Apparently it’s National Stationery Week. I’ve never been very good at keeping track of such things. Truth be told, I’m probably not the target audience as I’m a bit too set in my stationery ways: my trusty fountain pens, J. Herbin ink (bottled, of course), 5B pencils (yes, super soft) and a Staedtler eraser. Despite my oblivion of National Stationery Week though I have actually been busy with stationery matters this week. I’ve been rustling up some notebooks.
I must have spent a fortune on notebooks in my life. Exercise books for university and random evening courses, notebooks for recipes, log books for the gardening and endless writing pads for creative scribbling. Recently though I found myself wondering, how hard can it be to make them myself? Not necessarily heavy duty journals that will last for decades but work-a-day ones that are fit-for-purpose and vaguely attractive. And once I had entertained the idea of making my own notebooks, I naturally asked myself to what extent I might make them out of bits and bobs I have lying around and paper and cardboard that is otherwise destined for the recycling bin?
So on a grey Saturday I took myself off to a workshop at St Bride’s Foundation. Although it sounds like some draconian Irish establishment, it is actually one of the many idiosyncratic organisations in the UK that preserve the past not by setting it in aspic but by keeping skills and know-how alive. Based just off Fleet Street, the historic centre of newspaper publishing in Britain, it is an amazing library of printing skills as well as a venue for workshops in associated crafts.
Our tutor Joe took us through the steps to turn sheets of paper and cardboard into a multi-signature notebook. It involved intense concentration, careful measuring, cutting, stitching, gluing, much squinting to align lines as straight as possible, frenzied wiping of fingers to avoid getting glue on our books… It was utterly exhausting, physically and mentally, but deeply satisfying to leave with a bound notebook and the know-how to make more. As I enjoyed the process, especially the stitching (no surprise there!), so much, I booked a place on a follow-up workshop on Coptic binding: the chain stitching used to bind spineless books.
That was a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve been stashing cardboard from deliveries, reinforced envelopes and even boxes of cat food and storing them safely along with sheets carefully torn out of old magazines and unsolicited catalogues that no amount of unsubscribing seems to put a stop to.
To practise my new “old skill”, I aimed to make a few smartish notebooks out of waste materials and without spending a fortune on tools. I invested in a bone folder and a safety ruler, and in due course a cutting mat. Other tools came from my craft drawer or sewing box. My only indulgence was to buy heavier paper than my normal ream of printing paper as I hate writing on sheets that are like blotting paper.
The results have been varied and interesting. I’m working out what cardboard is and isn’t suitable or rather how sub-optimal cardboard can be modified to make it suitable; how much or how little glue to use; and how tight to make my kettle stitches for an even finish…
Most of all though, I’ve felt an amazing amount of respect and gratitude for the human industry that went into producing books down the ages. I am the product of parents who believed in reading for learning, expanding horizons and pleasure. They too were the beneficiaries of generations of people who believed in literacy, education and libraries. Learning the basics of bookbinding has given me a wonderful insight into what effort went into creating a single bound volume before the advent of glue-bound paperbacks in the 19th century. This craft may keep my desk stocked with notebooks but it has also made me appreciate how we owe near universal literacy in our society in part to generations of bookbinders whose skill and industry helped take books out of monasteries and the houses of the elite and make them available to the masses through libraries, schools, friendly societies and institutes of learning.
At this time in the UK many libraries and community colleges are closing or offering limited services due to massive public spending cuts. I suspect the story is similar in other countries too. I know that these days it is relatively easy and cheap to access books via Amazon or with a few clicks in the form of an e-book. Similarly, there are many free tutorials available on YouTube and such like. I’m aware we are all watching the pennies but I would encourage all of us not to forget libraries, community colleges and quirky educational establishments like St Bride’s Foundation. If we don’t use these wonderful resources, which owe much of their existence to the skills of bookbinders and the vision of advocates of universal literacy and education, we will lose them!