I Am Not a Bookbinder

For the last several years I have been making handcrafted books for sale. But I am an imposter. Let me tell you my crafter story.

I was a Painting and Drawing major at Philadelphia College of Art in the late 70’s to early 80’s. I earned my BFA but I left college not confident, energized and inspired but confused, exhausted and dispirited. What would I do with a degree in fine art painting and drawing? I had no idea.

It took years to re-orient myself as an artist, to free myself from head games, and to find what art I would do.

I promptly married my high school/art school sweetheart and we soon began a family. Painting was entirely put aside, and time and space for art was back-burnered.

Back to PCA. Among the long hours of studio classes there were the required electives. One semester I chose a bookbinding class. Courses outside of the painting department were refreshingly practical and un-mysterious. I learned a lot in that one-semester class. I still have all my notes. I also still have all the books I made.

Counterintuitively, the books made of the flimsiest-seeming materials have endured best. The Japanese bindings, made entirely of paper and string, are still perfectly functional and intact after 30+ years. They have folded rice paper pages and pastel paper covers, with just a tiny bit of glue on the page corners, sewn together with embroidery thread. Some had good drawing paper rather than rice paper inside.

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When our youngest was a tween, I began making myself a few Japanese bindings. This is just about the simplest kind of book to make. If you get good at precise measurements, anyone can make a good Japanese binding. I soon found myself turning out bunches of these. To me, the driving force was what I could do on the covers.

I could do anything! Mostly I collaged. I quickly amassed a paper scraps Cave of Wonders. Guided mostly by serendipity, I designed. On some covers I framed small original watercolors by my husband. I had a eureka: what if I made sketchbooks for artists?

I started applying for juried craft shows and was amazed they let me in. Fast forward a couple years. I do about ten to fifteen events per year. Not a lot really but enough for me just now. Until this year, of course, which will be a wash.

My work meets with mostly positive reactions. I have nice feedback at my table. I do pretty well at shows. I have been noticed by gallery shop owners a couple of times, who have stocked my books.

I have a bit of a niche: I’m usually the only book purveyor at a typical craft show, and even if not, I’m making something different than the other bookbinder(s) there. A search of etsy bookbinders will also point out the difference. As far as I can tell, there is really no one else making precisely what I make.

Many bookbinders, far more professional than I, offer Japanese-binding books. This is a traditional type of book going back hundreds of years. The beauty of the Japanese binding book is its simplicity and proportion. They can be sublime.

The focus of my book is the cover design. My focus is not a straight-up pretty example of the traditional ancient book, but a book for practical use. I’m making sketchbooks and blank journals for artists and writers. They are handy and portable. They are to be used, to acquire a lived-with patina, to get bunged up corners; yet to hold together, to contain all the good stuff that happens on their pages. A book I make is to be a repository and a record of an era in the life of its owner.

Informed by the different focus of my book, I have taken some license with the traditional form of the Japanese binding. I listened to one of my students and stopped folding the pages; it’s a waste of paper surface. I make most books thicker than traditional. I use non-traditional papers: watercolor, pastel, up-cycled, anything. I messed with the proportions of the sewn binding for a long time but I have recently returned to more traditional measurements.

I have used the cover of my books as a blank canvas, a place to express any two-dimensional experiment I like. My designs are necessarily my own and different than what someone else would design. The only restriction on my design is that it must be sturdy enough to withstand handling.

Here I have sometimes failed. In my zeal to playfully express, I now believe I have sent a lot of books out there whose covers may not have endured too well. (Though I have no worries for the books themselves.)

I have seen evidence of this a couple of times. It really shook me. It made me question my legitimacy as a craftsperson. I mean, who am I to represent myself as a bookbinder? Aren’t I just a hobbyist? Am I an imposter? As a craftsperson I wrestled with worthlessness and almost gave it up.

At the same time I resented being shown. At one point it was rather thrown in my face, and I was embarrassed. Ashamed, but I lashed out inwardly. Couldn’t you see what you bought, I thought, a thing made of paper and glue? Do you subject the other art and craft you own to the same kind of handling? Did you run it through the garbage disposal?

Though I resented the suggestion that my work wasn’t good enough, after awhile I knew I had to fix it. It drove me to improve my craftsmanship.

So for the last couple of years I have been refining my cover designs so that they are more functional, meaning that they really will stand up to normal use. I use thinner elements in the collages, I make sure to glue securely, and I press those glued covers for quite a long time. In addition, I often add a heavier paper guard or border which might protect the image design.

I constantly question my work. I cannot be objective. What does my work look like to someone else? Professional or too crafty? Legit or hobbyist? That sweet spot between professional-looking and allowing for the sorts of qualities acceptable for handmade crafts is not an exact science. That proof that one of my book covers didn’t hold up shook me to the core and I didn’t have a community of fellow binders to sound out about it. Because I am not a professional bookbinder— I took one elective in college!

What am I then?

See the hopeful conclusion to this ramble in my next post.

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