The Thistle Bindery

From Magna Charta to Singapore’s Constitution

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the restoration of two antiquarian books owned by a local law professor.

The two completed books. On left, the Spirit of Magna Charta and the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya

These books, The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841, bound by Wildy & Sons, Lincoln’s Inn, London) and Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London) represented two important points in the history of UK Law.

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Original condition of The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841)

The 1841 book was a treatise on the importance of the Magna Charta, which was sealed by King John under pressure from rebelling barons on 15 June 1215. The document effectively placed a limitation on arbitrary royal authority and sought to establish that the king was subject to the law and not above it. Over the many centuries, it was seen as a symbol of struggle for liberty and the strive for greater democracy. The American revolutionists, the 19th century England working class and even the new pioneers of Australia all saw it as a “People’s Charter” and the basis of their own country’s law to recognise the rights and will of the people.

This awareness and respect for the Magna Charta underlined UK’s efforts to progressive grant independence to colonies worldwide, including Malaya. In 1946, 11 states in Peninsular Malaya came together to form a single British Crown Colony known as the Malayan Union. UK continued to enjoy strong, amicable ties with Malaya throughout the entire period of the Malayan Emergency until it was confident enough that communism was no longer a threat in Malaya and hence independence was granted.

Original Condition for Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957)

The newly-formed Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on 31 August 1957 with the passing of Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957. The new constitution for the Federation was drafted jointly by law practitioners in UK and Malaya with inputs from international experts, culminating in the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya.

When Singapore joined Malaya in 1963, the Federation Constitution was adopted and when the island gained independence in 1965, part of the constitution remained and was refined to become our own State Constitution. Hence, the proposal could be seen as the genesis of Singapore’s Constitution as well.

The two books came to me as pamphlet sections bounded together using metal staples. The 1841 book was definitely in a worse condition than the 1957 one but notwithstanding, the ferrous metal staples had corroded over the years and had become weak and friable, leaving a bright orange stain on sections of both books. The staples were removed and parts of each folio affected by corrosion were cleaned and patched up using lightweight repair papers.

Damage caused by metal staples (left) and the repaired sections

Once strengthened, the sections were hand-sewn using French-link stitch on tapes. The completed text blocks were then glued, rounded and backed to create a rounded book spine. The client had requested for a traditional look for the two books, hence quarter leather binding was chosen. The calf skins, in black and red, were pared down and pasted onto the spine. This was then followed by the pasting down of marbled papers for the covers and the endpapers.

Restoration Process — clockwise from top left, rebinding, backing, leather paring and casing in

You would probably notice that the endpapers were attached onto new flypapers instead of the original book. This allowed for maximum reversibility in the future if the books are damaged or if the owner wants to recommission a new binding for the books. The flypaper can simply be cut away and the original textblock can be removed.

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The completed restored books

In total, the entire job took about 2 months to complete. Considering that I have to juggle full-time work, weekend bookbinding workshops and other activities, the process proceeded very smoothly. While I cannot say I have acquired a fondness for law history, I did gain quite a bit of law knowledge flipping through the two books, especially on the rights each citizen is entitled to.

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Weaving and Binding Pages of History — A Cultural Mapping Approach to Bookbinding

In August 2014, I had the privilege to collaborate with National Arts Council (Singapore) and Georgetown Festival (Penang, Malaysia) to launch a series of art exploration workshops which use cultural mapping techniques to rethink the format of classroom based craft learning.

Weaving and Binding Pages of History was envisioned to bring participants, particularly locals, closer to where they stay and to discover nuggets of history in their neighbourhoods. These nuggets of information are grouped within an umbrella theme (e.g. nature, history, culture, sports, etc) which also serves as the inspiration for them to create personalised covers and structures for the book.

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4 workshops, 2 in Singapore and 2 in Penang were created after a period of research and experimentation with potential book structures and art mediums. These 4 workshops are “Glorious stained glass and tiles in Bras Basah”, “Sacred tree and green spaces in Toa Payoh”, “Stories cast in stone, exploring Georgetown’s Chinese architectural symbolism” and “Penang and its world of spices”. 

