Welcome to another Techniton Politeia interview. This time we have an interesting talk with bookbinder Hannah Brown.
This is an extensive interview and will be divided in two parts. This is part I.
Hannah graduated with a BA (Hons) in Three Dimensional Crafts from Brighton University in 2004 and began studying Bookbinding during evening classes at Brighton University the same year. She won first prize in the 2008 Designer Bookbinders Competition and was also awarded the Mansfield Medal for best book in the same competition. She has since won the same competition twice in both 2011 and 2013 and has also won two Distinguished winner awards in the Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition in both 2013 and 2017.
She specialises in fine bookbinding and other bespoke commissioned works with a particular focus on embroidery on leather. She works with a variety of materials and objects, creating unique and hand-crafted pieces from scratch from her home studio in Somerset.
Undeniably, Hannah’s work is instantly recognizable. One could assume it’s because of her lavish designs, executed with painstaking attention to detail – and that would certainly be true to a great extent. However, a closer look reveals another reason that makes her bindings truly stand out: the immensely imaginative use of a thing as small and simple as a colored thread…
Lets unravel it slowly together with Hannah to see how it all comes together…
Whenever I happen to see a binding with embroidery, even if it’s used to a much lesser extent compared to your work, the first thing that comes to mind is Hannah Brown. This might certainly be unfair to those fellow binders but it goes to show how much of a statement your bindings make through this distinctive element; One could perhaps even go as far as to call it your trademark.
So, why embroidery?
From the very first fine binding I worked on (my entry for the 2007 Designer Bookbinders Competition, ‘The Somme: An Eyewitness History’) I introduced embroidery. For this first binding it was just a simple red line that I embroidered through the covering leather with my sewing machine. In fact, this wasn’t a decision made because I wanted the “look” of an embroidered line, simply because I didn’t at that point know how else to apply colour to the surface! What began as a single red line on that first binding has indeed developed into a an identifier for my work, I can’t think of one binding I have done without any on it.
(Click on the photo and zoom-in for a detailed look in HQ!)
Where lies the origin of your passion about it?
I studied at Brighton University and did a BA (Hons) Three Dimensional Crafts, this was nicknamed “WMCP” standing for “Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics”. Over the three years of the course we were taught techniques for how to work in all of these materials. I specialised in Ceramics and Metals in my final year and went on to make jewellery for my degree show. Throughout my degree I remember always wanting to find new ways of adding alternative textural qualities to what I was making. For example, planning ahead through the making process I would pierce holes through the wet clay before firing with a view to weaving threads through these when finalising the piece. I could then add extra colour and patterns in addition to the glazes.
How did you decide to combine it with bookbinding?
I guess I have subconsciously always liked adding threads to what I make and to me, with bookbinding, it was a natural choice to sew through the leather to create a design and add details before covering the text block.
On the same topic, I admittedly haven’t seen many binders use embroidery on their work, even more so on a regular basis.
Why do you think it’s so?
It is hard to say, to me it came naturally however it is very time consuming so perhaps that puts people off. The majority of my time is spent working on the leather before it gets stuck to the text block so there is a lot riding on the covering process, it can be nerve wrecking!
Perhaps embroidery is seen to be quite vulnerable on book covers. In all my time doing it I have developed ways to try and make it more durable.
Also, throughout all the bookbinding teaching I have done to date it generally seems to be females interested in the embroidery side of things!
Which would you say are the difficulties involved in adorning one’s work this way and what would you suggest to fellow binders interested in trying it?
There are definitely some difficulties with this technique, as follows:
Depending on the extent of the embroidery work it is a very time consuming process. There are ways of speeding up the process, for example if I am working on a design with lots of linear detail I do all of this using my sewing machine and then hand-whip over these lines by hand.
You need to consider how the book it going to be handled. You don’t want the threads to be loose and able to catch easily on anything. I take care to loop down any long threads and take extra care when I have embroidery across the board joints (I tend to try and avoid this but it is not always possible with some designs). You also have to be careful not to pull too hard on threads whilst sewing as it is always possible to pull through the leather if your holes are very close to one another.
