Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 1

I just finished my first of five days at the Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute. Coming here is on my Book Arts Bucket List and I’m psyched to be able to cross it off. I’m taking Leather Binding Fundamentals, which is pretty much what it sounds like – we’re going to complete a full leather binding and experiment with different decorative techniques.

I’ve taken a handful of workshops on how to work with leather, but for whatever reason, I don’t feel like it’s sticking. My brain gets it, but I’m just not feeling it in my hands. I know it takes lots of practice, so I need to be patient. I’m not very good at that.

Thankfully, I’ve got an awesome instructor – Karen Hanmer. That’s right, folks – the location may be different, but the instructor is the same (this is my 4th workshop with Karen). She may very well be tired of looking at my face. It’s her own fault though – she’s got skills and she’s a fun teacher.

Here’s where I’ll be spending most of my time this week:

Morgan Hall at Wells College

When you go in the front door of the building, you’re greeted by this friendly sign:

Broadside on the front door of Morgan Hall at Wells College

Our classroom is up on the third floor. I’m getting quite a workout with all of the up and down I’ve done today.

Ah, how I love to sit down to a neat work space and the possibilities of fresh supplies. And a scary to-do list. But good scary.

Leather binding workshop materials

Most of the day was spent working on our text blocks. We started by tipping in cloth hinges on our end pages, which were made from Bugra paper. This was followed by the punching of the holes.

Text block with punched holes

We got to watch Karen do a demonstration of the sewing on a really huge sewing frame. She’s back there – trust me.

Karen Hanmer doing a text block sewing demonstration

Since I had previous experience using a sewing frame, I got to use a special one that had been MacGyvered from two ratcheting bar clamps and a dowel. If you give this setup a try, leave additional room on the sides of your text block – I had a hell of a time completing my kettle stitches.

Improvised sewing frame

Karen advised us to not look inside the signatures while we were sewing – we should be able to feel where the holes are from the inside by using the tip of our needle. She stressed that there was nothing to see in there, so just.don’

I humbly admit that I peeked (I tried to be cool about it). I mostly did so because I repeatedly stabbed myself with the needle and I was convinced that I was bleeding all over the pages. And then I think I did it a few times just because she told us not to.

14 signatures (and a couple of hours) later, I was done. And on top of that, I wasn’t the last one finished. Yay! In case you’re wondering, we only linked stitches on the first 2 and last 2 signatures due to time constraints. If we had more time, we would have linked all of the stitches.

Hand-sewn text block

Hey now, I’m a text block!

We glued up our spines and entered rounding and backing territory. This is one of those not-in-my-hands things I was talking about earlier. I hold on to the hammer too tightly because I get tense. Then I’m too tender with the text block – I’m a tentative whacker.

This text block came out better than ones I’ve done previously, so I guess that’s progress.

Rounded and backed spine

Next came the spine linings. I got to use a very, very long finishing press.

Rounded and backed text block in finishing press

Hello back there…

Once I got my text block in the press, I noticed that my rounded spine got a bit wacky – it was like the middle of it sank down. Boo. It’s still roundish, so I’ll count that as a victory.

Rounded and backed spine

We used Cambric (a.k.a. Jaconet) for our spine linings. It was added to the areas between our stitches and at the head and tail of the text block. We used PVA to adhere each lining, then brushed paste on top of them to help with adhesion. It worked like a charm.

Sewn text block with spine lining in finishing press

That was the last thing we did today. I know it doesn’t look like much in this post, but by the end of the day I was exhausted. I’m glad that we didn’t have any homework for tomorrow.

By the way, I forgot to mention that when you take a workshop at Wells, you get swag – behold, the apron!

Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute apron

I close this workshop post in my usual fashion of let’s document what the instructor says that is useful and/or embarrassing – as long as I’m amused, that’s all that matters.

Here we go:

I’m going to show you what I would do if you weren’t here.


She sucks. This is perfect.


I kinda like being able to make people do stuff.

8 Responses to “Leather Binding Fundamentals with Karen Hanmer – Day 1”

By Velma Bolyard - 27 July 2016 Reply

lucky you to be 1. working with karen and 2. doing it at wells. it’s a terrific place and students are treated like royalty. i have a couple of those aprons myself! enjoy!

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Velma –

It’s awesome here. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to come to Wells and harass Karen for the 4th time. 🙂


By Karen Krieger - 27 July 2016 Reply

This looks terrifying — you are very brave. And an excellent storyteller!

By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Karen –

I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂 There’s more terror to come – lots of sharp things are in my future.


By daria wilber - 27 July 2016 Reply


I love reading your class chronicles…they are bright, funny, fresh and honest. Too bad there isn’t a daily paper on paper, papermaking and book binding. If there was I’d vote you editor in chief!


By Elissa - 2 August 2016 Reply

Daria –

Oh, you’re a peanut! I really enjoy sharing both my successes and failures – it’s all part of the learning process.


By Hilke - 3 October 2016 Reply

I am currently catching up… and I am blue and green and whatnot with envy. Looks like a wonderful workshop, with Karen Hanmer no less! Looks like you did a good job there! Backing, ugh, a scary topic for me 🙂 And wonderful apron.

By Elissa - 5 October 2016 Reply

Hilke –

Yeah, ugh is a great word to pair with the experience of backing. I’ll have to do it another 100 times before I can come close to getting it right.


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