My fascination with books as objects has been with me as long as I can remember: the smooth of the cover, the unsplit spine, the perfection of the edges and corners, the way they look lined up along a bookcase, the promise of a whole world contained within them (often, I prefer the unread promise to the experience of reading itself).
My fascination with the process of bookbinding came much later, during a short break in Dublin. As we walked through the dimmed rooms of Trinity College’s visitor exhibition, towards the Book of Kells, I was drawn more and more to the engineering of this famous manuscript. Strange to think, it had never struck me before that this craft has had such influence over me throughout my life. A few days later, we visited the Chester Beatty Library and I was, once again, drawn to the collection of bindings. I was hooked.
So, it has been in the back of mind for some time to try my hand at bookbinding. Sadly, it is not the kind of evening class you find at every local college and, besides, I’ve been occupied by much less creative study in recent years. This year, though, I was determined to get my hands on a ticket to one of the three hour courses run each year at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
I am not naturally “crafty” and my artistic skills have always left a great deal to be desired. But after three hours with Cheltenham based bookbinder and book conservator, Sue Crossley, I came away with a beautiful hand bound notebook, an overwhelming sense of achievement and an even fiercer fascination with bookbinding than I’d had before.
The following day, I booked a full day workshop at Sue’s Cheltenham studio: a former bookshop, appropriately. “Bring lunch,” she told me on the phone, “and bring an extra Mars bar. It’ll be a long, hard day.” She was right, but it was also a wonderful day. We arrived at 9am – four bookbinding novices – and got to work, observing Sue as she took us through each step to create our own journals in the limp vellum style, and described the history of the craft, and then throwing ourselves in to it. Sue uses high quality materials for her books: super soft, natural grained goatskin and heavy 140gsm cotton rag mould-made paper. We stroked each, cooing over them.
The cutting and folding of the paper, the stitching of the pages and the head and end bands, the marking out and punching of holes in the leather: it was almost meditative. The stitching of the headband, in particular, took considerable patience and acute concentration. And whilst I look at it now and notice its imperfections, it is my favourite element of the finished book, the greatest part of my achievement.
At 5.30pm, I left the studio, delighted with the final book. Back aching, thumb sore, eyes crossed, but delighted.
Aren’t they beautiful? (The green book was made at the Literature Festival, the terracotta book during the full day workshop.) Now… What should go in them…?!
For more information about Sue Crossley’s bookbinding workshops (which I highly recommend!), visit – http://www.thegreenwoodgallery.co.uk/index.html