If using a sewing machine you have to be careful not to make the holes too big and perforate the leather. For example, I always get asked whether I use a leather needle in my sewing machine (one that has a triangular point at the end) but I don’t. I have never found this necessary, perhaps because leather that is prepared for bookbinding purposes is soft enough not to need a needle such as this to get through it. I feel that these needles pierce too large a hole in the leather and can look unsightly. If using a sewing machine it is advisable to do some test runs on scrap leather first, the feet on some machines can leave marks on the surface of the leather which you probably don’t want!
It is tough on the fingers! I usually pre-prick holes in the leather through a template – partly so I know where I need to sew the threads and also so that the leather is already pierced before trying to push the needle through the leather with my fingers. I have never worked with a thimble before (another question I regularly get asked) but would probably recommend this to anyone starting out as it is also very easy to prick the end of your fingers.
” Throughout the whole process of working on the onlays I had to be pretty organised and keep them all separate so used zip-lock bags to hold the images of each flower along with the leathers used for each, plus the chosen embroidery threads. “
” I developed different ways of holding the leather to make it possible to get to the areas I wanted to sew through. “
The above quotes are just a few of many illustrating how experimentation and problem-solving are a big part of your work.
Do you simply go for what you have in mind and challenges come out of the blue as you work or do you intentionally choose to try things that will present you with a challenge?
I would say I go for what I have in mind and challenges come out of the blue as I work. I have an idea in my head of how I hope the end result will look and I overcome the challenges that appear during the process. The good thing about the way I work is if, for example, the piece of leather that I find has a natural mark somewhere on it that I don’t want to be visible I can generally work the design so that it is covered in some way with onlays or embroidery. As I make a sample board for each of my fine bindings, this is a great opportunity to test out design elements and techniques in advance ahead of doing them directly on the binding so that helps a lot. On a couple of occasions I have made up small maquettes of books too to test out structures in advance, all this pre-planning can help to make the whole binding process happen more smoothly.
Is it always a thrill, or can it turn into a thriller too?
Ha! I haven’t really thought of it like that before. The only thriller moments are really time constraints. I often find I am pushed for time at the end of the making process, working to a deadline for a competition entry or exhibition submission can be stressful. So in that respect it is not always a thrill!
And lastly, given that everything we see from you is amazing, would you mind sharing a “failure”? An idea, big or small, that you really wanted to do at some point, tried a lot, but couldn’t make it work.
To be honest I haven’t yet had the time to be experimental enough to have anything I would class as a failure! Time is very tight as I am doing my binding work alongside having two young children, keeping on top of housework, correspondence, plus I do two roles for Designer Bookbinders. I have many many projects in my head that I would love to try out, these may become failures when I get a chance to work on them. Top of my list is trying out a binding with wooden boards, I think this will be a difficult task to work out to maintain the aesthetics of the embroidery I do on leather bindings, this may therefore lead me in a very different direction with my work which could be very exciting.
I would like to turn the spotlight to blogging for a moment.
To speak for my part, blogging has been really important: it has kept me active and focused, it allowed me to showcase my work to people from all around the world and has contributed a great deal in my livelihood.
Blogging has also other, less personal but perhaps equally substantial, benefits as well: it raises public awareness for our craft, it helps bookbinding enthusiasts in many ways and brings new people in the community. Furthermore, by being able to see each other’s work we discover new techniques and ideas as well as solutions to shared difficulties.
All that said, upon stumbling on an informative and helpful post it’s often easy to overlook the fact that blogging requires work – a lot of it!
Your posts always include an impressive amount of high-res photos and details about the binding process. To be honest I can’t think of many blogs out there on par with your thoroughness when it comes to bookbinding!
Could you share a few words on why/how you began blogging and some “behind the scenes” of a post?
I am always very pleased to hear that people actual read my blog posts(!). In fact, I didn’t set out to write a post about each of my bindings, it just naturally morphed into that. The reason I initially started writing a blog is that my husband and I moved to the South of France for 18 months in 2014. We did a house swap with a couple and spent one and a half years living in their converted farmhouse in Provence. I mainly started the blog to document our time there so our friends and family could read about what we were doing, it was so idyllic and I have fond memories of our time there.
