Most of us think of marbling as paint or ink applied to a sized bath, usually manipulated somehow, then transferred onto a sheet of paper. This is essentially the definition put forward by Richard J. Wolfe, in his magnum opus, Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns. His book is an invaluable resource, tracing the history of European marbling. The extensive plates dating particular patterns alone justify the price.
But what if we think of marbling not primarily as the transfer of colors, but the technique of using a stylus — or a number of them in a row, i.e. a rake — to manipulate strips or blobs of color into patterns? Visually, this is where most of the beauty and magic happens. And Egyptians were doing this as early as the 6th century BCE in glass.
Recently I visited the Corning Museum of Glass, which has some very early glass containers that look marbled. The museum catalog describes the center container as having the, “entire surface decorated with alternating registers of fine trails [thin threads of colored glass] wound ten to twelve times before changing color; all threads have been marvered in and dragged alternately up and down sixteen times to form an elaborate and delicate festooned or feathered pattern….” ( 55.1.61)
Instead of colors applied to a viscous bath, glass trails are wound around a container. Then they are manipulated with a point or stylus. The alternating up and down stylus movement at regular intervals is quite similar to how many styles of marbling are done even today.
Does specialization in the decorative arts cause us to overlook a fundamental cross-disciplinary technique like this one? Or, is this a common decorative technique that it is continually independently rediscovered. If so, are there other examples?
I’ve been investigating ways to create a sympathetic replica of early nineteenth century book cloth using Kremer XSL pigments and unbleached muslin. This technique also involves suspension staining and resizing the cloth with starch paste. Uses for this cloth include rebacking, recasing, in-situ repairs of damaged bindings, board slotting, and the making of early nineteenth century historic models. Preliminary results are quite promising, though there are a few caveats. Future experiments will investigate XSL pigments for staining leather.
EARLY BOOK CLOTH
Publishers’ book cloth started in the 1820s. Originally it was undecorated, faded quickly, attracted dirt, and over time became brittle. The book structures it was used on were traditionally considered “temporary”, were cheap and insubstantial, and as a result many examples have been rebound. Most studies of nineteenth century bookbinding focus on attractive and visually interesting aspects of book cloth that begin in the 1840, such as gold stamping and cloth grain patterns. Until recently, these early cloths have been overlooked by historians. It is doubtful that three piece adhesive case binding (aka. the hardcover) would have become the dominate rigid board book structure without book cloth.
Many examples of early cloth, searchable by year, can be found at The Library Company of Philadelphia’s wonderful online database of nineteenth century cloth bindings. Another easy to use visual resource is The Publishers’ Binding Online, where you can browse by the decade. But the best thing is to get to the nearest library and examine some actual books. Images cannot substitute for this.
John Carter, in his classic essay, “Origins of Cloth Bindings” recounts the moment of the innovation: a conversation in the 1820s between Mr. Pickering (the publisher) and Mr. Sully (the binder), with Mr. Pickering expressing a desire to cover a boards binding with something a little “neater”, like a blue calico window curtain that was hanging in the room. Since this event was recalled and recorded first in the 1850s, some leeway should be ascribed as to the details of this encounter. But it’s a good read.
English use the term “calico” for a cloth that in America we call it “muslin”, though some claim calico has a lower thread count. Confusingly, in America “calico” can also refer to a floral printed muslin. Floral printed muslin is ocassionally found on early American imprints, though these are invariably an owner’s repair, not something issued by a publisher.
In any event, there is nothing currently commercially available that reproduces the look and feel of early book cloth. And many books from this time period have been insensitively rebound, are damaged, and are now quite valuable historically and monetarily. Like the 1833 first American edition of Frankenstein in “muslin backed boards” for $35,000.00. Once books reach this kind of value, collectors, dealers, and institutions become more interested in having them conserved. Good news indeed, for independent book conservators like myself!
WHY XSL PIGMENTS?
