Thursday, September 20, 2012

Atelier du Marais: Traditional Bookbinding for Beginners

Peeking through the window into Atelier du Marais
If you've been reading this blog for a few months or more, you'll remember that the highlight of my trip to Paris was attending Atelier du Marais for classes to learn some traditional bookbinding skills.

In Brisbane we are lucky to have Studio West End, run by book artist Adele Outteridge and printmaker/painter Wim de Vos, but they would be the first to say that they do not teach traditional bookbinding. There is also the Queensland Bookbinders Guild, but because their Introductory Courses are organised as two full consecutive days, I haven't been able to attend. 

You may be surprised to hear that I had never made a case-bound book before, so I was keen to gain some experience working with someone with these specialized skills. I found that Mme Malouvier was not only an experienced teacher, but passionate and fun, and despite language-challenges, the students made me feel very welcome. The best aspect was taking part in something "real", something not set up for tourists, being part of a group of like-minded Parisians.
 I feel very lucky to have discovered the Atelier.

Above you can see the two blank journals that I made under Mme Malouvier's careful guidance. My initial plan was to walk you through their making, but despite taking quite a lot of photos and even more notes, I don't think this would really be worth your while. I couldn't really put together an adequate "how to" which would be the aim. Instead, I've decided to use the photos to show you the things that I did that were new to me, and share the tips I picked up, and hopefully something will be new or different to you too.

But first, a little look around the Atelier.(Apologies for the quality of these photos. In order to be unobtrusive I used my phone).

This is the view from the door. You can see the full length of the Atelier. At the back you can see a tiled wall - that is a little bathroom with a toilet and basin. On the right at the bottom of the photo, you can just see a stool. Beyond to the right, out of shot, is the work bench which runs the length of the wall. And that is it! There is room for about six students at a time.
A closer view of the left hand wall. There are three presses in view, although the one at the left (with the blue wheel) is being used more as a bench in this shot. The lovely boxes are for students to store their spare supplies (excess leather etc)
The right hand wall of the Atelier, looking along the work bench. Most supplies and tools are conveniently stored on the wall, either hanging, in handmade boxes or as below, in cork tumblers.

Sewing signatures on the frame

For my first project I used a commercially available book block, but for the second I bought sheets of watercolour paper, which I tore to size, folded and assembled into 8 signatures. 

There was a very clever jig at the studio, which you placed your signatures onto, and it told you exactly how many sewing points were needed for your book according to its size and also where they should be placed.

My book required 5 sewing points and three tapes. This was the first time I have used a sewing frame, so while it's not extraordinary in any way, I was quite excited to give it a go.

Above you see the sewing frame, with my book block lined up to the tapes.
This is a close-up view. You tie the tapes onto the big woolly bits above (? name) and pull them as tight as you can, lining them up in the space between your sewing holes. Then you use a large nail and push it through the tape and under the wooden shelf of the frame.

In this photo you can see that a piece of wood slips into the frame, covering the nails from view and providing a smooth work surface. You can also see the sewing in progress.

I found the sewing to be quite logical - you pass waxed thread in at the top hole of the first signature, leaving a tail of about 8cm. Continue weaving the thread in and out to the bottom of the signature. NB. The thread should pass on the outside around each tape. At the bottom of the signature, ensure your thread is tight by pulling out to the side (ie in the direction you are sewing). Take your thread into the signature above and continue back to the head. Here you need to sew back into the signature below and tie off with a double knot to attach the signatures securely.  At the end, tie off securely, working back into at least one signature below.

Up close. Hmm, not very even Amanda. (But it is my first go!)
Usually when the sewing is completed, the book block is ready to be glued. However, when using a heavy paper like I was, the block needs pressing overnight before glueing. Without this, the signatures would simply spring apart.

This is the book block after a night in the press. The tapes have been trimmed and glued down.

Next are the covers and glueing the book block, but that will have to wait till next post.



  1. I adore the pics of all the equipment in this little studio... oops I mean atelier!

    maybe its my (faint) french heritage, maybe its the familiar intimate scale of the space, quite probably its the lovely bookbinding gear (its so familiar - given that all my loveliest bits came from france....)

  2. Just lovely, Amanda! I feel Parisian book arts envy coming on...

  3. This would have been a wonderful experience Amanda to work in such a gorgeous little atelier and I will be following your progress eagerly. Oh and I've never had the opportunity to sew a book on a sewing frame - very envious.

  4. That little atelier could illustrate a nineteenth-century tale on bookbinding. And I am absolutely fascinated by those wooly parts on the sewing frame. All the elements in the atelier seem to have a life of their own!

  5. Hi,
    I know this studio well, as l have been to Paris many times but l have never had a course there. You brave woman, x glad you had a great time.x

  6. wow!!! a master class in amazing!! This is a wonderful post....

  7. Hello. I need to buy an object I dont know the name. Where can I find it in paris?The link is Thank you gregorio

    1. Hi Gregorio,
      I'm not in Paris any more, but the best shop for this sort of item that I know is Relma, (3 rue des Poitevins, 75006) I don't know the French name for that object either but perhaps you could take a picture from the Louet website. Good luck!

  8. Hello!

    I love this post and wanted to see how to get in touch with the shop? I will be in Paris this winter and would love to take a course there! Do you have any idea if they still offer classes? Do they speak any English? Please let me know! Looks like you had such a nice time!

    Thanks so much!


    1. Hi Meghan,
      I was last in Paris in October and went past the studio. It was after hours but it still looks fully operational, so yes, I think classes are still offered. There isn't a course as such, you decide on a bookbinding project to make and Madame will take you through the steps to make it happen. So it is very individualised tutoring. Wonderful! The contact details for the atelier are here:

    2. I also meant to say that Madame does speak English, it's just like anyone else, I think she prefers to use her native tongue. I speak some basic French, but am certainly not fluent, and I found that I could follow because she is demonstrating at the same time. I found she was extremely accommodating and welcoming. I hope I'll have the chance to return myself.