MAKING BOOKS BY HAND, PART II: THEORY OF PRACTICE // Emily Larned

01 Dec 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In an earlier post, I wrote about the experience of binding a difficult edition. In my struggle, I was in a state of acute attention, but also worry and fuss. 

Now the bookbinding task is quite different: 200 copies of a link stitch, 6 signature, 144 page, softcover binding. This is the second printing I have made of this book, which documents 40 years of Bloodroot, a feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore in Bridgeport, CT. Years before this, I’ve sewn six or seven hundred zines with this multi-signature binding. With some copy soon I will be binding this style for the thousandth time. Happily, there’s no worry or fuss. But there’s also much less attention.

The task for today is paying attention. 

In a recent post, India Johnson wrote: “intensive craft training can provide us with the ability to articulate the workings of embodied cognition. It allows us to assert, from the authority of our own experiences, that how things are made matters—that meaning does not exist separately from the means of production. This is especially relevant for book artists with a foot in [the] contemporary art world, who may need to contextualize their craft practice for an audience in that sphere.”

As an artist, designer, printer, binder, and publisher “with a foot in [the] contemporary art world,” handwork is very important to me, a defining characteristic of my work. It is, in some way, always part of the subject: part of the content. But in this particular instance, handwork is also written into the very book I’m making. 

In her essay “On Persistence and Feminism,” Selma Miriam, the founder of Bloodroot, writes:

“For sustenance, for the sacred in today’s world, modern women may be able to find resources in traditional women’s work. These forms of labor use very simple technologies which require patience and a lifetime of study. In our industrialized world there are still a few places for a gatherer of wild herbs to go, and there are still basketmakers. Some women learn to be potters, some tend gardens and there has been a return to spinning and weaving. And women have always been knitters.” 

And she also writes:

“We want to lead our lives so that what we make of what we find on earth is magic. The way to find it is in the ritual of patiently doing, over and over, what is required of the work. Frequently a knitter is asked, “How long does it take to do that?” though that question never arises in regard to jogging, movie-going, or mall shopping.” 

So here I am: patiently doing, over and over, what is required.

I’m writing during an afternoon of sewing twelve copies: words tangled up in the making.

1. 

I stitch in and out of the present. What’s for dinner. Next summer’s plans. As with meditation, I redirect focus: back to my hands, back to this book. Unlike David Pye’s “crafstmanship of risk,” the heightened attention which I feel whenever there’s glue, a non-adhesive sewn binding has an ease and a spaciousness to it. It’s portable; I bind in lots of places that aren’t the studio. In the passenger seat on a long drive, crosslegged in my living room; on a train; at my desk at work during office hours. Now at the dining room table with the laptop open, a cup of tea, the cat sleeping on the tea towel, the late afternoon sun angling in, the day after a holiday. Often when I’m sewing I keep a notebook at hand to jot down what is loosened in my mind by my hands. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks or podcasts or the radio; other times music. This afternoon I’m sitting with the work, typing into the laptop when a thought strikes me.

2.

In this binding, what comes before is foundational for what comes next. The sixth signature is the first to be sewn, and it is supported by a single long stitch through the back softcover. Each signature is hooked into the signature before it, moving from the back of the book forward to the front cover. One long thread, eight times the height of the book, unites it.

The rhythm is inside, outside, inside, outside.

But Inside is always creeping along the gutter. And Outside is a quick dip down, then back up and in.

A finished book has many openings, but in this phase of its development I only visit the center of each signature. 

Due to the uncut folded sheets, most openings remain inaccessible until they are chopped free by the guillotine.

3.

I think of:

The hand at the heart of craft

Craft as spiritual practice 

Craft as socially engaged art 

Craft as performance 

And these ideas resonate within as I work.

4.

I am reminded of the enormous linked sewn bindings of Margot Ecke, where the book becomes an impossibly serpentine object. I imagine all 400 of the books from these two printings sewn together. I search for an image of Ecke’s book, fruitlessly, online. 

I come back to my own sewing.

5.

A stitching together, a binding, a fastening, a linking: 

“Old English bindan ‘to tie up with bonds’ (literally and figuratively), also ‘to make captive; to cover with dressings and bandages’ (class III strong verb; past tense band, past participle bunden), from Proto-Germanic bindanan (source also of Old Saxon bindan, Old Norse and Old Frisian binda, Old High German binten ‘to bind,’ German binden, Gothic bindan), from PIE root bhendh- ‘to bind.’ Of books, from c. 1400. Intransitive sense of ‘stick together, cohere’ is from 1670s.”

