I had the great fortune to be one of 6 students at this year’s “Old Ways of Making Books” workshop in Santa, Idaho. The project was to make a Gothic or Romanesque-style book (11th – 17th Century) from raw materials, including paper, wooden boards, thread, leather, tools, brass clasps and hinges. This 14-day class rocked my world in so many ways! It takes a lot of dedication to craft to have fun at this workshop, and I loved it.
I met Jim Croft at a bookbinding event in 2015, and he gave me a flier for the workshops he does at his home each Summer. Jim is so unique and smart and friendly, I think everyone who meets him must like him. That, in combination with his lifetime of studying books and his interesting, low-tech approach to bookbinding and binding tools, made this a must-do pilgrimage for me. I have to tell you that the remote off-grid component and humanure composting (which I also practice) sealed the deal. I hadn’t met other bookbinders who live the way I do; I was feeling really out of place at the event we were attending. Being ‘way out West’ was another bonus for me. I had to wait 2 years to make it happen, but in late June 2017 I drove my little 1985 Toyota truck across Washington State, loaded up with camping gear, bookbinding tools, a solar shower, an axe and a hula-hoop. What more does a girl need?
Finally arriving at the homestead, I was greeted by Melody in the garden. Melody is an amazing spirit; gracious, helpful and supportive towards all. She made sure we were well fed, clean and comfortable for the entire 14 days, as well as sharing her herbal knowledge, amazing fiber art and drawings. This homestead is completely off-grid, with solar hot water and power, wood for cooking. These guys are so hardcore that they don’t even use propane. I was very inspired! I live a ‘modern primitive’ rustic lifestyle, but I do have a tiny fridge and propane cooking in the Summer, also wireless internet in my converted bus-home.
I felt really comfortable at Pokey Creek, and the city folks among us also did just fine. It’s beautiful, peaceful and green. The loudest thing was the neighborhood ravens; a generator did run for a few days while we were beating fiber and making paper, but there was absolutely no cellphone signal or internet, which was a nice break, even for me, a rural artist who’s not exactly living the fast life. Our “google” became the road atlas in the living room and the extensive library in the house. Jim and Melody both love to share their amazing books. The photo below shows the house and shop with the large parchment skin in process (in the lower corner). Inside is an interesting, homey labyrinth. There are tons of photos of this place out there in internet-land, if you want to see more. I was saving my camera battery, so I didn’t take many landscape shots.
For the first few days, two main things were happening: making paper sheets, and tanning leather. Everyone rotated through different steps and projects. For our books, the focus was really this: make as much paper as possible! I have to mention here that Jim is an “Extreme Recycler”. Nothing gets thrown away. Our fiber: recycled cotton futon stuffing, cotton denim from old jeans (no spandex or synthetics), cotton blotter paper, abaca and hemp fibers. We spent 5 days making just over 500 sheets of paper (529 sheets, 6 people and a mechanical beater). This is the essence of “slow art” (maybe without the motor) and it was pretty fun, at least for me. I will keep buying my nice smooth papers for drawing and coloring with pen & ink, but I am inspired to make some paper now, and to visit and support more hand paper-makers. The photos below show the pulp tub, Jim’s amazing paper mold, making spurs (stacks), loft drying and some of our finished, loft dried pieces. We also learned about sizing and burnishing.
Next step: thread! We used dry, whole flax plants from the garden, but also tried spinning some commercially made raw flax. The dried plants were soaked in water, then we used heckles and other hand-tools to beat and separate the fibers, comb them out and then spin them into thread on drop-spindles. I’ve spun a lot of wool this way and found flax to be frustratingly different. I tried spinning the flax and also some nettle, but in the end I bought some nice flax thread made by Melody, who spins it on a foot-powered, larger spinning wheel for more consistency and smoothness, but still with a hand-made vibe. Stitching my book with this thread was no problem and made me feel happy, even if my classmates maybe thought I was cheating on this part.
Oh yeah, while the paper was being made and the thread was being spun and the leather was being processed, we also learned some methodology around tool sharpening, then went crazy carving bone & wood. In my 20’s I spent a lot of time carving with hand tools, so I was happy to rediscover this passion that I had set aside for many years. Jim cooks deer and elk bones so they are better to carve and use as tools. He doesn’t split them, but he does cut up them with saws. I made 3 nice bone tools, two custom wood-handled awls and also a wooden ‘kraut press’ with Rocky Mountain Maple. I got sort of obsessed with the carving and bought extra bones to carve at home. These projects were a way for us to warm up our carving & tool sharpening muscles, to prepare for making book covers with wood, as well as hand-cutting and shaping brass clasps & hinges. Let me reiterate that everything here was done with hand-tools and muscle. I got some nice blisters, especially working with the brass.