The original impetus for investigating Kremer XSL pigments arose from problems with existing methods of dying and staining cloth. I ran across an informative pdf from Kremer Pigments, which described using them as wood stains. If it worked for wood, I thought, maybe textiles and possibly even leather?
Then I found a series of excellent blog posts from an American Museum of Natural History Conservation project, called In Their True Colors. Conservators investigated Orasol and XSL pigments. For their project, which involved recoloring faded fur on taxidermy specimens, they chose Orasol. It dissolves in alcohol, which facilitated introducing as little moisture as possible, in order to airbrush the fur in-situ. But the consideration of XSL pigments in a conservation context piqued my interest.
I’ve had difficulty with the usual methods of dying cloth, and some require extensive set up and clean up. Fiber reactive dyes, such as Procion MX reactive dyes, can be difficult to control and mix, and as the name implies, they react with all nearby fibers. Consider yourself warned. Direct dyes, such as Ciba-Geigy direct dye Solophenyl are also difficult to control, requiring heat and pH monitoring to apply. Traditional leather dyes, like Feibings, are very fugitive and not used in modern conservation. Aniline leather dyes can also be quite fugitive. Currently it is impossible to import the common dye used in book conservation labs, Selladerm dyes into America from the Leather Conservation Center in England due to customs regulations. Thinned Golden airbrush paints can change the surface and feel of cloth to an unacceptable degree, though for later nineteenth century heavily sized and textured cloths this works quite well. Book restorer Vernon Wiering is doing some interesting graining of cloth — I would guess with acrylic? — but he doesn’t detail the techniques or materials in his blog posts. Watercolor, gouache, and raw pigments generally don’t penetrate well into fabric. What to do?
Kremer XSL pigments are a relatively new pigment treated with a dispersing agent so that they solubilize almost instantly in water. They also remain in suspension once mixed. The unidentified dispersing agent, which coats the pigment, is possibly the only conservation concern. Anecdotally, I have heard these pigments are used in color field painting conservation. The earliest citation concerning them on the web I’ve found is 2006. I emailed Kremer asking for information about their history and received no reply.
They are extremely lightfast, as seen in Fig. 3. They are relatively inexpensive with a complete set selling for about $90.00 from Kremer Pigments. Since they easily disperse in water, there are no solvent fumes to deal with. Because of their high tinctorial strength, a little bit goes a very long way. Clean up is easy since there is no binder.
I find it easier to mix a specific color with them, because I am more used of dealing with pigments and paint, rather than dyes.
Since the earliest publishers’ cloth bindings were covered with a thin cotton, it made sense to start with modern muslin. It is sometimes called “airplane cotton” since it was used to cover wings on early planes, notably the 1903 Wright Flier. Unbleached muslin is available from a number of sources online, I ordered from Online Fabric Store, and it cost about $3.00 a yard. The coarsest thread weave I’ve found is 60 x 60. A better match for older cloths would be something coarser and more irregular weaving pattern.
Modern muslin contains sizing or other additives that can interfere with the staining. It is best to machine wash the cloth. Wrinkling and folds can also interfere with even staining, so I dry it on a sheet of plexiglass. This way the warp and weft can be aligned or intentionally misaligned to match an irregularly woven older cloth. If necessary, iron it after removing from the plexiglass to make sure it is as flat as possible before staining.
For the toning and drying I used a technique based on one from the polymath Elissa O’Loughlin, a retired Walters Art Museum paper conservator, owner of Wren Haven Tools, maker of brass triangles and remoistenable tissue, a pressure sensitive tape historian, a pocket knife aficionado, &c., &c. She uses suspension staining to airbrush pigments on Japanese tissue. I highly recommended this workshop.
In this case, the wedges are folded corrugated board with a small weight inside to keep them in place, as seen in Fig. 6. I suppose taller wedges would dry more quickly. The ends of the fabric are clamped between pieces of binders board using binder clips. I tried applying the pigments by brushing and by immersion: there wasn’t much difference between the two. At some point I will also try to using an airbrush to apply the pigments. I suspect the method of application is less important than having a clean substrate.
