Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stirring the Possum ...with due credit to Doug Spowart

As a follow-up to a post I've just written for my own blog, I thought I'd try to initiate a little discussion over here, on this collaborative forum dedicated to the book arts.

I was wondering whether anyone else has read the article by Doug Spowart in the current (at the time of writing) issue of IMPRINT (i.e. Summer, 2009, vol 44 (4)?

The article is a review of the SCU 5th Acquisitive Artists' Book Award, which was held last year in August. The guest judge was Tara O'Brien, "an internationally recognised book artist from Philadelphia, USA. ...(who) is also a conservator and teacher of book arts."

In the article, Spowart explains the thorough approach taken by O'Brien in making her selections for the SCU collection, as well as providing some of the highlights from her speech at the announcement of the selected works. O'Brien commented on the conceptual strength and the high quality of fine press works, but did have some reservations about certain technical practices she saw.

I thought it would be good to present these here and see what both the writers and readers of this blog think.

So here they are, quoted directly from the article, with some editing for brevity only:

1. "O'Brien....discourages...the screw-post and the stab stitch forms of construction. The reader needs to 'fight' to hold the book open....Stab stitch was...generally inappropriate in Western book making except for books paying homage to Oriental style."

2. "The use of buckram as a cover material was also contentious; in her opinion there are many more suitable materials."

So what do you think? Do you use screw-posts, stab stitch or buckram in your work? Why did/do you choose them over other methods/materials? Do you agree with Tara O'Brien's opinions, or not? If not, why not?

I hope you'll jump in and tell us what you think - it's good to examine our practices and see if we have solid reasons for the technical and material choices we make.


dinahmow said...

Good points, Amanda. I have the same reservations about stab-stitch. Closed, the books look lovely, but...if opened more than a few times they tend to break. And I think screw posts (beloved of the CWA craft morning set)are fine for quirky "steam punk" sort of things.
Personally, I love case bound, leather covered books. With gold tooling!
But I'm such a novice in this arena I wouldn't dare attempt one!
Really, if something has clearly been constructed neatly and solidly is style more important than technique?

Carol said...

I've always been disappointed in stab-stitch. Unless using fabulously pliable Japanese papers it always seems to me that the book never opens properly. Same with screw posts though I have used them when making a very large landscape album giving lots of room for the pages to turn easily.
Buckram is a very useful covering material and I have no problem with using it when I think it's the most suitable covering. I'll have to read the article to see what she means.
And yes, leather is lovely and I use it a lot in my commercial books (in the most simplified manner that I never imagined I'd ever do...) but I'm right over paring and struggling with making it look fabulous. That has something to do with arthritis and a lot to do with being lazy.

buechertiger said...

The stab stitch was one of the first techniques I learned at all when I first made my books, and in these instructions I was told to use airmail paper, fold it double, and bind them with the fold to the fore-edge with colored paper as covers. Then put several of those in a folder or box which serves as protection instead of a case. This worked fine with the individual books/chapters about 50 pages thick, and it is to my knowledge close to the Asian usage.
Similar comments and reservations about stab stitch like O'Brian mentioned seem to be wide spread. I heart similar comments several times. And although I had given up the stab stitch by the time, tried it again with Asian paper. With such a paper, the method is a real pleasure, when the pages have a fabric-like quality and seems to flow over the seam.
Now I am selling my instructional book bound with a stab stitch. Because instructions are required to keep open properly while you have it laying on the table before you, this was a decision that I did not take easy. I am using a thin commercial Western paper, and I open each page and press them down with a bone folder before it goes into the mail. And the 66 pages do stay open reliable. What was important though was to take into account that the bulk at the seam builds up, and makes the even pages smaller. For this book, each even page has a 1mm bigger margin than the page before (which makes the last page more than half a mm smaller than the first). I tested this in dummies. Especially when you have images in there, which you seemed to indicate over at your blog, it might be worth taking good measurements.
Of course I have no experiences with archival qualities there. Since each page bends fully over at the fold, I could imagine that it could break there over time.

However: Paper restorers and archivists have experiences with paper that we cannot make by using our own books. So when in doubt, and when it is important that the book will last generations I would listen to them ;-)

Amanda said...

I'm SO glad I posed these questions! Thank-you all for your comments. I am learning so much. I think you all have much more "booky" experience than I do, so it's great to read about your experiences.

Firstly, to deal with the question of the pages breaking, I would think that it's not a problem with Japanese papers as the fibres in them are long and they really are very strong. Then again, I guess almost everything breaks eventually.

Secondly, Buechertiger: thank-you for sharing your experience with this binding. I have to say that I wouldn't have thought about the pages getting smaller in the middle! Just shows why you have to try these things out. This is soooo interesting! I am going to bind an artists proof very soon (maybe later today, even!) and I am so looking forward to seeing what this will show me.
The way you described that you learnt the technique is the way I have read also. Not that I have read a great many sources. It sounds as though you have had some excellent instruction. I wish I could find something like that here - although I am enjoying teaching myself - with help from all of you!

As for the buckram question: I suspect it is used a lot in Australia because unless you feel confident to back your own fabric, there is not much else to choose from. Certainly, when I look at the Talas website
I feel absolutely green with envy!
I have to say that I don't think I could ever use the sky blue buckram. Not because it isn't a lovely colour, but it just speaks of "thesis" to me.
As for leather - I'd love it, but I wouldn't know where to start.

dinahmow said...