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The format of the premise is straight-forward. Participants are first bought on a guided tour around the neighbourhood, understanding the history and culture of the vicinity. Thereafter, the theme for the day was announced and participants are given some time to collect found objects or raw materials to create their unique book. With the gathered items, everyone heads back to the classroom, discuss what and why they had gathered these objects. Then using suitable art mediums, participant create personalised designs on the covers and the book before finally binding the covers and text block together. Each workshop lasts about 4 – 6 hours and there is nary a dull moment in the workshop as each activity component actively engages everyone’s mind and hands. The required energy and input may be much higher than a typical bookbinding workshop but it definitely doubles the satisfaction level as well!

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By engaging participants to immerse in the community, the community will reciprocate by showing its vibrancy. Learning becomes interactive and the workshop becomes a two-way flow of information between the instructor and participants. Without venturing out, participants would not have realised the potential of their surroundings as a form art inspiration and likewise, the instructor would have underestimated the potential of each participant in creating works of art within a short time.

These four workshops have truly opened my eyes to the potential of using cultural mapping techniques even in 1 day craft and bookbinding workshops. In fact, I believed strongly in the potential of art as a community changemaker that I even gave a talk on the potential of simple art and craft as a way for everyone to create “mental maps” and “visual time capsules” for their surroundings!

For more pictures and information, visit my facebook album and see the Bookbinder and Flaneur presentation.

Report Card for [A Bookbinding Cause] Season 2

The last workshop for Season 2 of [ A Bookbinding Cause] was held on 31 May 2014, yet the season only came to a proper close last Sunday when The Thistle Bindery co-organised the first-ever bookbinding event for kids with the team behind Singapore Mini Makers Faire. Titled “Let’s Bind a Book”, the event held at Singapore Science Centre bought together fellow bookbinding instructors, co-instructors and friends whom I had the privilege to teach and meet during the course of Season 2’s [ A Bookbinding Cause ].

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Coptic Binding Workshop

It felt like a complete circle. I saw participants who came for their first taste of bookbinding returned for more workshops in subsequent months. With more practice and confidence, these participants stepped up to become co-instructors for the bookbinding event. Some even went the extra mile by taking the initiative to express their loves for bookbinding and urban sketching by leading a sketch walkabout during the bookbinding event. I felt humbled by their efforts and the hard work every instructor and co-instructor put in for the event.

Case Binding Workshop

Case Binding Workshop

Beyond the regular fortnightly workshops raising funds for charity, these “extra”-ordinary events, such as Let’s Bind a Book, Singapore Makers’ Meetup and Makers’ Block are important causes which The Thistle Bindery supports and participates in. They resonate with the practice’s twin objectives of making bookbinding accessible to all and supporting worthy causes. More so, such events are also excellent platforms for past participants of our workshops—now budding bookbinders—to showcase their bookbinding skills and to share their bookbinding passion with more people.

Maker's Meetup in Feb 2014

Maker’s Meetup in Feb 2014

Each update, photograph and news put up on Facebook in the first half of this year would not be possible without the support of our participants, collaborators and friends. It was a little overwhelming to realise that almost 100 people had attended the 8 workshops in the past season. This bought in a substantial amount of donation for our charity beneficiary, Loving Heart Multi-Service Centre.

The attendance figure and the amount of donation will pale in comparison to the support and effort from our venue supporters. Without the generous venue subsidiaries from The Arts House and The General Co, [ A Bookbinding Cause ] would not have taken off at all! Their steadfast support and accommodation provided the motivation and ease for the bindery to conceptualise and realise new programmes and collaborations.

The Thistle Bindery may carry different connotations to individuals. It could merely be a Facebook page of nominal interest; or it could simply just be a source of bookbinding instruction.  Yet personally, the impetus for starting the art practice then, and still holds true now, remains the desire to provide a platform for bookbinders and book arts instructors to gather and collaborate, and to grow the number of hobbyist bookbinders in Singapore.

The Thistle Bindery is an ever-growing community and [ A Bookbinding Cause] shall continue to be the practice’s flagship medium to attract more people to pick up the art of bookbinding.

A Manifesto for a Community Bindery

Pooja of Notabilia and I recently had the privilege to present a short 10 minutes presentation on Community Book Arts during the Maker Meetup event organised by SG Makers. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to rethink and set down what The Thistle Bindery meant for me, beyond just a hobbyist art practice that I started one year ago. This post is accompanied by slides presented in my segment.

