Category Archives: Bookbinding

A Trip to the Tannery

Every time I go to J Hewit & Sons, my favourite bookbinding supplier, I feel the overwhelming desire to bring a camera, tripod, and a day’s free time. I don’t think I will ever tire of taking pictures there.

I could take the “industrial site” type pictures of all of the machinery they use to dye leathers, or the “variety of stuff” pictures of the rolls and rolls of finished hides, or the “run down melancholy” shots of the light from the dusty windows falling on the worn boards of the upper floor. I’d photograph the staff, who always treat me so well, if it wouldn’t embarrass them.

But I don’t, because I am there to buy. I did take a few shots of the pale leathers they had piled on the Low Value Shelf upstairs.

Edges of a stack of pale goatskin


Taken 7 April 2006

The same grained goatskin, with the marks of the stretching clips still visible.


Taken 7 April 2006

Pale calfskin, un-grained.


Taken 7 April 2006

Maybe I can find a market for a feature article on the company – its history, its processes, its business. I’d love to do it. I’d love to have the excuse!

The Second Convention

Just back from the Society of Bookbinders biennial convention in Bath. Here are some things I learned there, in roughly chronological order:

  1. Conservators are not conservationists.
  2. The history and decoration of Russia leather.
  3. Chicken feet have much more potential than I ever realised.
  4. Boxmaking.
  5. Don’t bother to make a relevant box for a binding competition unless it will definitely be judged and shown.
  6. Sewn boards binding.
  7. The value of an unexpected lunch partner, and why so many people are fond of Paul Delrue.
  8. Bradel binding.
  9. I really do like the other members of the Scottish region of the Society of Bookbinders.
  10. People value the Bookweb for its confessional side as well as its instructional side.
  11. Never get into a scar competition with someone who was in a car accident. Not even with my burn scars.
  12. When I drink, I talk faster. When some of the people I drink with drink, they think slower. Eventually, communication stops.
  13. Sometimes it doesn’t stop soon enough.
  14. I cannot be an apprentice or have a single mentor at this stage in my binding life.
  15. Another form of onlaying.
  16. Tini Miura would make a magnificent arm-wrestler, if she weren’t so kind.
  17. Ways to alter a bone folder and a paring knife.
  18. I can walk through shoulder-high blackberry bushes because I am able to goose-step like Basil Fawlty.
  19. I want to do more botanical onlay bindings.
  20. Herons make a very peculiar sound when they’re angry.
  21. How to use a slightly punctured plastic bag, a hair rubber band, and a disposable paper bath mat to wick the water from a dripping tap silently down the plughole.
  22. People will buy pretty much anything for a tenner from the back of a white van.
  23. Never be intimidated by someone simply because she seems talented, confident and beautiful. She probably doesn’t realise she is all of these things.
  24. You meet colleagues in the darndest places.
  25. Motor racing has the potential to be interesting, even if it doesn’t interest me.

Back from Worldcon

Martin posted a blog entry from our hotel room, in the middle of our attendance at Worldcon. I agree with everything he said. The con was exhausting, busy, and an intense family experience. Both kids wigged out from time to time, but also had some really good moments. I saw people from work, from our St Andrews days, and from previous social groups here in Edinburgh. And like Martin, I only made it to one event – in my case, an informal discussion on the future of the book, both as a concept and as a physical object. It was a great discussion, with plenty of debate and no actual conclusions. I wonder whether I would have enjoyed all the programme events I marked out and subsequently missed as much (I doubt it).

But I wasn’t just at the con as an attendee and a parent. I was also there as a bookbinder, and it was the culmination of three very intense weeks in that world for me.

As I noted in a previous entry, I spent a fortnight doing the binds for the Guests of Honour. This was more difficult than I expected. Not only did it take longer (of course – everything always takes longer than you expect it will), but it was also more emotionally challenging than anticipated. Unlike at work, I had no human contact to speak of. I found myself intensely lonely at times. I also found that when things went wrong, I was less able to keep a positive outlook and to develop alternative solutions to problems that arose.

Then we had a houseguest. Liza Groen Trombi, to whom I hadn’t even spoken for nearly fifteen years, came to stay with us for a weekend. We had been close in middle and high school, but gone our separate ways after that – me to Scotland, her to singing in a band, managing restaurants, and finally working as an editor for Locus. My instinct, when we got back in touch, was that I would like her again, and I invited her to stay when she was coming over for Worldcon. I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. We spent the entire weekend chatting, and I could easily have spent a week or two more listening to her stories and telling a few of my own. She was patient about the fact that I was still binding (and gave very balanced feedback when things went badly). We rode bikes out to Craigmillar Castle, visited Mary King’s Close, drank whisky, and laughed a lot.