-Etymonline

This search also turns up that the root of the word “religion” is also to bind: from the Latin religare.

6.

Small problems:

A knot, which is more often than not the thread doubling up onto itself, and tightening.

The tail tangling up in the sewing thread, the past wanting to be carried into the future.

An errant hole. 

A broken strand.

7.

The hands have their haptic knowing, separate from sight. If a signature is too light (a missing folio), or the thread too tight (a snag), the hands realize this is so before the eyes.

8.

Haptic from the Greek haptikós: touching; but also to grasp, to perceive.

9.

Making visible progress: 

one signature stacking on top of another; one sewn book stacked upon another.

10.

This binding is as much a part of making the book as any other part, but its context, so entangled with life, becomes invisible in the finished object.

Somehow designing the book while also cooking soup was a more focused task. Perhaps because the eyes are trained always on the screen and the mind on the work. While there may be a secondary simultaneous background activity, the act of writing or designing requires a full intellectual attention that sewing does not.

The binding is so much a part of other things (the cat is hungry, pacing now under my nose, tail lashing) in a way that the computer work (lit screen, focus) and the Riso printing (the Riso does most of the work, but I hover over it, watching expectantly, waiting for the inevitable) never is. Is it because I am not challenged enough to be wholly absorbed by sewing, so my attention wanders? While sewing, I rarely transcend into that state of flow (so aptly described by Csikszentmihalyi) that I experience in writing or designing or printing.

I think of the words of Thomas A. Clark (Moschatel Press) as quoted by Simon Cutts: “Self-publishing can constitute not a vanity, but a freedom. . . the means can become creative. Everything can be exact but also light, since production is a way of life, an activity rather than an occasion.”

I sense that people who handle copies of this book notice the care and attention embedded within, including the time accrued in the binding.

But that doesn’t mean that they see the cat, the dining room table: production as a way of life. 

That part, the lived experience of the making, becomes invisible in most anything we make. 

Yet to us, the makers, it is essential.

11.

I think of Virgina Woolf, typesetting and binding as a respite from the fatiguing intellectual labor of writing. I think of the entire practice of bookmaking / publishing as an agricultural process: active periods of sustained attention, hard labor, focus, and vigor; the celebration of the harvest (that first completed copy that nearly vibrates with exhilaration). And then: the slower, relaxed, and rather fallow-feeling periods: distributing type, sewing the three-hundred-eighty-sixth copy in the edition, shipping orders: processes necessary to sustain the work, but with rare opportunities for flow. These are activities in a state less alive: that “cotton wool” feeling of non-being Woolf describes. I try to remind myself that all of these parts are integral to the process: you can’t eliminate them and have the rest. I relax into large edition binding, enjoy it. 

12.

The timed lights flick on; the tea transubstantiates to wine; the unsewn stack diminishes, the sewn stack grows.

But there’s been too much googling, too much being reminded of what is not here in front of me.

I have loads more to sew, and to notice. 

I’ll try again, with Part III coming soon.


Works Cited

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly.  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Cutts, Simon. Some Forms of Availability, 66.

Miriam, Selma. “On Persistence and Feminism,” Our daily lives have to be a satisfaction in themselves,107-108.

Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship, also discussed here.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. First found here in a New York Times review of the book.


Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993.  She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), and Associate Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut.


Comments

  • 04 Dec 2018 7:48 AM | Inge Bruggeman
    Such a thoughtful description on the act of craft, labor, making.
    Link  •  Reply
    • 04 Dec 2018 11:17 AM | Emily Larned
      Thank you, Inge!
      Link  •  Reply
  • 09 Dec 2018 8:21 AM | Dean Dass
    Ms. Larned's book theory post is so beautiful, really amazing, I hope to cut and paste it for all my students and friends. Just as the best theory of poetry is a poem, so this theory post makes concrete, gives form to, the ideas being discussed. Isn't that a good definition of artist's books as such? At the University of Virginia almost all of our students are young women who wish to explore exactly the issues Ms. Larned talks about. Craft as feminist critique is a wonderful and vital genre today. And in general, I find a strong and even renewed desire on the part of undergraduates to do something real, with their hands, where they can say concretely they have touched materials and made something. They don’t just want to learn about the conceptual artist’s book from the ‘60s. They want to learn how to sew a book.
    Link  •  Reply
    • 02 Jan 2019 3:51 PM | Emily Larned
      Thank you so much for this thoughtful and generous contribution, Dean. Because of it, I am now considering if I should make this small immediate piece of writing more thoroughly by hand . . .
      Link  •  Reply

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