An Unusual Sewing Frame from the Roycroft Bindery

A very unusual sewing frame. Roycroft Campus, East Arora, New York.

I was excited to find a small display of bindery tools at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York.  Elbert Hubbard started Roycroft, was inspired by William Morris, and promoted the Arts and Crafts ethos in America during the first part of the 20th century. His press produced many books that today look aggressively “hand-made”.

The sewing frame from his bindery, however, is strikingly innovative and elegant.  The support attachments are similar to the Hickock blank book sewing frame, which I think was designed and produced at least by the 1920’s. I’m uncertain which came first. I use a similar idea for clamping supports in my Nokey Sewing Frame. The curved and cantilevered uprights allow for arm clearance and stability. The late 20th century Clarkson sewing frame uses a similar design.

The rod in the front might be to wrap tapes on, so they can be continually fed upwards.  It also looks like the rod itself can slide a bit in a recess, to the weight helps apply tension?  There are two hinged areas, the front one may also trap the supports, and the one towards the back may contain a storage area? There is some residue on the rod, suggesting something was adhered at some point. But what and why?

The uprights can be removed, and the frame stored in the wooden box it rests on, like the Clarkson design. Given the aesthetics and the use of oak which is common in arts and crafts furniture, but uncommon for bookbinding tools, I would guess  it was made at Roycroft.  But the bindery display contained many other pieces of equipment from other sources, including a very nice Leo Finishing Press, so it may come from another source. It is a clever and compact design.

An Unusual Bookbinder’s Roll for Dictionary Tabs

Bookbinder’s Roll. J. Marks maker mark.
There are 12 letters on the roll. Note the “A” has been repaired or replaced.

A few years ago, I picked up this roll, and I am still not completely sure what it was for.  I’m pretty sure is for tooling cut out leather thumb tabs, which would then be glued to the book.

It contains the letter sequence “A – C – E – G – I – L – N – P – R – T – W – Y” The makers mark is “J. MARKS”.  Tom Conroy’s Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers places this English company between 1868 – 1901. He also mentions there are no marks known, so this will be an entry for the revised and enlarged edition. No marks for J. Marks! Tom would love it, since he also wrote a book of humorous bookbinding verse. If you enjoy reading this blog, you will love both of his books.

The letters were hand cut on the double yoked wheel, which must have taken incredible skill so that they ended up essentially even in height.  The “A” was repaired or replaced at some point, and soldered into place. All the letters are quite worn.

The dealer I purchased this from cleaned it up and polished it, more than I would have liked. Cleaning is irreversible!

Exhibition Review: Armenia. Art, Objects, Body Parts, and Books

Armenia!“, now on view at the Met, is one of the largest Armenian art shows ever in North America, containing more than 140 works of art, objects, body parts (in reliquaries), and books. It is not only a great art exhibition, but a great show for bibliophiles: roughly half the items on view are books. The show spreads calmly over seven galleries, with no videos or recorded sounds playing, and ample space between the objects. Even though it was packed with viewers the Sunday afternoon I visited, there weren’t lines in front of any particular object. The minimal gallery introductions and short captions reinforced a direct engagement with the objects, rather than reading about them. Interspersing the books with other objects initiated a dialogue between them.

Gospel Book with Gilded-Silver Covers and Embroidered Pouch. J. P. Morgan MS M.621. I’ve never seen another binding that has just one spine strap, like this one. Did it serve as a means of attachment to something else?

The craft similarities between reliquaries and full-metal books were hard to miss. For example, the 17th century gilded silver covers on the Gospel Book above, and the Hand Reliquary of Saint Abulmuse (L.1988.63) have a very similar construction. The stunning covers of both signal their importance as objects of veneration, and at the same time hide their inner contents. The insides of these objects are deeply personal, and almost at odds with the elaborately decorated exterior.  The reliquary houses body parts of someone, the book houses the thoughts of someone. Is there an object that does both?