And, finally, the Sutherlands went to Worldcon. I was doing two things at once, as a binder. First off, I was co-ordinating the bindings to go to the Guests of Honour. Most of this involved being ready to meet the Publications manager, Steve Cooper, when he had gaps in his schedule and bindings needed signatures put in, or needed to be delivered to recipients. I got to see a lot of the Secure Storage area at the convention during this phase of things. At the same time, I was entered in the Art Show, hoping to sell some of my bindings.

I had four items entered: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Hobbit, Frankenstein, and a copy of the Worldcon Souvenir Book. And throughout the convention, I fretted. I went back and back to the art show, checking to see if anyone bid. I worried every time someone had moved a binding. I fussed at Martin (who has the patience of a saint for not throttling me!), at Liza (ditto), and at the boyfriend of the Art Show director, Pat (see previous comments). Two items got bids – the Hobbit and Frankenstein.

In the meantime, on of the Guests of Honour – Jane Yolen – had to go home early for family medical reasons. We arranged a swift presentation to her, and I got a chance to see her reaction to my book. She seemed to like it. (I will post photos of the presentation when I get them).

Thus matters stood this morning. Due to some significant sleep disruptions (thanks, Fi!), my memories of today are best summarised in list form.

  1. Alex and I, along with much of the Young Adult Fan Activities group, dressed up in masks and goggles and assaulted a panel on the Future of Fandom with inflatable weapons. The point was to remind attendees what the future of fandom really looks like, and perhaps to have a bit of fun on the side. Don’t pity the panel too much – they were forewarned, and forearmed with water pistols.
  2. Neither unsold binding sold during the after-auction sales. I collected them and left the Art Show. Then I rang Steve, the Publications manager, who immediately offered to buy the Souvenir Book binding. I was delighted, not only because I wanted to sell it, but because I wanted him to have it. After all the work he’d done on the book, I reckoned he would like something special. I understand he has all editions of Splitting Infinity now.
  3. The person who bought the Hobbit binding – Pat, who had been a friendly face throughout the con – asked me to sign it as the bookbinder. He then tracked down Alan Lee, the illustrator of that edition (and the designer who created the look for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films), and got him to sign the book while I was there. So I got to meet Alan Lee, an artist whom I respect greatly, not just because he does beautiful work, but also because he is so single-minded about doing it. We talked a bit about the binding, and exchanged email addresses. I even got a photo, with Fi in as well:
  4. During the closing ceremony for the convention, the co-chairs not only showed the entire audience one of my bindings, they incited them to a round of applause (mostly puzzled, admittedly) for me for doing them.
  5. I said goodbye to Liza – the only relatively down moment of the day. I miss her already.

Now I get to go back to real life. It’s been a good time, rather like being tossed up and down in a blanket while slightly drunk. In other words, I’ve been to Worldcon.

It’s Alive!

After endless promises and 404 messages, the Evilrooster Bindery has its own sales and display site. Thanks to Martin’s Movable Type wizardry, I can now post photos and descriptions of my bindings in a more customer-oriented site than the Bookweb. (Not that the Bookweb will go away – but I felt the need to differentiate between the face I present to people who might like to buy my books and other binders.)

The driving urgency to get the site up is that we are at Worldcon, I’m in the art show, and I want people to see the same books there that are on display on my site.

Go look! awaits. What are you doing reading this?

Bookbinding Meets Politics

As part of my desire to encourage a little more civility in American politics, I have decided to give a gift to someone whose politics I disagree with. Specifically, I’m sending a handbound copy of the Constitution to President George W. Bush.

I was going to be sarcastic about it, and say something about the rules of good gift-giving. After all, you’re supposed to give people something that they might find useful, for instance at work, and something that they don’t appear to own already.

But really, that sort of commentary is pretty nasty and counterproductive. And I think this is a matter more for sincerity than nastiness. So here’s the text of the letter I’m sending along with the binding. The language is a little stiff and florid, but the feeling behind it is sincere.

Dear Mr President,

I am an American citizen, although I have been living in the United Kingdom for almost eleven years. Living abroad has given me an interesting perspective on our shared identity as Americans, particularly with regard to our Constitution. It really is a unique and valuable document, one that has made our country what it is today.

I am concerned, therefore, by the ways in which your current policies do not reflect the values enshrined in this foundation of our nation’s law. I know that, as President, you must find a balance between the security of our fellow citizens and the culture of liberty that America values. I am sure you are sincere in the choices you have made. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with those choices, which seem to me to undermine many of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

I am particularly worried by the lack of trials for some citizens suspected of terrorism, the chilling effect that use of “free speech zones” has on the First Amendment rights of people who disagree with you, and the drive to use the Constitution to limit peoples’ freedoms and the states’ rights to legislate with regard to marriage. I am also concerned by our frequent disregard of the Geneva conventions, either by the reclassification of prisoners or by a simple failure to follow its rules.

