The Bookish Life: Weaving memories into handmade books
I make books. That’s what I do.
I made my first book about 17 years ago, a feat I consider a miracle. On a whim I took a class on making cased-in books with hard spines, and when I looked at the finished product I was astounded, as if I’d made a car with my bare hands.
I say that not to brag, since I completely credit the teacher with my success. But the fact that I could actually construct a book that had covers and pages and could be written in was thrilling. That feeling has never left me in almost two decades, and it’s what compels me to make and design books as well as write books on bookbinding.
What brought me to this place goes back to elementary school, when every year we’d be allowed to order books from the Scholastic book club: Encyclopedia Brown, Doctor Dolittle, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” When they arrived it was better than all the holidays rolled into one.
Books were an escape for me, so the pages never seemed two-dimensional. When I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” I wanted the book to provide a secret passageway to Narnia when my Danish Modern dresser wouldn’t. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” made me frustrated that our car couldn’t fly, and I kept hoping each spider I encountered would talk, à la “Charlotte’s Web.”
Pop-up books were endlessly fascinating, and I’d work the mechanisms over and over until the paper was practically worn through. Being able to conjure up a three-dimensional world just by pulling a tab never got old, and I still find it mesmerizing — even though I know how to make them.
Second only to reading was my love of crafting. I grew up when home economics classes were a big part of junior high curriculum and practically every home had a sewing machine. My catalog included every crafting cliché: hand-sewn aprons, needlepoint pillows, crewel embroidery doorstops, knitted afghan squares, decoupaged recipe card boxes and the always-popular macrame jute plant holders. In college I majored in English and read Shakespeare and Milton and Zora Neale Hurston. My crafting took a temporary back seat to my studies, but my sewing machine was never far away.
Years later, in that first bookbinding class I should have known this convergence would have a profound effect. I realized I could create any type of book I wanted, from a simple blank journal to an elaborately illustrated storybook. I continued to take classes and learn techniques on my own, ultimately designing books and bindings.
As I learned more complicated traditional bindings, I also gravitated toward unorthodox materials such as 19th century photographs, old quilts, cereal boxes and vintage record albums. My fascination with these materials was really born from books. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books made me crazy for worn, faded quilts, calico fabric and rough, unbleached cotton and linen that to this day inform my work. I cannot go to a flea market or thrift store without pawing through every basket of vintage linens, and I have a vast collection of 19th century tin types, carte de visite photographs and cabinet cards that inevitably become book covers or embellishments.
Reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and imagining scenes of the girls sewing with their mother fueled my love of hand-sewing and embroidery. In fact, sewing the binding is my favorite part of a book’s construction — there is something about the cadence I find meditative and calming.
Some of these influences show up in my first book, “Re-Bound: Creating Handmade Books From Recycled and Repurposed Materials” (Quarry Books, 2009). A two-sided sketchbook uses cabinet cards for covers and the spine and a pretty Victorian ribbon for a closure; in my imagination I see a modern-day March sister filling it with drawings and poems while at a neighborhood cafe.
More recently, Barbara Hodgson’s books “Trading in Memories: Travels Through a Scavenger’s Favorite Places” and “Italy Out of Hand: A Capricious Tour” had me making travel journals like a woman possessed, adding tickets, photographs, food wrappers and my sketches to the pages. The author’s love of tattered relics of a city’s past resonated with me; finding a hand-written letter or a worn goatskin glove from another century literally makes my heart skip a beat. In “Re-Bound” a travel journal made from vintage game board covers has pockets made from cookie wrappers, a sketch of the Duomo of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and a scrap of gauze that came from a beautifully tied package in Santorini. Its copious pockets and hiding places are perfect for scroungers and ephemera hoarders.
My second book, “Adventures in Bookbinding: Handcrafting Mixed-Media Books,” (Quarry Books, 2011) features more journals with literary legacies. A few are hand-stitched and made from earthy, coarse linen that tap into my “Little House on the Prairie” aesthetic.
In “Adventures,” a decoupage food and wine journal came about as a direct result of reading “My Life in France,” the Julia Child memoir. I didn’t want that book to end, but when it did I was inspired to create something that would house not only recipes but musings on favorite meals, restaurants and dinner parties hosted and attended. The covers are laminated with vintage cookbook pages that feature such Julia-era recipes as veloute sauce and cheese fondue.
When people look at my handmade books there’s often an immediate connection — sometimes to familiar objects like a paint-by-numbers canvas or a relic from the past, like a tin type. But more often people connect with what’s inside — drawings, text, or even flotsam like tickets, torn magazine pages or fabric scraps.
A couple of months ago I visited a friend, a talented artist and writer to whom I’ve given many blank books over the years. I noticed some notebooks I’d given her recently were sitting on a side table, already written in. She then led me around her house, showing me every book I had made her. Each was filled with sketches, project ideas, lists, sticky notes and bookmarks. Some were a little dusty, but I didn’t care. They had taken on an energy they didn’t have when the pages were bare.
A handmade book’s life starts when it is bound and the pages are blank. They reconnect me with that feeling I had decades ago when books transported me to another place. I am thankful they still do.
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