Drying the cloth flat on a piece of plexiglass can result in extremely uneven coloring, as seen in Fig. 7. I think this is because some of the pigments move more than others in the cloth while drying. Also, if there are folds or wrinkles pigments can collect unevenly in these areas. If the cloth is not adequately washed, additives can affect color absorption. Then again, some variation might be desirable if the intent is to simulate an older cloth.
Even with suspension staining, there is some unevenness in the final color, so if you need a dead even surface, use a different material or method of dying. If color matching is not critical, nineteen very evenly dyed colors of thin 100% cotton is available from Creation Baumann, though the weave is exceedingly fine.
Suspension staining facilitates an even application of the XSL pigment/water mix, since there is no pooling, and creases don’t develop when the muslin expands or shrinks. If the muslin expands slightly, the weight of the binders board and clips keeps the fabric moderately taut. Muslin shrinks back quite a bit when drying — which is why it was a good material for airplane wings — and the light weights let it move a little, while maintaining slight tension so it doesn’t pool. The color intensity is stronger with this method than with hang drying, as well as being more economical, since the color doesn’t drip off the end.
Ideally the weight of the binders board and binder clips should be matched to the wet strength of the suspended cloth or tissue, though maybe I’m overthinking this aspect. To suspend tissue a much lighter weight should be used. The top edge of the corrugated board wedge was covered with packing tape so the fabric could move and not wick away the pigment. Suspension staining allows the material to dry fairly quickly without additional handling, since both sides are exposed to air.
I haven’t rigorously tested all eleven XSL pigments, but some are more prone to move while drying than others. The Dioxazine Violet (#26410) as seen in Fig. 8 is especially volatile. Too thin a pigment/water solution also absorbs less evenly. Adequately washing the muslin in the beginning is the most important factor. There is less wrinkling and distortion if you wash the whole piece of cloth before cutting it into smaller pieces. Still, for reasons I can’t always explain at this point, occasionally the absorption is shockingly uneven, which is most irritating. Staining a much larger piece than you need would be smart, so you can cut the heart out of it. I haven’t been this smart, yet.
After the cloth is dry, I size it with wheat starch paste on a piece of plexiglass covered with some mylar to make clean-up easier. First, I put a thick layer on what is the back and adhere this to the plexiglass. Then I build up two or more thin layers on the front, letting it dry in between. Fewer layers makes a more natural surface, if this is what you want. Even more layers fill the space between the treads, eventually making the cloth look like a modern “linen finish” buckram.
It is easier to mix up a batch of fairly thin paste — somewhere between heavy cream and Greek yogurt — than thin down a thicker paste. Slightly warm paste penetrates into the cloth better. Too many many layers, or too thick paste, can cause the cloth to crack when folded, as seen in the middle of FIg. 10. If you don’t want this to happen to the hinge of your book, stay thin.
Somewhat surprisingly, the pigment didn’t seem to rub off much even before sealing with paste, unless it was colored with a very dark pigment. I even washed one sample after staining, and although the color became more dilute, but it didn’t wash out completely. The paste gives the cloth enough body when applied to a book. If the pigment does move when applying the paste, I suppose a few drops of Golden airbrush acrylic medium in the water/ pigment slurry would help seal it in place.
The weak bond between the XSL pigment and muslin can be easily removed by slightly dampening and/or lightly scraping the surface to achieve visual integration. Colored pencils or other pigments could also be used to achieve visual integration.
Animal protein glue is traditionally used to adhere the cloth to the book or the boards. The cloth often stretches a little bit when gluing it to the boards or book, and this distortion is seen in historic examples, especially on the turnins where it is pulled tight. The muslin shrinks while drying it also molds itself to the board edges, making them look quite crisp. The combination of glue and paste make for a stronger bond than paste alone. Hide glue creates a wonderfully stiff feel to a book, even with thin boards.