If we are to be the beacon of liberty to the world that we hope we are, then America must take the lead in defending peoples’ freedoms, both inside and outside of our borders. Peaceful, secure people do not as a rule join terrorist organizations; people who feel that their culture and religion are under attack may very well do so. By working in isolation and appearing to target Islam as a whole, we are the terrorists’ best recruiting incentive.

As a token of my regard for the Constitution and the ideals it expresses, I am sending you the enclosed leatherbound copy of this most important document. I created it myself, using traditional fine binding techniques. If you prefer not to keep it, I would appreciate its donation to an educational institution, where it can inform and educate another generation of Americans.

Very Truly Yours,

Abi Sutherland

I plan to post the book and letter on Tuesday (post offices are closed tomorrow). Normally, I wouldn’t post pictures and binding notes on a gift before the recipient has seen it. But I doubt that President Bush reads this blog, so I’m unlikely to spoil the surprise. (If I have, I’m sorry, George!)

Bookbinding Conference!

Though it was rather overshadowed by subsequent events (scan, tenth anniversary), I did actually go to the Society of Bookbinders biennial Training and Education Conference.

I was deeply intimidated by the entire thing. I’d never met a bookbinder before, ever. And the bookbinding world is still deeply rooted in the traditions of apprenticeship and mastery. Self-taught amateurs are like orphans among the hereditary nobility. Add to that that I’m crushingly shy about talking to strangers…

Of course, my fears were entirely groundless. Like any group of enthusiasts, the bookbinders were keen to talk to a fellow addict. I fell in with the Scottish contingent almost unintentionally, when I struck up a conversation with a woman from Aberdeen while touring the Reading University library bindery. Soon we had an accustomed place at the refectory tables for meals, and were chatting at tea breaks.

It was the first time I’ve ever had to listen to people talk about binding, watch demonstrations of bindings, and get a good in-person look at a few (very) fine bindngs. I even managed to buttonhole Mark Ramsden for some feedback on my green book. I’m still reeling a bit, digesting it all.

A few preliminary conclusions:

  • I’m not so hot on forwarding (book construction) as I thought. This is actually a good thing, because it means I need more practice, which means I have an excuse to bind more books. Previously, I was more conscious of my need to practice finishing (cover decoration), so the effort of forwarding (while pleasant) felt like a distraction from the learning process.
  • I have become increasingly conservative in my binding efforts. It’s time to reverse this trend. My interest in a lot of the more adventurous structures and decorational techniques was reignited by the things I saw, and heard about, in the conference.
  • I have a real taste for modernity in bindings. Most of my books on binding focus on the traditional styles, from about the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries through to the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s. Some of these binding styles were very gaudy, and my taste runs more to simplicity. But until I saw some of the slideshows of modern bindings, I didn’t really see how to marry that taste for simplicity with fine binding. Now my head is full of ideas, visions of simple, restrained bindings. They’ll even cost me less in finishing tools!


I’ve been photographing my bookbindings for some time now. And after my (much more artistic) fellow binder Chris asked me the dimensions of some of my things, I’ve even been measuring them. So I’ve had a growing collection of photos and measurements clogging up my hard drive and my notebooks.

At the same time, I’m often looking to show people the work I’ve been doing. I usually have my small green book with me in person, and at work there’s my big black and brown notebook. But anyone I know online has no way of seeing what I’ve been up to since the experiment last May.

And recently, since I’ve started doing more with the covers of my books, my learning curve has taken another steep climb. I find myself wanting to record the lessons I’ve been learning. I take a lot of mental notes about how my bindings go, but then I forget it all as other bindings get my attention. And since I’ve been giving much of my work away, I don’t even have the books to remind me.

It’s amazing that it took me this long to put the three issues together and make a gallery. But it’s up now, with pictures of most of the bindings I’m willing to have seen by the public, plus binding notes on some of my recent works. And with a format is in place, it’s going to be easier to record what I’ve been doing.

(Those who know me best may have a comment or two on the tone of the binding notes. You know who you are, and I know what you’re going to say. But trust me. It’s the flaws I learn from, not what goes right.)

Bookweb Redux

Last year, I started up the Bookweb to document some of the bookbinding work I’ve been doing. After an enormous amount of effort, I created one small area, describing an experiment in spine construction. Then I got wrapped up in, erm, binding books.

