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A book by its cover

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

After a couple of weeks of more printing (which I'll cover in another post) I finally set page-making aside to focus on the cover. I had been playing around with ideas all year, and had tested some materials, but I knew I had wanted to make a beaded, leather-bound cover - with what design, however, I hadn't the faintest clue. Earlier in the year, I had done some trials on thin, unfinished kangaroo hide. I had chosen unfinished hide because it was unbelievably inexpensive and soft enough to wrap around book boards. I had also chosen unfinished hide because I wanted to experiment with painting it white with a shimmery finish. On a side-note, I wanted to paint it white because I couldn't find a thin, white hide that was a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, unfinished hide has a slightly pale, greyish tone and, as I soon realised, when painting anything white, you need to paint several, SEVERAL layers. I had selected some GAC 900 (fabric medium) mixed with Golden Fluid titanium white because, based on my small tests, it appears to perform quite well on leather - and it does, if you're only doing one or two coats. But if you're doing six, seven or eight, it really starts to become sticky - and if you are anywhere near dust, that dust starts to stick and it looks horrendous! I also was painting the leather with a brush - which, again, isn't so bad with one or two coats on a small piece, but on larger pieces, it becomes more difficult to get even coats. And even though I have an airbrush, I was hesitant to use with with GAC 900, since it has a reputation for being sticky and clogging up airbrushes.

I had decided to paint the hide and then cut it, but every subsequent layer created a more and more undesirable finish :(

I still kept persisting here, but alas, I was at a point where I almost knew it wasn't meant to be. Hide should be soft and smooth, not sticky! I can, luckily, repurpose the suede side, which is still completely clean and soft.

I had done research up to my eyeballs on painting leather hide. Not only did I want a leather that was white (and relatively inexpensive), but I also wanted to add a faint shimmer to the hide. I suppose one would ask why I decided on leather hide rather than a regular book cloth - especially since I have never done leather binding before. Part of the reason is that I wanted a material that has longevity and would endure over time, but the other reason is that I wanted to bead-embroider the cover; this simply looks and feels better on soft leather, and because leather is malleable, I had high hopes that any slight puckering from stitching would even out once it's glued down.

It almost seems a bit foolish to try something like this, since I've never bound a book with leather, and binding bead-embroidered leather is not conventional practice (it seems reserved for clothing and accessories). I'm also still refining my bead-embroidery skills, so all these things combined - plus attempting to paint leather - make it appear as though I'm out of my depth with very little time to waste.

After exhausting my attempt at painting kangaroo hide - which would have been perfectly fine if it was white to begin with - I ditched the plan, did a bit more research on leather-binding and found some inexpensive white kid hide I sourced from a leather shop in Melbourne. Kid hide is known to be perfect for bookbinding since it is soft, thin and pliable. I still (very stubbornly) wanted to add this shimmery effect on the white hide, but because I was concerned with the mica particles jamming up my airbrush (which I normally reserve for aquatinting), I decided the safest option was to rub the mica on the hide with a soft cotton ball, and then seal it with a leather, acrylic finisher using my airbrush. This worked a treat and is something I will be putting into practice again.

Here's a bit of airbrush action in the garage:

After my hide was prepared, I had to decide on the dimensions of the cover. The pages seem to have slightly grown a few millimetres on all sides, so I decided to expand the dimensions slightly to accommodate this. I cut the boards to size, lay them on the hide, and decided which areas of the hide were best for each cover whilst also taking care to not waste the usable area of the material. After carefully marking out the area, I cut the areas with a sharp blade and set them aside. At this point, I was still not sure what was going on these covers!

I don't know what compelled me to go roaming about on the internet looking for red-carpet Met Gala designs (honestly, I can't remember), but I think there was something about making a cover for the book that kindled this notion that I was making an outfit for the pages. I came across a designer named Emily Bode (by the way, I don't know a lick about fashion or designers) who created a piece for Lorde in 2021.

It is, literally, charming, but not loud or ostentatious. And the charms themselves appear to convey symbols that may suggest something about the wearer, but we're not really sure. I decided to run with this idea that I could embellish the cover with symbols that suggested something about the interior, but that wouldn't really yell out any answers to the viewer.

From here, I started to create a layout in Photoshop and searched the web for simple line designs of symbols, and I also just drew my own. It's worth noting that once you start beading, two things happen: the design you start with inevitably changes because you're working with beads and not a pen or brush; and the design inevitably changes because you begin to improvise. Most of these symbols were based on previous research - they do mean something, but they do not mean just one thing, and I'd rather leave it for the viewers to connect with.

Front cover....

...and back cover.

Once I had the front and back covers mapped out, I printed them out and traced them onto tissue paper with a black pen. I then took the tracing and lined it up on my leather rectangles, as this would guide my stitching while embroidering.

Once the outlines are beaded, I tear away the paper to fill in the forms. It takes a while to tear away any tiny bits stuck between the beads! I had to use tweezers for this.

This is a typical Métis beading technique that I learned online during lockdown in 2020 (but I must say, my stitching technique is not quite the same). There was a mask-making project taking place Canada-wide, with many artists (mostly First Nations artists) beading masks during lockdown (and which you can read about here).

Although the project involved both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, you had to be residing in Canada to participate, so, while I decided to give it a try, I was mostly just focussed on my own learning. After beading masks, I wanted to learn more about beading on leather and suede, so over the Christmas break last year (while I was getting over Covid) I finally had a go at it.

I have to say, beading is really the most comforting craft. As much as I adore printmaking - and although I'm normally energised by it - there does come a point where physical exertion and intense focus depletes all of my energy (I sleep very well on these days). Beadwork invites a different kind of focus - I can sit comfortably, rather than stand, and the work space is much smaller - not to mention cleaner! I can also tolerate working longer and will often work until 8 or 9pm - which is very late for an early riser like myself.

All the of the colours chosen were chosen spontaneously, and the beaded lines and coloured dots that connect the front and back covers together were also a spontaneous decision. It took nearly three weeks of full-time beading to finish the covers, and then I had to take a leap of faith to bind it. After even more research, I found an excellent YouTube source that give me a bit of insight on binding with leather, which you can find here.

Here are a couple more process photos:

Because I have never bound with leather before - and also because I had never bound with beaded leather before - I decided that I had to do yet another trial. I could not afford to allow three weeks of work to go to waste! So I cut up a square of scrap leather and another square of board, and got stitching with beads, again. I wanted to ensure that, despite the leather puckering from my stitches, that it would stretch just enough to flatten out on the boards when I glued them. I also wanted to ensure the glue I was using wouldn't dry too quickly (as PVA often does) so that I could shaped the leather around the boards with my hands (which I had to keep clean and glue-free) and flatten the front of the boards with the back of my fingernails (as the bonefolder was too big for this).

One thing I realised with the boards is that the edges definitely needed to be bevelled on both sides if I wanted the leather to tuck in neatly at the corners (for this reason, I'm glad I did a trial). Because the leather is thicker than buckram, folding it on the corners causes it to bunch up significantly (and I don't have a paring knife to thin the leather). Since I can't pare the leather (and it's quite thin, anyway), I bevelled all of the book board edges, which allowed the leather to fold over quite neatly on the edges. I also ensured that I pasted down white book rag paper on the end-page side so that it matches the white leather. When it comes time to glue down the end papers, the colour of the paper will be consistent and bright throughout.

I'm quite happy with how this turned out, but I'm mostly happy that the cover survived the whole ordeal of binding!

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