One problem — which is also mentioned historically — is that the glue can strike through and leaves a permanent stain, as seen in FIg. 11. To prevent, or minimize this, the glue needs to be at the right temperature, and applied by stippling, so that it absorbs as evenly as possible into the fabric. The strike through is often more noticeable on lighter colors. It doesn’t happen all of the time. I still can’t predict it, which is frustrating.
I wonder why early nineteenth century bookbinding manuals always mention using glue. I should test more actual samples, but testing for starch is destructive, and it can be impossible to differentiate when the starch was applied; cloth, boards, or surface size. Since historic cloths were often a looser and coarser weave, any strike through must have been even more problematic. This needs more investigation.
One practical way around this problem is to use paste instead of glue. Although not historically accurate, if the paste does strike through, when it dries it will blend with the paste filled cloth. Paste is easier to use, and traditional when covering with leather and paper. Paste makes the muslin more stretchy and difficult to handle, which also could be a reason it wasn’t used. Glue seems to dry a bit quicker, but there are many variables in hygroscopy. But if a little paste squeezes out when covering, it doesn’t stain the surface. The XSL stain itself may be the culprit. This is a good example of how recreating a historic technique with modern materials can raise questions, as well as solve them.
Another way around this strike through would be to back the cloth with tissue. Again, this is not historically accurate, but it makes the cloth much easier to handle. I do this when rebacking or when rebinding an actual book. If backed, XSL stained cloth is as easy to handle as any commercial product. There is a very entertaining description of backing cloth with tissue from Big Jump Press.
Book conservators may find XSL pigmented muslin a useful addition to their treatment options when rebacking, recasing, board slotting, performing other types of board attachment, and while making historic models.
The main difficulty is achieving an even surface coloring, so if this is not critical to the success of the project, the technique is straightforward, cost effective, and relatively easy. I find the slight unevenness in coloring using this technique is sympathetic when matching an older cloth, or when recasing a book.
I plan to experiment with a coarser, more loosely woven cloth as well as using pigmented paste, which may be a traditional method. I also intend to investigate using XSL pigments to stain leather. Three goals include:
Developing techniques to stain the leather evenly and without bronzing
Working on methods to easily achieve and reproduce specific colors
Preserving the functional aspects of leather, so that the stain does not leach excessively during covering, penetrates to a sufficient depth, and the leather flexes without cracking
Thanks to the Cathleen A. Baker Fellowship in Conservation, Shannon Zachary, and all of the staff at the University of Michigan Department of Preservation and Conservation Lab who supported my current research into early nineteenth century bookbinding. It is a luxury to have some time to escape from the pecuniary pressures of private practice and follow my interests.
One aspect of the bookbinding, book conservation and book arts scene that I especially enjoy is its community. People get into this archaic field mainly because they love books and bookbinding. While it is all too easy to shop from the salesmen at the Walmart/ Amazon of the bookbinding supply world, it is worthwhile to search out and purchase supplies from smaller specialized vendors — who are often trained bookbinders — and who can provide first hand information about their products. Because of their knowledge, bookbinder/vendors are often innovators in the field, which also should be supported. And they usually care about the long term survival of bookbinding as as art and craft, not just making money from selling stuff, which is important to me.
Colophon Book Arts Supply is one of these specialized shops, and was recently purchased by Mary Uthuppuru. Mary began her career as a conservation technician at the Lilly Library, and in 2010, became a full time book artist and book binder working under the name Spring Leaf Press at her home studio in Bloomington, Indiana. She creates artist books, bindings, boxes, and prints inspired by science, literature and nature. Mary is ecstatic to bring her experience to this new role as the owner of Colophon.
Mary kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her background and interests.
1) How did you get interested in book arts/ book conservation. Who were your mentors?
