by Erin Middleton
From The Abbey Newsletter,
Santa, Idaho, a little town near the Bitter Root Mountains in northern Idaho, may seem very far removed from the whirl of activity in the bookbinding world, but it is the location for one of the most interesting binding workshops around. Jack Thompson, founder of the Thompson Conservation Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, and Jim Croft, fine binder and conservator who lives in Santa, created this workshop exploring "The Technology of the Medieval Book."
The workshop...was attended by ... people from around the country (and Canada) whose backgrounds ranged from private fine binder, to conservation apprentices, to book artist, to institutional conservators. This disparate range of binding experience among the participants was never a problem since the emphasis of this workshop was on the hand-manufacture of materials needed to make 12th century style bindings, and in this we were all novices.
In 10 days we produced most of our own supplies, and then used them to make a medieval style binding. The exceptions to that were the handmade papers made months earlier by Jack and Jim, and boards prepared by them so that these materials would have time to season before use. Due to the independent nature of our materials, each substance was processed by the participants when it was ready.
What follows is a rundown of the projects we tackled. We spun thread on home fashioned drop spindles and braided hog bristles on the end to form needles to use in the sewing of the first of two books. We took some of the handmade paper given out at the beginning, folded it, sewed it with a link stitch, and covered it with stiff paper to make a notebook for the workshop. Using homegrown flax that had already been retted and dried, we beat, hackled, and combed it in order to prepare it for spinning into linen thread. Dried, unretted flax was rippled (to remove the seed pods) and retted. Using [linen] pulp, we made paper that bears the watermark of every workshop participant.
We made vellum from deerskin. Goatskin, which Jack and Jim had previously made vellum from, and a commercially prepared calfskin, were alum-tawed. Using mallet and froe, we quarter-split air-dried Oregon white oak as the first step in preparing wooden boards. Then the wood was dressed roughly to size with a broad hatchet (a small broad axe, bevelled on one side only).
With spokeshaves, planes, drawknives and saws, the boards were further refined until with scrapers they were smoothed out for lacing in. With hand drills and chisels we cut channels into the boards, and with planes we chamfered the inner edge and rounded the fore edge corners. The text blocks were sewn on split alum-tawed pigskin thongs using the hog bristle needle. Clasps were fashioned out of brass, and then finally, the books were covered in either commercially prepared vegetable-tanned leather or our own vellum.
This was definitely a HANDS-ON workshop. Every step was done using simple tools. The workshop took place in an area where houses are heated by wood stoves, out-houses are the norm, and showers are in close proximity to the outdoors. It is the only place I know where one can see a llama and listen to accordian/trombone duets while planing down a board; where mountain meadows serve as volleyball courts; where late-night talks take place around an open fire; and where city strangers can overnight become a tight-knit community.
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