There are very few things I love more than books. And while I can appreciate the place that digital books have in our world, and while I read on my phone regularly, the experience of reading is richest when I am holding a physical book in my hands, preferably while curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and some good quality chocolate. The weight of the book on my lap, the sound of the pages turning, the printed words making their way into my head–these things are somehow integral to my enjoyment of reading. My love of books extends to a love of paper. Most people have some item that they have trouble passing over, and for me that item is paper. Whether it’s fancy stationery, beautifully bound journals, or decorative handmade papers, I struggle to leave them on the shelves.  In the past I’ve tried my hand at paper making and was enthralled by the process of creating pulp in my blender then letting everything dry into wonderfully ragged sheets. So it was a no-brainer when a local opportunity cropped up to learn the art of coptic bookbinding.

Barbara Meneley, Artist in Residence at Branscombe House, in Steveston, BC facilitated a book binding workshop last month. If you’re local and you haven’t checked out the opportunities for art engagement through the residency you really should! Workshops are free to the public and offer a dynamic space for creative engagement. And where else are you going to learn the ancient art of Coptic bookbinding?

The process was captivating as it echoes knitting but moves completely outside my comfort zone of textile and fiber art. Creating the stitches that hold together the binding results in parallel columns of stockinette stitch, but it’s accomplished with thread and long sewing needles. I was thrilled to discover this unexpected overlap between one of my favourite crafts and bookbinding. It also gave me a deep appreciation of books as a technology. We rarely think of them that way. The form of pages bound together between cardboard covers is so ubiquitous that I rarely stop to think of books as physical objects in addition to vehicles for narrative. But when you make a book from scratch it becomes obvious that a certain genius was required to even conceive of a book. Sewing the pages together is like a mixture of embroidery and origami and takes a surprising amount of patience and precision. I found myself thinking back to a decades old experience of learning to make dream catchers with deer sinew. It seems simple on the surface but hides a trickiness.

I went home with a blank book and a deep desire to explore the art further. People have managed to create some unbelievably intricate coptic bindings, such that the bindings themselves become an art form.

Example of bookbinding as art. Artist unknown.

There’s lots to explore and I’m hoping that a trip to Paper Ya on Granville Island will be in my future so I might gather supplies to delve into this process further!