I found my way to the book arts during my Art History undergraduate days at Indiana University. Yara Cluver teaches a class about artist books which was my first interaction with the concept of book as artwork. However, I didn’t “catch the bug” until I began working for Jim Canary, head of conservation, at the Lilly Library. I was pursuing a masters in Library Science with a concentration in Special Collections when I obtained a student position in the lab. Jim was one of my first mentors, as I know he has been for countless others. Under Jim’s guidance, I began to learn the intricacies of conservation and developed an appreciation for all aspects of the book arts as well as a respect for the history from which it all comes. It doesn’t hurt that all of this happened within one of the finest Special Collections Libraries in the world!
Andrea Peterson is another mentor for me though she wouldn’t necessarily think so. I have drawn heavily from her experience as a professional artist in the way that she assimilates the demands of a production papermaker and artist while working with her family to run a dynamic home life. Andrea is more than generous with her honest guidance and openness about her own successes and failures which has influenced the decisions I’ve made over the last few years in my own pursuits.
Now, Nancy Morains is mentoring me through the process of running a retail business. Throughout this transition, Nancy has generously given guidance on every aspect of running Colophon. She has always made herself available to answer any questions I have and I anticipate our relationship growing even stronger over time. I am so thankful for the generosity of the people I’ve been lucky to meet during my development so far. They all seemed to have popped up at just the right time with their advice or example.
2) What is your favorite bookbinding tool? Why?
It is hard to choose, but I think it is safe to say that my favorite and most used tool is the 9mm metal handled Olfa knife with snap off carbon blades. I use it all of the time and for cutting, there is no alternative. It cuts with precision but is also a work horse when it comes to cutting through binder’s board by hand. Plus, it fits in my pocket…with its blade retracted of course.
3) What is your favorite book structure?
This is a tough question for me but I love books that open without a fight. There is nothing better than a well sewn text block that allows pages to open easily but feels sturdy in your hands. I have recently been exploring the millimeter binding and it has a huge appeal to me. This binding has a sewn text block, which I love doing, and the binding comes together in such a way as to allow for limitless customization and design options. It is an elegant binding!
4) How did you decide to take on the role as owner of Colophon, which has such a long history as a quality retail store that is based actual users, rather than a large corporate business. How do you feel your experience as a bookbinder and working in conservation impacts your business?
Like every other professional decision so far, timing had a big influence as well as life circumstance. I have been working as a private practice bookbinder and book artist for almost seven years now. Working towards my own objectives has been a privilege, but I was looking for a new endeavor to help with financial stability. When I heard Nancy was looking to find a new owner in pursuit of her retirement, I was thrilled with the idea. I would be able to continue to work at home, be in charge of my own schedule, and attend the events I love to go to every year. After talking about it with Nancy as well as other vendors in our field, I pursued the idea with seriousness and began seeking advice from professionals in Bloomington. I kept pursuing it and people kept helping me move forward! After some time, there didn’t seem to be a reason why I shouldn’t. Both Nancy and I agree that it just seems to fit.
The reason I even considered such a big undertaking was because of the nature of the store. It really does have a long history and the way that Nancy has fostered this community around the items she carries is nothing short of inspirational. Anyone talking with Nancy during a show immediately connects with her genuine nature; it has certainly show her uniqueness. It is her ability to connect with people that then turn into longtime customers that made me want to be a part of Colophon’s history. I value the one on one connection where people, both store owner and customer, have the chance to talk about the specifics of our trade and discover things that would benefit the larger community. It is a place of sharing that our field relies on. After all, the book arts is all in the details.
As for my experience, my difficulty in saying no to any new skill has already served me well and will continue to do so. My exploration throughout bookbinding as well as conservation has made me familiar with most of the supplies Nancy has carried and will provide me insight into the supplies I may want to carry in the future. Knowing about the various disciplines in our field gives me a chance to speak from experience in using the supplies in the shop. This makes it possible for me to advise people who aren’t quite sure about what they are looking for or to help people who have a problem to solve and just need the right solution. I love this kind of problem solving and the more I talk to people, the more I learn along the way.
5) You spend a lot of time giving back to the book arts community, currently as a recent volunteer as (programs chair of Midwest chapter) of the Guild of Bookworkers. How do you juggle maintaining an active bindery, volunteering, and working as a retailer of supplies? Do there various “hats” you wear mutually reinforcing, or are there potential conflicts of interest?