What started off with posts about nighttime frog choruses, vintage tractor fairs and sunflower fields has now become a step-by-step guide of my making process. I have no idea whether I would have thought to write up about my bindings if I hadn’t started a platform writing about our life swap – perhaps this was a happy accident! The feedback I have had about my posts has been brilliant so that also spurs me to carry on with it, I don’t believe in keeping any of my techniques a secret and I am pleased to hear that reading about my making process has inspired some binders to try out new things.
Obviously the most key thing when it comes to blog writing is to take as many photos as possible. It is so very easy these days as my phone usually sits on my work desk however I do often forget to take photos at key moments, plus more often than not I need two hands to do certain steps with no third hand to take a photo so some steps go undocumented.
I must admit, my computer is in disarray and really needs to be sorted out. I have two young girls so half of the photos on my desktop are of them, the other half work! The photos I take on my phone automatically sync onto my computer and I periodically sort the relevant images for my blog posts into a labelled folder on my computer. I then work through them and discard images that I don’t feel are relevant or are bad quality. Next I edit each of the making photos in Photoshop (cropping, brightening, resizing etc) and give them file names and numbers so I know what each photo is and to get them into the right order.
Once the binding is complete I take photographs of the finished book and add these to the folder once they have been edited. I am then ready to upload the photos onto my blog site and draft the text in line with the images. It is often the case that when writing out the process I need to backtrack and take a photo of something I have forgotten (for example an image of the design drawing or the sample board) so that gets added later.
Hannah’s sample boards: she makes one for each of her fine bindings to test the design ideas.
Click on the photo and zoom-in for a detailed look in HQ!
It is a labor of love. From the very beginning of my bookbinding career I got into the habit of making my sample boards for each binding and now I am also into the habit of writing up about each project, to the point I feel I can’t miss a binding any more! I do however think I will be eternally grateful to myself to keep it up, this is an invaluable tool to me to remember tips and tricks for future work. At present my blog posts are held on a separate Tumblr site, my website is in desperate need of an upgrade as I have completely outgrown it. As and when this happens I will have a dedicated blog section on my new site.
Both of your sites showcase wonderful design bindings and the creative process behind them. Does this amount to a 100% of your work, or is your bench also occupied by more humble binding tasks?
I am lucky that my practical time is largely filled with fine binding tasks. I would say 70% of the time spent in my workspace is spent doing fine bindings. The other 30% is administrative work, blog writing, prepping for teaching etc. But this fluctuates week on week depending on the projects I have on at the time.
In case of the former, was this your goal from the beginning or something that came along the way and how?
When I began bookbinding it was only ever as a hobby, I was doing it alongside full-time employment at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a Mount-making Technician. Initially was just doing speculative pieces for myself or bindings for competitions. I didn’t at the time imagine I would ever become a self-employed bookbinder, or for that matter that the majority of my time would be dedicated to making fine bindings.
When I won the Mansfield Medal for Best Binding in the 2008 Designer Bookbinders Annual Competition was a turning point, the binding sold as a result of being exhibited in the competition exhibition and I took on my first commission as a result of it. Through becoming a Licenciate of Designer Bookbinders and exhibiting with them raised my profile and led to more work.
In case of the latter would you share a few examples of simpler projects?
As mentioned above, as the majority of my time is spent working on fine bindings there is little time for simpler projects. I have however recently branched out and taken on some alternative work that is slightly out of my comfort zone. This includes making some cloth-covered bindings for a fashion company however I have been commissioned to do these as they wish to have embroidered elements on the front of them – there is no escaping it!
At this point we reach the end of part I.
You can read part II here.
Be sure to check back next week for part II where Hannah and I talk about her favorite bindings, her views on what makes a good forwarding & finishing, her magnum opus Chaucer’s Works and more!
In the meantime you can have a look at Hannah’s site and -most importantly- her blog where she chronicles in depth the creative process behind each binding.