I did wonder why buckram was "frowned upon." As you say, there is not always much choice.I did a very rough (and I do mean rough!)mend on a book a few years ago, using some lightweight cotton backed with fusible vilene.It served the purpose, but I bet it would horrify the purists!

Cecilia Sharpley said...

I do agree about the overuse of stab binding and have a real 'thing' about books which either don't open flat (smack smack Keith Smith) or don't indicate which is the front of the book (instant disappointment on opening it upside down.

I often use suede backed with tyvek for spines, or mostly anything else which suits the theme of the book.

Another way to have a book lying flat is to stitch over tapes and make them a feature of the book without gluing the spine.

Single pages can be fixed to spine strips this way, which is what I'm doing at the moment with a letterpress edition of eighteen Shakespeare Sonnets. Tapes will be grosgrain ribbon and the stitching slightly contrasting green thread. The tapes will form part of the lino printed cover and every page will lie flat as a pancake (I hope).

cecilia sharpley

ronnie said...

I'd been meaning to add a nice considered reply for a while now.... well time is always going to be against me so here's the quickie condensed version:

Within my practice I've always held to the idea of 'horses for courses'- where nothing is arbitrarily ruled in or out (for whatever reason) but where I try my best to marry materials and methodology to concept - I think that's the very heart of what I'm about really (and I suspect from comments and examples that's true for pretty much everyone at the heart of the BOA project).

sooo although I've only created a couple of stab-stitch books (and I've usually been bugged by the manner that these open) I can envisage very legitimate cases where this would be the ideal design solution.

Equally I'm rather pragmatic about materials - down here at the creek, supply of many materials is ummmm, well, limited! As are my skills and desire (and as a poor vegetarian I wouldn't know where to start with a piece of leather!) BUT I try to do what I can with what I can get my hands on (and I'm willing to go to reasonably long lengths to get my fingers onto just the right gear or people to learn what I need)

Let me end by saying I have a great appreciation for fine craft skills and materials (and not just in a booky context) but in the greater scheme of things for me the craft needs to serve the arty end.

(ps looking forward to seeing those books cecilia!)

Angela said...

Well I've been thinking along the same lines as Ronnie, I wanted to take time before replying and have a good think about it.

Every book project will require different methods. I spend a long time deciding what kind of binding will suit best. I usually make some mocks up to see how the book handles and how it feels.

I have never used a post binding so can't really comment on that. Although I haven't used it a lot, I don't see what's wrong with stab binding. Its well known that its a binding that cant be opened flat so using this as a criticism is just stating the obvious. A way around this if you really want to use a stab binding is just to allow extra blank space at the margin so you're not struggling to see the text or content there. Maybe there is a lot of criticism about this kind of binding because as Cecilia said people feel its overused?

I have never used buckram, but don't really understand the aversion to that either. Like Ronnie because I don't eat meat (I can't call myself a vegetarian because I eat fish) I really don't want to use leather. I was thinking about this recently and am glad I wasn't a bookbinder in the 70's. I've read a book written then and it went through all the different types of coverings, it mentioned seal skin! And they mainly used animal glues too.

I used to use Arlington book cloth from Hewits which was gorgeous but unfortunately this was discontinued by the manufacturer. Its been replaced by Edinburgh book cloth which is very similar, but in my opinion - close but no cigar. In the absence of Arlington I mainly use Edinburgh book cloth now.

Its really interesting to hear Tara O'Brien's opinions, but I am always wary of any statement that appears to stipulate acceptable methods of practice, or what materials you should use or avoid (not just in bookbinding). Although it may not be intended, to me its bordering on the edges of snobbery, but that's just my opinion.

Amanda said...

Thanks for sharing your opinions, links and tips. I am, as is often the case,a bit of a fence-sitter here. There are guidelines and traditions that have developed over time, hopefully because they are "best practice" and improve the longevity and function of the book. Having said that, it is pretty simple-minded to think that things can't be improved, rules side-stepped or outright broken at times. And I thoroughly agree with those who have said that each case needs to be examined in its own right, and the craft does need to serve the art, if it is art you are making. If it doesn't, then it is craft rather than art, which is also fine, but the maker needs to be clear in their own mind which it is.

I've posted some more links and pictures of stab bindings from the Edo period over on my blog,
if you're interested in a further look. They open beautifully - and so I'm wondering whether the problem is really the paper we are using, rather than the binding itself?

Ampersand Duck said...

Yes. The problem is the paper. And the dearth of bookcloth options. And the lack of good paper choices because we don't have a large population, we have dreadful art supply shops and we are a long way from Kansas. And overseas judges have very little idea of just how hard it is to produce work in a country like ours where bookarts is a very small pond with limited resources.

[breathe] sorry, that wasn't meant to be a rant.

Anyhoo, I have seen some wonderful stab-stitch books, but they have all used long landscape formats, with very soft paper so that they have a wonderful drape, and sit open on a table beautifully.

Buckram is horrible, but I've used it and will continue to use it because it's inexpensive and hardy, and I use it sparingly and hopefully tastefully...

I also think there are often fads in book-making, and judges get sick of seeing the same format over and over. If we all avoid stab-stitch, then sculptural books will be the next thing criticised!

...because no matter what you use and in what format, it will always boil down to taste and judgement and context and skill. A well made and interesting book (with engaging content) will always appeal.

Meanwhile, people want to learn stab-stitch and album-making with screw-posts, and I want to pay the bills, so I'll keep teaching them :)