Dream Job: What it’s Like to be a Bookbinder in a Centuries-Old Boys’ Club

Features. Posted 10 months ago

Cher Tan


Book produced by Miranda Dangerfield.

Bookbinding has had a long history since medieval times. From religious books bound in parchment to personal journals and later, treatises and manuscripts that flourished after the introduction of paper, the art of bookbinding has seen various modes throughout the centuries. Now, as automatic presses pump out books to quickly satisfy the ongoing demands of a global public, and as digitisation continues to threaten the existence of print, these factors work in tandem to minimise the value of hand-bound books. It is incredibly difficult and rare to find a beautiful hand-binded book in modern times.

Hand-binding books require painstaking effort and a specific skill-set. Bookbinders choose the parchment they are going to use and fold it to suit the book’s measurements. Holes are then punched into the parchment by hand, ready for sewing. A bookbinding needle is used to sew the pages together, which is bound by thick wax-coated cotton. Later, the spine is glued up to hold the sections together. When the glue dries, a guillotine is used to cut the book down to the required size, and the spine is rounded with a hammer to give it its curvature. By contrast, commercial binding uses machine-printed sleeves and clothette (a paper derivative which resembles cloth) covers, and are often put through a binding machine with sheets glued on the spine; books bound this way are likely to fall apart over time.

Tradtional bookbinding is also a customarily male-dominated environment. Throughout its lifespan, bookbinding has seen few women actually binding books, as they are usually relegated to sewing positions on the bench instead of operating machinery. Combined with the trade’s wane in importance, it is unusual to find binders who also happen to be women.

Enter Miranda Dangerfield, a qualified bookbinder who wants to continue to keep the dying trade alive. With eighteen years of experience hand-binding books under her belt, Miranda has strove to create a mark in the bookbinding industry. From her humble beginnings as a bench-hand and assistant, she is now one of the only female-identified hand typesetters and letter compositors in Australia. In 2013, she started Noun Movement Books, her independent bindery which stemmed from a distaste for the inherent patriarchy within the industry, and a desire to subvert the norm. We spoke to Miranda to find out how she navigates the trade as a woman, and how she intends to preserve centuries-old traditions while reinventing the wheel.

Cher Tan: How did you get into bookbinding?
Miranda Dangerfield: I’ve always been creative. The want to get my hands dirty and the need to make drove me to leave school during my VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) and search for a “lost trade” to work in. It was a very powerful desire. After being rejected for a stonemason’s apprenticeship—which I believe was a result of my gender and age—it lit a fierce determination which still continues today. Subsequently, I saw an advertised position in the paper where a local bookbindery was looking for a bench-hand and assistant. That was my entry, and it went from there.

Cher: What made you start Noun Movement Books?
Miranda: I had spent 14 years in the industry surrounded by stuffiness and mundanity. The fact that most of the binderies I’d worked in were dominated by men who very rarely encouraged me to flourish [with regards to my ideas] was stifling. I’ve learnt a lot during those 14 years, and I’m thankful for that, but a part of me wanted to bust out on my own so I could look at nurturing my creativity. I didn’t want to spend my time restoring books or binding texts which only followed a very limited aesthetic.

Cher: What do you think deters women from entering the bookbinding industry?
Miranda: It’s institutional—it’s one of those trades where it’s been historically dominated by men, which can be discouraging. Where do you even start? There are few role models to look up to. Women were (and are) also hardly offered apprenticeships or even informally trained on-site, often only given roles as bench-hands, sewers, and tea ladies.

Cher: Do you have any advice for young women wanting to get into the trade now?
Miranda: Melbourne Uni offers a professional qualification in paper conservation, where bookbinding is touched on. There are also short courses at RMIT, and bookbinding academies overseas. But it’s very difficult to formally enter the trade now, as the industry’s “glory days” are long gone. On top of old binderies which often are unwilling to take on female apprentices, cheap manufacturing costs in a time of commercial binding has also diminished the need for hand-bound books. That said however, I believe it’s crucial to maintain the fundamentals of the trade; it’s an old craft and requires the respect it deserves. But gatekeepers need to make it accessible and not obscure it.

All imagery provided by the author.

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