The story behind The Thread that Binds
Pamela Leutz shares with us how she traveled around the world learning the craft of bookbinding. See how her life as an administrative assistant quickly changed when she decided making books was her true passion.
Hi – I’m Pamela, author of the book, The Thread That Binds, Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders. Actually, I never intended to write a book. I started talking to people I knew about their lives as bookbinders because I was having a mid-life awakening. As much as I liked the people and place I worked as an administrative assistant, I was antsy to move on. I didn’t want life to end and never experience anything else. I loved making books, teaching bookbinding, and being around bookbinders.
I wanted to find out about the lives of people who made their living through bookbinding privately. Could I do it too? I asked a couple binders I knew if I could visit and see where they worked and hear how they got into the field, what their lives were like. What did they like about being bookbinders? What did they not like? How hard was it to make a living? Maybe I would write an article about them. But mostly it was for me. Other bookbinders I knew found out what I was doing. They seemed to be interested to hear about my visits. I decided to do a few more visits. It was great. I got to see the coolest studios and hear their amazing stories about what brought them to lives of bookbinding. I got so inspired and wanted to quit and start my new life as a bookbinder.
How did I start bookbinding? It wasn’t anything I had ever given any thought to until I married someone whose family owned a bookbinding supply business. We moved to Dallas where my husband worked in the branch office. I was excited to discover bookbinding classes offered through the Craft Guild of Dallas. I was intrigued. I liked all kinds of creative handwork and art. Bookbinding seemed to combine a bunch of things I could be good at. So I got on the waiting list (yes, there was a waiting list!) and finally got into the Wednesday morning class, 9am-12 noon. I would climb up rickety steps to a studio above a garage where a class of 12 students worked closely, amid snuggly arranged bookbinding supplies, machinery and tools. I was 22 years old in a class of people at least twice my age, mostly wealthy women who made bookbinding a hobby and social time. Instruction was slow – our instructor was teaching a class of 12 students who were all doing different things at different levels.
I continued taking classes every Wednesday for 5 years, but I was frustrated that my skills were still not great. Then something happened that I consider the pivot point in my life of bookbinding. I had the opportunity to study with master bookbinder, Hugo Peller, in Solothurn, Switzerland. As my son turned one in Dallas, I was walking through woods and meadows from the watchmaker’s home where I rented a room to the home studio of Hugo. It was a huge breakthrough for me. Hugo believed in me, expected a lot from me, and taught me more in five weeks, working every day, all day, than I had learned in five years of once a week classes.
I think that being in a place where there are no responsibilities except learning bookbinding, being taught by a master, and having abundant attention, was why my life of bookbinding changed. From then on, I was more confident, far more skilled, and absolutely in love with the craft.
I returned home confident and eager to delve deeper into bookbinding. I taught more, took commission work, and continued studying with great bookbinders when the opportunity arose. I was active in the Guild of Bookworkers and the regional Lone Star Chapter, even doing design bindings for exhibits.
Then came Jan Sobota. Dallas had the remarkable gift of Jan moving to Dallas to work as book conservator at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. (Don’t miss his chapter in my book!) Jan also taught classes at his home studio. It was fabulous! He taught design binding techniques and book conservation. The students were fun and serious and Jan was a great teacher. Entering the home he shared with wife Jarmila made me so happy. Jazz, Spanish, Czech – all variety of music played, and wine was shared as class came close to an end. It was like celebrating life with bookbinding as a great excuse.
Dallas, with Jan there, attracted top bookbinders and the Bridwell Library became the home of a design bookbinding exhibition-competition, the Helen Warren DeGolyer Bookbinding Competition, an event that not only showcased design bindings, but also the opportunity to see well-known bookbinders demonstrate various techniques. I got to bathe in the pleasure of being around bookbinders, and I liked it a lot!
It took me a few years to interview all the people that are in the book. I loved every minute of it, even transcribing the taped interviews. I ended up quitting my job and moving to Colorado where I worked on writing the book and bookbinding for a year. I miss my Dallas friends and the bookbinding world there like crazy, but I love walking out my door with my dog and hiking the beautiful trails around my house, viewing and feeling the presence of the mountains, smelling fresh air. I continue binding, studying (twice studying with Jan Sobota now in the quaint castle town of Loket, Czech Republic where he and Jarmila live), and keeping connected to bookbinders through visits, the internet, and email. I had to get a “regular” job again to pay the bills, but my life is richer having had The Thread that Binds experience. I look forward to what bookbinding brings to my life in the days to come.
What a cool story! Click here for more information on The Thread that Binds.