Interview: Rachel Ward-Sale, bookbinder

Written for Journalism Master’s Course, November 2013 .

On the night Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize she was joined at her table by a small, quiet woman from Brighton. The woman was not a judge, author or publisher, and she had never met Catton before, yet she made the guest list of an event to which even nominated authors can only bring two guests.

The woman was bookbinder Rachel Ward-Sale, and a photograph of the night sits on a desk in her studio. She doesn’t feature. Instead, it shows Catton holding a copy of her winning book, The Luminaries, hand-bound in the studio where I now sit.

Ward-Sale, 54, has been a bookbinder for 36 years and admits that her artistic process, in which “a finished product is my starting point”, is an unusual one. When she gets a commission to design and bind a book, as she did at the beginning of October from the Booker’s PR team, she begins by reading the book cover to cover -for The Luminaries she was given only a month and had to plough through its 800 pages before she could begin designing.

Next, she designs a cover, sketching anywhere from six to 60 designs until one hits the right note. Sometimes, as with Catton’s novel, the design seems obvious: “it was clear that it had to be gold – gold links the characters and their stories in the novel.” Her final design was a navy blue binding with a constellation of gold specks.

From her studio in Lewes, East Sussex, Ward-Sale works on only two or three commissions a month. Hand-binding and decorating each book can take up to 70 hours, which explains the steep price of a “design binding” – £1,000 to £3,000. Around us, dwarfing the figure in the chair opposite me, are enormous rolls of paper and leather, bought from stockists in London and Northampton and then sliced on a menacing machine on our left. Leather is heated and stretched onto boards, then pages are clamped in a vice and stitched in using linen cord or tape. The design work only begins once this lengthy process is completed.

The job is a combination of what Ward-Sale calls “bread and butter work”: binding student theses and rebinding old family bibles or classics; and creating one-off “design bindings”. Clients in this second category range from authors who want beautiful editions of their own books (journalist Chris Robbins had every book he published bound by Ward-Sale) to men who give collections of handwritten love poetry as gifts to their girlfriends (“it is always men bringing in their poetry, never women,” she notes. “I don’t know why.”)

The sentimental value attached to some of her commissions weighs more heavily on Ward-Sale than the monetary value, because “granny’s book is granny’s book and there will never be another granny’s book. We are always incredibly careful.” When I ask whether hand-bound books last longer than machine-bound ones, she agrees, but thinks her clients aren’t really motivated by a concern for durability: “Even in a digital age, people love beautiful objects, and a designed and hand-bound book is really just a very beautiful object.”

Restoration work can be “very rewarding” too. When I arrived Ward-Sale was painstakingly painting gold leaf into hand-stamped letters on the spine of an eighteenth century dictionary. Its discarded covers, rotten and peeling, sit next to the book, which arrived as a “pile of pages” but is unrecognisable now in its new brown leather jacket.

Ward-Sale’s interest in the presentation of books began as a child, in a household where both parents were illustrators and her father designed book jackets. “I suppose what I do is just a high-end version of what he did, with the luxury that I don’t have to grab my reader’s attention – they already love the book I’m binding for them,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, given her background, Ward-Sale has always been an avid reader. Yet constant immersion in pages and words “can make you want to throw a book at the wall at the end of a long day”. I ask if she has any of her own bindings at home, and she describes how she spent almost 25 years trying to perfect a design for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, her favourite book. The end result is “pure white, impressed with lace. I designed it for a competition but then kept it for myself.”

She studied bookbinding at Brighton, on a course which, like all full-time bookbinding courses, is now extinct for want of funding. However, rebel cells of evening class or weekend courses are springing up around the country (including one her own studio) and “you can even learn how to bind on YouTube now”. Ward-Sale is adamant that the interest in bookbinding has not waned – she tells me the story of a recently trained bookbinder who was originally an artist, binding his own sketchbooks to save money, “but then he found he wasn’t drawing anything in them; he just kept making more sketchbooks.”

With an apparently plentiful supply of customers (there are three full-time bookbinders in Lewes alone) Ward-Sale seems untroubled by the advance of ebooks: “they’re just for holiday reading.” She does read on her iPad, she says, “but it feels very strange. You don’t have anywhere to stick train tickets, you can’t flick back and forth. There aren’t any” – she rubs index finger and thumb together, glancing at the ten-foot rolls of paper leaning against the walls – “pages.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that for someone who spent ten hours impressing lace into the cover of her favourite book, jabbing at a glass screen doesn’t quite measure up.

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