Once the paper was dry and ready to divvy up, we had to decide what size book to make and then start on the wooden covers. Old fashioned hand-planers, hewing hatchets, rasps/files, and sandpaper were the tools of choice once again. Four people decided on an “Octavo” which means folding each sheet 3 times for a smaller, but fatter book. One person chose a “Quarto” which involves 2 folds, a medium-size book. I chose the “Folio” which is only one fold, for a large sketch-book size, untrimmed with heavily deckled edges. When you work so hard for your paper, none of it is wasted, there are no “offcuts.” For this book I chose the thickest sheets of paper from my pile, since this was intended to be sort of a ‘practice’ book, and kept the best (thinnest) sheets to share with a couple of friends.
Fold the paper, bone it, press it, stitch the pages together on a frame. Cut the wooden cover pieces mostly to size, carve the spine edge down to create a shoulder for the paper to fit up against….this takes a while to get right, so everything fits. I didn’t get it perfect, but it will be better next time. Then, cut brass clasps, hinges, and hasps, maybe carve a bone button, or whatever your chosen design involves, carve insets for the clasps in the wood, if you like, and carefully drill holes for the linen cords that hold it all together. Most of us used Sycamore boards and they are quite beautiful, quarter-sawn and showing off the medullary rays in the wood. I heavily sanded and then oiled mine with Jim’s mix of Pine pitch, beeswax and linseed oil. The spine is pasted and boned down and lined with linen, maybe some headbands stitched on each end. I did mine with live Indigo dyed linen. The cords are threaded in and the tension has to be just right. They are then pegged in – we carefully carved our own wooden pegs, of course – and pasted. Hammer in the closing hardware. Ideally, this is all fairly precision work, a carefully engineered, moving-but-sturdy piece of art. I found it immensely satisfying, but it’s very slow. Once the clasps are on and functioning, the outside of the spine can be covered with leather…sort of the last step.
Another aspect of this class involved tanning and smoking leather, specifically deer skin, so we had an ‘egg tanned’ and smoked buckskin to use for this. We sat around a small, dusty fire one night watching the skin turn golden and light grey. I took a piece of this leather for my book, but once I was home the smoky skin was making my entire studio smell like Idaho, and I couldn’t bear to put paste on it. My studio continues to reek like deerskin and woodsmoke, taking me back to that time. I decided to not rush while I was at the class, also I couldn’t find my paring knife, so I ended up putting leather on my book back at home, one week later.
Overall, the first week or so we had ‘demos’ and sort of stayed together as a class, even though there were many projects happening simultaneously. Once we started our books, though, everything got sort of chaotic as each person worked at a different speed and had different styles and priorities. We ended up relying on each other a lot to fill in the blanks, if we had missed a demo or just couldn’t remember something. Sometimes Jim is hard to corral…usually, whoever is loudest or most persistent gets his attention. I’m pretty self-directed and kept looking at my fellow classmates’ books or at some of Jim’s many examples for direction.
Luckily, most of us were experienced book makers and 3 were professional book and paper conservators, and everyone was helping each other. Only one person was really struggling to understand the steps and keep up. I would recommend this class to people who have a pretty serious commitment to bookbinding, but not so much to a beginner, even though it’s open to ‘all experience levels’. Understanding the anatomy and terminology of books and having experience paring and doing case-bindings with leather was extremely helpful, as was my carving history.
I feel great about the work I did there, which was truly non-stop during the daylight hours. However, I would also recommend setting aside what you think you know and being open to the experience. My understanding of paper, tools, books and how/why they are put together has deepened in ways I can’t even explain yet. I plan to go back there and study some more. And let me just say, there were no boots; it was hot! I barely wore shoes. And it was dirty work over long days, but there was music; Melody plays piano in the house, Shannon and Rachel sang, Jim played the trombone. We had a visitor with a banjo and a birthday serenade with accordion and trombone.
Each of my fellow classmates has a very different story to tell, and I hope they do. This was my experience. I make books full-time and employ lot of different binding styles, but all of my future work will be heavily influenced by what I learned at Old Ways.