Having so much going on is tough. It was hard for me to say “no” to any opportunity when I first got started so I’ve had to learn how to manage my time in a way that would still allow me to meet my goals. It has all been a lesson in prioritizing jobs that have due dates and figuring out when I am most productive for each thing. For example, I am sharper with writing and computer work in the mornings, while the afternoons and evenings are better for bench work. But this is specific to me and ultimately, I have had to do things ungracefully till I figured that out.
For a time, having all of these things in my life were really beneficial. As a new-to-the-field bookbinder, I needed to connect with our community and the best way to do that was to take on the volunteer position as Programs Chair. I met everyone in my chapter through the events I organized and that extended to the national level. However, I held that position for 5 years and after a time it was clear that I needed to really focus on my private endeavors for a while so I stepped down from that role last year. That being said, I have replaced that volunteer role with some that are local to Bloomington.
Adding an online retail store will add a level of complication to my ability to schedule a multitude of responsibilities, but as I am discovering now, it just means that I have to be more selective with what I take on. The benefit of this restriction is that I can see more quickly what is worthwhile to me. Also, I am constantly reading about people and companies that find new ways to keep their work and life flowing smoothly.
6) What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out in the book arts?
It was difficult for me to find my place within the limitless directions you can take in our field; there are just so many options. The most important factor in my development so far have been the people in our field. I would highly encourage a beginner to become involved with an organization that best represents their goals. Groups like the Guild of Book Workers are an unlimited resource when it comes to practical instruction or advice about the direction of your career. Besides, the people involved in organizations like this are the ones hiring people! So who better than them to go to for guidance!
7) What products that Colophon currently sells are your personal favorites? What are unique to colophon?
For tools, I mentioned before the 9mm Olfa knife complete with the black carbon blades (those are key). That knife comes in two sizes, but I reach for the smaller of the two more frequently. I also love the Japanese screw punch with each of its 9 bits. It’s a classic that cuts perfect little holes in anything from from paper to book board to thin wood veneer.
As for materials, I can’t help but continue to collect the small colored Londonderry linen thread spools; there are so many colors to choose from! I’ve also been drawn into the duo and Dubletta cloths for both book and box making. The colors are stunning and as far as I know, they are unique to Colophon.
This list could be much longer, but for the sake of brevity those are the highlights to me!
8) What are your future plans for Colophon? Will you try to develop the business into a teaching facility as others are attempting?
I will continue to develop the new website into a resource for the shop and the community. The shopping cart and online credit card payment feature is a big upgrade, but I will also continue to add photographs that help online shopping for tactile materials. Along the same lines, videos will appear showing people how to use some of the more mysterious tools.
Nancy had a section of the website that included resources for people looking to learn and I would like to expand that as well.
As for teaching, I love the idea of developing Colophon into a teaching resource. I have been doing some teaching myself over the last few years so it seems right to have Colophon develop in that direction though it might be a year or so before that comes to fruition. Currently, the shop is running from my house as well as a storage facility. Down the road though, I envision a physical space where the store will be centralized and people can come to take workshops as well as pick up orders in person.
9) Are there potential new products or other developments we can look forward to?
I hope to fill out a few areas of the shop, specifically adhesives and bookbinding tools. There are a few things that would be valuable to have available alongside the other great stock, like conservation adhesives, and I will announce the new items on social media and listservs.
I’ve had great feedback from colleagues as to what types of things they are looking for. It is really helpful to get this kind of feedback so that I can anticipate what gaps there are in the shop that I may not have seen myself. I am always happy to take suggestions as to what items people would like to see available. If it makes sense to carry it and is feasible, I will do what I can to make it happen.
Finally, Colophon is now on social media! This is an area that I hope to develop alongside the website in order to keep shop items and announcements visible. Check out our twitter and Instagram feeds @colphonbookarts to stay up to date on new products, updates, and happenings.