Expositionitis. n. [ek-spuh-zish-uhn-ahy-tis] : A horrible desease that temporarily blinds museum professionals to the actual objects in an exhibition. Instead, the afflicted spend all their time looking at a crooked frame, an over cut mat, how a particular object was repaired or strapped, prominent shadows, a dust bunny in the corner of a case, etc…  “I didn’t even notice the carved ivory elephant in the corner, my expositionitis was so bad!”

I must have had a mild attack, since I am still thinking about a number of books open to a full 180 degrees, which can cause stress to the binding. A more restricted opening is generally better, and it is still relatively easy to view a two page spread. It also sets a poor precedent for the display of books in such a pre-eminant institution.

Alexander Romance, Sulu Manastir, 1544. Copied and illuminated by Zak’ariay of Gnunik’; d. 1576. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK. Kasemake cradle by Mark Furness.

Mark Furness, Senior Conservator at the University of Manchester, designed and made an interesting cradle. He and Elaine Sheldon have been working for a number of years on museum board cradles cut on a Kasemake boxmaking machine. I like the softness of museum board when making contact with leather. Some might find the aesthetics slightly distracting, though I’m sure this is something that is evolving. Mark also did a great job of strapping: note the zero textblock sag. An advantage is it ships completely flat for easy transport, and assembles without any adhesives. This version is quite strong and easily supports a heavy parchment textblook/ wooden board book easily. These cradles are inexpensive and easy to recycle.

I’m glad to see someone experimenting with something other than acrylic. Acrylic is so hard and flat, it rarely conforms closely with the undulations of hand made book boards and hand pared leather, let alone metal furniture. This can result in the weight of a book being concentrated in a few small areas.

Grakal, Liturgical Book Stand , 1272 with modern additions. History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (171).

The most interesting cradle, technically a book stand, was this 13th century grakal, a liturgical book stand. Although it is similar to an Islamic rehal, there are important differences. A traditional rehal is cut from a single piece of wood. The grakel was made of two seporate pieces. How they hinge together is also quite different.

A modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. This is one plank that has been partially cut into two.

To make a rehal, holes are drilled, as you can see in the image below. Then a thin sawblade, like a coping or turning saw, is inserted and the joints cut, and the plank cut in two. The ways a book sits in a rehal or grakal are also quite different. A book in a rehal sits in this cut out hinge, which also flattens out, creating a space for the spine. A book in a grakal sits on top of the leather sling, and has a metal rod that the two sides hinge from. Both, however, are lightweight, collapsable, portable, and support a book in use.

Detail of the hinge of a modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. A small saw blade was inserted into the drilled holes to begin the cuts. Making a model of one of these is on my to do list.
Detail of hinge area of the Grakal. Note the seam from the two pieces of wood.

I’m almost certain the top and bottom parts of this grakal are made from separate pieces of wood and glued together. The book rests on a leather top piece which lessens the stress on the hinge. Given the fact it has held up for nine centuries, the construction is more than adequate!

Gospel Book, Monastery of Manuk Surb Nshan, K’ajberunik’, 1386. J. Paul Getty Museum (MS Ludwig II 6).

My favorite piece in the show is this page from a Gospel Book, 1386. On the top are two scribes, and under them are two students burnishing the paper in preparation for writing, with extremely tall burnishers. Stylistically, they look quite similar to smaller, one handed Western glass mullers. The scribe mentions, in the text, he wanted to thank the students  (“his angels”) for this generally thankless, but important task. Paper was burnished to make it smoother for painting and writing on, and more parchment-like in appearance.

The last gallery of the show included a number of highly skilled manuscripts made in the 17th century. It surprised me to see the skilled transmission of craft skills persisting so late into what we in the West consider print culture. One of the primary takeaways from the show was how Armenia does not fit neatly into the Eastern-Western culture divisions many of us still regularly invoke, as well as challenging our notion of when Medieval culture ended.

If you can’t make it to the show, which closes January 13, 2019, the catalog is very informative, with all 143 objects described in text and photographs, and several longer essays. NY TImes review of Armenia!