So now I’ve taken a week or two to add some more to the site, and to impose a bit more structure on it. I’ve added book reviews, spurred on by my father’s gift of four excellent binding books. And now I’ve finally got my information on equipment, describing how I have made many of my pieces of equipment myself.

Now all I need to do is add a gallery of my best work. If I can find the time between bindings!

Check it out!


Back in April and May of this year, I did an experiment in bookbinding. I took lots of photos, with the intent of writing it up at some point.

Well, I’ve finally done it. “An Experimental Approach to Bookbinding” is up at last, complete with pictures and notes on techniques. If I can take enough time out from binding and chasing the bunny, I’ll add more projects, technical notes, and information on bookbinding. The ultimate goal is to have a really useful site for the amateur bookbinder. (Write what you know…I am very much an amateur!)

Have a look and tell me what you think. It will eventually supersede my old bookbinding page with something much more informative and comprehensive.

Many, many thanks, hugs & kisses to Martin for all the help and support on the Bookweb.

Going off to get a life now…

Bookbinding (old)

This is old news – for my current bookbinding work see the Bookweb

Since Christmas, I have been learning about bookbinding. I have bound the following items; each has been a learning experience in its own right. All but four of them have been hollow-backed case bindings, usually kettlestitched or sewn on tapes.

I have destroyed some of my initial work, particularly the binds of three sections of an English law book I bought used some time ago. Other volumes have been sent to various friends. I only have about a third of the binds I have done in January – February 2002.

Finished Works

  1. Cream card notebook sewn on external cords, with embroidered cover.
    Now used as a needle book in my bookbinding kit.
  2. Cream Coptic-stitched notebook with gold signature guards
    Still unused.
  3. Kettlestitched binding of 1/3 of an English law book, covered in ochre fabric.
  4. Tape-sewn binding of 1/3 of an English law book, covered in ochre fabric.
  5. Tape-sewn A6 notebook in cream laid, covered in blue paper.
    Sent to (darsi), a friend from my online community.
  6. Flexible-bound 1/3 of an English law book, covered in ochre fabric.
  7. Binding of editions of “Sirius Moonlight”, the fanzine from the St Andrews Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, for Martin’s four years at university. Tape sewn, covered in brown paper. I tried to trim the fore edge, but tore the edges as a result. The book was labelled with computer-printed titles on the spine and front cover.
  8. Grey leather and black wool quarter bound cover for the “Forma Urbis Romae”, a map of ancient Rome. Labelled with a computer-printed title on the cover.
  9. Tape-sewn A4 lined notebook, quarter-bound in grey leather and blue fabric, for Martin‘s role playing game, Edelvain.
  10. Tape-sewn A4 lined notebook covered in blue paper to use at work.
  11. Tape-sewn A5 blank book with false bands, quarter-bound in grey leather and rose fabric.
    Sent as a gift for my younger sister Kathleen.
  12. Tape-sewn A6 blank book with false bands, quarter-bound in grey leather and rose fabric.
    Sent as a surprise to Gritchka, a friend from my online community.
  13. Tape-sewn edition of Sherlock Holmes short stories, covered in brown leather with false bands. The endpapers are green marbled paper. I decorated the cover of this book with an outline of Sherlock Holmes, drawn in permanent ink. I then deepened the colour of the leather cover with the application of red-brown shoe polish.
    Currently retained, but may be given to the daughter of a colleague.
  14. Tape-sewn A5 blank book of white laid paper, with false bands and red-brown leather cover. Green marbled endpapers. I deepened the colour of the leather with black shoe polish, and added texture by pressing the covers with crumpled aluminum foil.
    Sent to Teiresias, from my online community, as part of a Secret Santa arrangement.
  15. Kettlestitched binding of Edgar Allen Poe’s humourous stories, covered in leather, with false bands. Blue marbeled endpapers. The cover is made of two colours of leather, in an abstract design loosely based on a vertical arrangement of the letters “EAP”. Sized approximately 147mm x 215 mm. (Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version)
  16. Tape-sewn blank book with guards, intended to hold materials and project notes from sewing and bookbinding projects. False bands, plain endpapers, and ribbon ties. Sized approximately 144mm x 213 mm. (Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version)

    This project was not entirely a success. The pattern was too interlaced, and too interdependent, and as the leather strips were pasted, they stretched. The result was poor joins at crucial points.

    In addition, there was not time to define the false bands well enough before the paste dried, due to the time it took to arrange the pieces of the design. Definitely more of a learning experience than a triumph.

Future Projects

  • Re-bind Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which was bought with a ragged spine and is getting worse
  • Two Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries (Strong Poison and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)
  • An edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, currently paper-bound
  • An edition of Pride and Prejudicecurrently in flexible covers.