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After conducting more than 20 workshops, the bindery had taken on a life of its own.  Similar to a real bindery business, I find myself dealing with everyday logistics problems and administrative issues such as looking for spaces to teach bookbinding workshops and sorting out sign-ups, payments and donations to the charity beneficiaries, etc.

There were also moments of contemplation and reflection. Tricks and tips simply learnt and absorbed during my training had to be rationalised and distilled to participants in my workshops. Tools that were not available in Singapore were substituted with those found easily in hardware stores and haberdashery shops, often after a long period of trials. This period of gestation before I started teaching in 2013 was an important time for me to become aware of the bare essentials in my craft and how the potential of simple tools can be maximised to perform as well as bookbinding specific tools such as laying presses, guillotine and rollers.

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What excited me the most was seeing how the book arts community had grown through the regular [ A Bookbinding Cause ] series of workshops. Familiar faces appear at consecutive workshops; contacts and connections were forged among participants and regular comments and messages were left on my Facebook page. What left the most indelible impression was perhaps realising how small and connected the creative circle in Singapore was. There are crafters who know makers, designers who talk to 3D printing tinkers, as well as a whole group of weekend artists with interesting day jobs and the passion to pursue their chosen craft in their free time. Initiatives such as Urban Sketchers and Sg Makers inspire and help define what it means to build a community. Particularly, the “many hands” approach in organising activities is important in vesting ownership in everyone and to allow events and encounters to happen spontaneously.

Building The Thistle Bindery allowed me to come in contact with many supportive people which I am indebted to. Some had came forward to provide a space for the charity bookbinding workshops, such as Jing, Colin and The Arts House; others who had given me a platform to test out ideas and showcase my skills, such as William and the wonderful girls from Trade School Singapore. Such avenues were and are still great training grounds for my practice and they helped build up my experiences incrementally towards loftier ideas like advocating the use of bookbinding and other artistic mediums in cultural mapping and urban studies activities.

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The Thistle Bindery’s bookbinding pursuit can be represented in a wider community context akin to a drop in a pool. A pool of like-minded crafters, educators and thinkers, not just in Singapore, but regionally and internationally.

At the apex of the practice is a constant yearning to learn more advanced bookbinding techniques and at the same time, to regularly rekindle the love for the craft and to connect with my beginning. Owl and Lion, where I first learnt bookbinding will always be a magical place of endless possibilities.

The core of the practice will still focus on bookbinding workshops where I hope more people will be interested to learn. [ A Bookbinding Cause ] remains as the practice’s flagship programme and vehicle to raise funds for charity while imparting traditional bookbinding skills at affordable rates.

As the current season of bookbinding workshops come to a close in end May, it is yet again time to plan the calendar for the second half of the year. There will be interesting activities for the community, not just in Singapore but also regionally. There will also be interactions with other bookbinders from around the region. And at the end of the day, the most important is still to ensure that coming for one of The Thistle Bindery’s activity remains enjoyable, fun-filled and relaxing. 🙂

A Set of Rebound Newsletters

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I recently had the opportunity to rebind a set of newsletter from a defunct political party in Singapore. The Barisan Socialis was formed in 1961, and was led by Dr Lee Siew Chor until 1988 when it merged with Workers’ Party. More information can be obtained from Wikipedia if you are interested.

I will not delve much into the party’s history as I would like to focus on the rebinding of the set of newsletters. It contained 100 issues of the party’s newsletter spanning from 1961 to 1964. The newsletters were bound in four sets of soft Kraft paper covers and secured with three metal staples along margins of its long edge. As expected, the staples rusted over the years and the metal oxide deposits had caused the surrounding paper to be stained with a ring of orange rust. The punctured areas had also became friable and in some newsletters, the holes were enlarged and no longer held by the metal staples.

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Other defects included frayed edges along the fore edge of the bound volumes and damaged book spines. Cellophane tape was also used to hold the volumes together and these had become stiff and stained over the years.

