The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and that means we’re getting closer and closer to the biggest gift-giving holidays of the year. I’ve never been great at giving gifts. If I stumble on something that one of my friends or family members will love, I feel secure in my gift-giving abilities, but often I’m at a loss for ideas, since I always want my presents to be perfect and unique. If you’re really dedicated to upping your gift-giving game, though, you could try making gifts yourself.
Inspiration for handmade gifts can come from strange places. A few months ago, I helped process the Columbia Archives and Special Collections’ Artists’ Books from our Center for Book and Paper Arts collection. The Center for Book and Paper Arts was founded at Columbia College Chicago in 1994 by paper artists Marilyn Sward and Barbara Lazarus Metz. The collection itself contains student work, faculty work, and work by internationally-recognized paper artists, including Amadeo R. Tommasini.
Unless you’re deeply into the paper arts and design community, you probably won’t recognize that name. Tommasini, who sometimes shortened his name to just “Tommy,” worked as a composing room foreman at the University of California Press in 1945 when the press was chosen to print the United Nations Charter. His then-co-worker, Joe Baxley, credits Tommasini’s reputation as a master typographer as one of the reasons the UC Press won the privilege of printing the charter, and Tommasini was also the one to deliver the finished charter to the assembled delegates at the War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco when it was finished.
That’s just one dazzling item on Tommasini’s resume. He also worked on much smaller projects, like the series of miniature keepsake books he printed for his friends at Christmastime between 1947 and 1979. Since his death, these have become prized collector’s items, and most of them are available in the Center for Book and Paper Arts collection. Some of them contain personal reflections from Tommy himself, but others contain poetry or excerpts from larger books.
If you’re hurting for gift ideas, don’t have a small fortune to drop on presents, and don’t want to give your mom any more macaroni art, maybe Tommy’s Keepsakes are the inspiration you need. You don’t even need to be a renowned printer who can list the United Nations as a reference to make your own books.
My mom has been a craftswoman her whole life and has taught papermaking and bookmaking workshops for kids and adults (including for me, several times), so I asked her to walk me through the process once more. You’ll need cardboard, fabric, glue, paper of any kind, and a large needle and thread or embroidery floss.
First, cut two equally-sized rectangles of cardboard for the covers and lay them down on your fabric side-by-side with a ¼ inch space between them for the spine. Cut the fabric around the cardboard, leaving about an inch of space around each edge, cutting a notch at each corner so the fabric won’t be as bulky when you glue it down. Smear the cardboard with glue and set it back down on the fabric, sticky side down. Spread a thin layer of glue around the edges of the cardboard and fold the fabric over it. Press, smooth, and set aside.
For the pages, take a stack of 4-8 sheets of paper, cut to fit inside your book. Fold them in half, and press down the fold so that it’s nice and crisp. Poke three holes in the crease with the needle: One in the center and two more on either side of that. Now, thread the needle, but don’t knot it. If you don’t have embroidery floss, double up your sewing thread so that it’s more sturdy. Squeeze the needle down through that center hole, leaving a tail of about 3 inches, and bring it up through either of the other holes. Then, put the needle down through the center hole again and bring it back through the other side hole. Cut the needle off the thread and tie off the ends. You can trim the dangling pieces of the thread, or tie it into a decorative bow.
Smear the outermost pages of the booklet with another thin layer of white glue and place the spine of the booklet into the space between the cardboard covers. Carefully smooth the glued pages against the cardboard, and leave open to dry.
That’s my mom’s standard book recipe. For ideas on how to make a keepsake book unique, I looked to another artist whose work is available in the Center for Book and Paper Arts collection: Suze Weinberg. Weinberg taught paper crafting classes and workshops for many years and created her own line of crafting supplies. She’s now retired, but in the 1990s she helped collect and publish tips and tricks for paper crafting, book making, and hand lettering in a series called “Paper Crafting Secrets.”
If you want to try decorating your covers with a collage, rather than fabric, Paper Crafting Secrets In House! contains a list of ideas for collage materials, put together by
artist Janet Hofacker. These include photographs, dress patterns, wrapping paper and tissue paper, maps, graphs, candy wrappers, magazine pages, greeting cards and postcards, food labels, book pages, and paper napkins. You could even try using foreign currency, if you have old bills on hand that didn’t get spent on vacation. In Paper Crafting Secrets Unlocked!, Hofacker provides instructions for making brown bag wrapping paper that you could also use in place of fabric. In short: crumple a brown paper bag to give it texture, then lay flat. Paint the paper; Hofacker suggests diluting acrylic paint with a small amount of water to make a color wash and applying a few layers onto the bag. Let dry for 24 hours, iron on top of a stack of newspapers, and spray with a fixative.
You could also try decorating with stamps, stickers, your own drawings, colored duct tape and washi tape, or anything else you like. You can leave the pages blank and make the book a notebook or a sketchbook, or you can print a special message inside. The possibilities are as various and as unique as the people you’ll give them to.
Quintero, Fernando. “Baxley of UC Printing Recalls Marathon That Led to Birth of the United Nations.” Berkeleyan, 17 May 1995 http://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1995/0517/typ.html
“Suze Weinberg.” Gelpress.com. https://gelpress.com/suze-weinberg/
Weinberg, Suze. Paper Crafting Secrets In House!. PAPER CRAFTERS, 1997
Weinberg, Suze. Paper Crafting Secrets Unplugged!. PAPER CRAFTERS, 1996