Making of an Herbarium, Part II

My herbarium is coming along between treatment proposals and lecture writing: I chose really beautiful handmade paper made by Chris Petrone of the Womens' Studio Workshop, with nonpareil marbled endpapers from Payhembury. I dyed Pergamena vellum green for the tapes. I've worked on a few green vellum account bindings and the color is really satisfying. And then I took a last look at the deckle edges—lovely but uneven & difficult to turn—and plowed them right off. I found immense satisfaction in putting the trimmings in my vermicomposting bin, though! The worms will eat them, which enrich the soil, which will grow new plants, which will become pressed specimens for the herbarium. It's too perfect.

I wasn't sure what to do with the head edge, and colored it yellow with gamboge first, but on second thought rubbed some Prussian blue in and made them the same green as the vellum supports. More or less exactly the same green. That was pretty satisfying, and with a little wax & burnishing they're super shiny. Endbands are green, blue-green, & a pale blue over alum taw & vellum cores. I made the vellum long to lace it into the case with the sewing support slips. 

The next step is done, making the case Bradel-style, to be covered in white vellum. I was planning on making it go transparent by soaking it in potassium carbonate & pressing hard, à la Edwards of Halifax, but no matter how I've tried to do it, I haven't managed to affect any change in the skin. Plan B has just come to me in writing this, though, so stay tuned for covering & lacing in. 

Now, if only the sun would stay out a little longer, & get my plants growing faster...

The Making of an Herbarium

One of the last things I did when I worked at Columbia was mounting sheets from an herbarium. I love these old specimens, taped flat to support sheets, especially when labels are handwritten. I didn't know until recently that herbaria are still made, although it makes sense to preserve primary source material for future research.  

I've been pressing flowers and foliage in my book press for months now, between blotter and Bondina (nonwoven polyester), under whatever conservation or binding work is in there. And recently I thought about a ream of nice paper I have, and my pile of pressed plant bits from my rooftop garden & window boxes, and decided I should make my own herbarium. 

It's kind of amazing which plants keep their color—canary creeper leaves still look beautiful with mottled yellow & green; heuchera kept the rainbow of autumn colors. The bright purple campanula flowers have almost no color left. The fluorescent magenta delosperma flower turned sort of faded orange. And the red poppy, the reddest red there is, is still a rich color but more of a crimson. I think the poppy is my favorite whisper-thin specimen so far, but there are always new ones waiting in the press: