I should confess to something off the bat: as a book artist who uses mainly non-traditional methods and materials, I was easily the least experienced bookbinder in the room during Don’s workshop. I decided to take the class partly because of his stellar reputation, partly to stretch my skills doing something I don’t have all that much practice in. At the January meeting, when we discussed the possibility of Don teaching a workshop as part of his visit to Eugene in April, the first assumption was that he would be teaching conservation techniques. I’m pretty sure it was Sophia Bogle, who has taken classes with him at the American Academy of Binding, who said, “Oh, he should teach limp vellum binding!” This was greeted with considerable enthusiasm from the group--even from me, though I had only a sketchy idea of what a limp vellum binding was, since it certainly sounded cool.
Limp vellum, it turns out, is a historical binding style (at its most popular in the 16th century) that is not only quick and informal, but also extremely durable. Introducing us to examples of the binding, Don mentioned that after the 1966 flood in Florence, conservators were surprised to find that limp vellum generally survived better, and did a better job of protecting the text block, than heavier leather-over-board covers. The books had a nice feel to them—the vellum a bit springy, especially when the binding is new, as if betraying its animal origins.
The morning and early afternoon of the workshop was focused on preparing the text block for its cover—sewing it onto either leather thongs or vellum slips, rounding the back and adding endbands. Don gave clear demonstrations of everything, pointing out which steps and measurements were especially critical and why. Personally, I did a credible job with the sewing and proved to be a bit of a ninny with the endbands, so can testify to Don’s patience as an instructor.
I’d been curious about vellum as a material, so I enjoyed studying the calfskins together, seeing how they were thin and translucent at the edges, thickest and most intractable along the spine, and how the color and pattern of the follicles changed accordingly. Once we’d cut out our cover sheets, carefully cut slits into the vellum and laced in our text blocks, the strength and resilience of the binding was already apparent. We really got a feel for the vellum as we creased and cut and folded the covers, learning how to make the cool little hidden corner tabs that keep the doubled-over edges in place. To me, this was the most intriguing part of the process, and consequently it felt a bit rushed, though I felt the workshop on the whole was well-paced. The hair’s-breadth precision of earlier steps seemed to relax a bit at this point, as Don seemed disinclined to fuss over small aesthetic issues with the inside covers. The pragmatic, functional nature of the binding was most apparent during this part of the process. Ideally, I would have liked spending more time discussing the different options in finishing the cover, as well as getting a broader view of how limp vellum bindings varied in different eras and usages. But there was quite a triumphant buzz in the room as five o'clock rolled around and everyone finished up their bindings, or at least (as I did) got them to a point where they could readily be finished at home.
Marilyn Mohr Sizing up some Vellum
The limp vellum workshop seemed a big hit with all the participants, and I was certainly glad to have made it down to Eugene to take part. The workshop’s success was due not only to Don Etherington’s practiced teaching, but also to Marilyn Mohr’s efficient and gracious hosting of the event. Spending a day in the University of Oregon Libraries Conservation Lab was a fun little peek into her domain. Taking part in a workshop has an intrinsic social component, and sharing the experience with other GBW members had the happy side effect of making me feel a little more connected to the group. In this, too, Marilyn totally went out of her way. As a result, my fond memories of the weekend include not only the workshop itself, but conversations from the day before and at dinner afterwards—not to mention Marilyn’s studio, henhouse and flowers. And lucky me, not only did Shu-Ju Wang provide me with transportation and company down and back, but she cooked up eggs from Marilyn’s hens for our breakfast before the workshop.