The first step in rebinding the volumes involved removing all the metal staples and cutting away the damaged spines, leaving loose sheets consisting of individual newsletters and original volume covers. Cellophone tapes were then removed carefully, particularly in areas where tape was used to patch long tears, in order to prevent further damage to the pages. These were then backed with a thin almost translucent Kozo paper. Thankfully there were few tears and the tears appeared on volumes which were printed single sided using silkscreen.

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Volumes were then bounded with new cards with colours complementary to the original covers. The two new cards, one on either ends, serve as end papers to the new book block. The entire stack was then bored through using a fine 0.5mm drill bit. The new holes were made about 1cm adjacent to the original staple holes. Reusing the previously stapled holes was not an option as the surrounding paper had became friable due to the rusting.

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The newsletters were then stitched up in Japanese Stab Binding style. The perforations followed the original positions of the staples in the new exposed binding along the long edge. Two styles were adopted. First, the binding was left exposed on the end papers. Second, the stab binding was covered by end papers.

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Four original cover designs

A new buckram hard cover was then attached to the completed book block. Similar to the end papers, colours of the buckram was chosen to complement the end papers and the original soft covers. To differentiate between the four volumes, an embossed pattern was made on each of the covers. The pattern consist of the defunct party emblem and the sequence number of each volume from 1 to 4. All these embossed patterns were drawn and cut by hand.

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After each of the four book blocks were cased in, they were left in the nipping press overnight to ensure that the end papers have been firmly attached to the covers.

It had been a hectic March for me with the two bookbinding workshops and other work activities. It did affect the progress of rebinding this set of rare newsletters. Nonetheless I am glad it is completed and the four volumes will hopefully be kept in good reading condition for a long while more.

Three days at Sydney Bookbinding

The past Chinese New Year must count as one of my most enriching and enjoyable.

I had the privilege to spend three fulfilling days with Rosemarie and Terence of Sydney Bookbinding. Rosemarie and her husband Kelvin are also owners of a specialty decorative paper and printing company, Amazing Papers. Combined, you get a quaint bindery nestled within a substantial showroom of decorative printed papers and Japanese chiryogami papers. Pure bliss for paper aficionados, I must say!

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Papers aside, the main purpose of the trip was to take bookbinding tuition from Rosemarie in order to brush up my skills. Of course, prior to the trip, I have looked up Rosemarie’s blog and realised she is teaching the Dos Rapporte book structure and that got me excited! The Dos Rapporte structure is designed by a UK based bookbinder, Benjamin Elbel. On his website, the structure is described as “a very special spine opening that allows for very flat opening” The name, in French which means “hooked on spine” also indicates that the spine, the covers and the book block are made seperately.

What makes Rosemarie’s take on Dos Rappporte structure special is how she had developed her own binding technique through a series of tests and trials together with her fellow bookbinder Terence. Rosemarie bought me through the process of building the book from scratch: sewing on tapes, rounding and finishing the book block, sewing on the headbands, measuring and making the spine piece and attaching the covers.

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The third day of my bookbinding tuition was spent on learning how to do gold tooling using hand tools and a heated stylus. Rosemarie demonstrated and shared her collection of hand tools, pallets and fillets with me. I had a most agonising time…not because the techniques were difficult but rather there were quite a few tools to play with and I was at a loss over what I should use for the session!

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Throughout the three days, Rosemarie had been very patient, meticulous in her teaching and most willing to share little gems of knowledge that will help me in future teaching. As a bonus, Terence also gave some pointers on selecting and sharpening my leather paring knives which are definitely invaluable!

With my completed Dos Rapporte book, new bookbinding knowledge and a complete piece of Kangaroo hide bought from Rosemarie, I am definitely prepared for the new season of [A Bookbinding Cause] starting in less than two weeks (gasp!).

Bookbinding Workshops in Feb!

Interested to learn Japanese Stab Binding? Join The Thistle Bindery‘s Feb workshops. Learn a new skill and contribute to a good cause at the same time.
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Proceeds from [A Bookbinding Cause] series of workshop will be donated to Loving Heart (http://www.lovingheartjc.org/).

For more information, refer to:
15 Feb (Sat) Exposed Japanese Stab Binding:https://www.facebook.com/events/411104112368258
16 Feb (Sun) Hidden Japanese Stab Binding: https://www.facebook.com/events/244849042343365