Two spreads from my personal journal, which is a longstitch binding covered in chocolate brown Harmatan goatskin. The pages are made of Canson Mi-Teintes, which to me is the perfect paper in the world: I have worked in this book with ink, watercolour, fineliner, coloured pencil, brushpens, felt-tip pens and acrylics.
Baptism of Fire is one of the new leather journals in my bookshop. It’s a longstitch binding covered in curious, rust brown reptile-embossed leather and features a cover flap that can be closed with a hand-braided cord. The linen cord is decorated with small glass beads. Simple, but I like it! There are a few more of these coming. Meanwhile, I’m working on various other projects that won’t see the light of the day just yet.
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Recent forum and real life discussions on how binders price their work have once again made me think about the big picture and the details that are hidden in it. The favourite topic of binders, and most likely of other craftsmen too, is how customers somehow always expect “more” for “less”: There seems to be an endless line of people who want their family Bible repaired for less than $200, organisations that want books for resale and consider paying you $5-6 apiece, those people who try to negotiate on your prices at craft fairs, and those who contact you for a price estimate and never call you again. One can have a laugh at it, privately rant about it with fellow binders, or get slowly depressed. The main context still seems to be that most customers have good intentions but very little knowledge on the subject of bookbinding. In this age of readymade they have a hard time grasping all the details and effort that goes into a handmade object. They might even think they could do the job themselves (the case of Finns).
Bookbinding is a very laborious practice, even more so than many other crafts - at least that’s how it feels sometimes. Even the simplest-looking handmade book conceals many details that are not immediately visible to the naked eye. In fact, most of it never is. So usually the customer asks why it costs so much. Even if the finished book looks somewhat boring, the same amount of hard manual work has still gone into it, which is a bit tragic.
Taking all the aforementioned into account it is not surprising that many binders are looking for cost-effective and less time-consuming alternatives that would still result in a product of somewhat similar quality. We’re trying to find ways to compensate, and to make simpler bindings for occasions that seem to call for simplicity. Quite a lot of thinking goes into selecting materials and structures that work together, especially when a book is being made for a customer who already has vague specifications about the colours and the general look of the finished piece. Those who can easily source cheap or recycled materials that actually work in hand bookbinding, have found a treasure. Often one just has to compromise on the quality or workability a bit. Those binders who are accustomed to making masses of books using the same, familiar materials they always have on hand perhaps have it easier than the ones who make completely custom work and don’t have a large stock.
It is, however, healthy to admit that not all details are always necessary in every single book. Eventually the binder learns what to leave off and what to substitute with another type of material or technique. It makes little sense to sew book on hand-frayed cords if it’s not a fine binding or a historical facsimile. Usually sewing an inexpensive book on hemp cords is just overdoing it. My habit of sewing headbands for almost all of my books is a bit archaic too. I knowingly do it only because it delights me so! Realistically speaking, in the price range which I currently sell many of my books, there is no justification for using half of the time spent on one book sewing a set of headbands.
Then there are some techniques and binding styles that offer an escape from the lining, sanding, paring and all that rest altogether. I have been making many flexible bindings for my shop lately, not only because they’re fun to make, but also because they can be made with a multitude of materials and consume only a trifle of the time that goes into binding a hardcover book. A good example of these is the longstitch binding, in its simplest form a flap of leather on which some signatures are sewn. It is also an easy alternative for beginners and people who don’t own expensive equipment, which makes the technique especially popular. When all the actual structural details of the book have been dropped to minimum, the final challenge one faces is often a visual one: What makes my longstitch nicer than this one, or that one? What makes it special? It is true that “everyone” can make a longstitch binding. But it’s good to take into consideration the fact that a professional craftsman has a wide set of skills that can all be put to good use even in a longstitch book.
In any case the binder should still remember to take a fair hourly fee for their work. The habit of expecting handmade to sell for the price of machine-made (and sweatshop-made) is naturally unjust, but in reality it is not a bigger crime than voluntarily selling one’s work for nothing. The best thing a craftsman can do is to educate people, to write good descriptions of one’s work and what goes into it, and perhaps try to have the integrity not to sell way too cheap just because no-one would buy it otherwise, or because someone next to you resells leather books imported from India.