Mountains of paper piles sit crookedly on my kitchen table. Paper cutters, awls, bone folders and rulers are strewn about. Pages must be printed, covers cut to size and then paper folded and punched with holes. It takes weeks to make several dozen books this way.
Every single time this process starts, I ask myself if it is worth it. I know how much easier, and perhaps neater, the product would turn out if it’s sent off to a printing company. I could simply email the file and a perfectly packed box would arrive at my doorstep. Instead, I sit here night after night, folding and cutting, stitching and trimming.
At last, all the pieces come together, and it’s time to sew. I slide my glasses on and easily slip the waxed thread through the eye of an oversized needle. The needle glides through the cover, into signature one and out signature two. Again and again the needle dives between the pages until it meets its tail in the middle. I pull the thread taut, snip it off and tie a knot. Another book is born.
Stitch by stitch
The pages are sewn together, one by one, hour by hour, until my fingertips ache. It’s in the sewing, the act of pulling needle and thread to create something new, that I sense my grandmother.
I remember the sunshine beams cutting through the crystal gems that hung over the kitchen window in my grandparent’s trailer, making little rainbows on the table. I was 8 and I sat on a backless bench and re-threaded a needle, attempting to do it with adeptness and confidence, just like grandma.
As she waited for me, she didn’t stop talking, she never stopped talking. But I liked to listen. She told me about making dress patterns from brown paper during the Depression and the time she received a single, sacred orange for Christmas.
Learning to sew
That summer, it was decided that my grandmother, Wanita, would give me sewing lessons. I was an eager student, longing to embroider my own hankies with delicate violets or to make fashionable skirts that no one else had. During my first lesson, we used the sewing machine and our hands to make a little stuffed lion with button eyes and an embroidered nose.
Grandma wouldn’t have called herself a seamstress, but she could sew anything, so it seems like the right word. She made my mother’s wedding dress, she made matching Easter dresses for Cabbage Patch dolls, she made embroidered pillow cases, she crocheted lap blankets.
For Christmas, she made glamorous taffeta gowns; for Halloween a spot-on Sleeping Beauty costume. She made all of these things for my numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, too. Never forgetting a birthday or something special for each of us on holidays, Grandma took the time to make things. It was her way of self-expression, her way of creating space in a world where having a voice outside of the sewing room was rare.
Understandably, as the number of grandkids neared 20, and her eyes and joints began to fail, our gifts came from the Dollar Store. But most of those I kept, too, in a box with the green taffeta gown.Today, my own projects consume the kitchen table just like hers did. I’m not sewing dresses, but making books.
As I stitch away at them, making a neat pile after finishing each one, my breathing slows and the light in the room feels warm. I’ve found a way to fuse the personal nature of the words in these books with a product that feels like it was made just for the reader, because it was.
In this way, I know she is here. She’s part of me in the joints of my fingers, in the quietness of my mind, as I was once a part of her. A peaceful presence.
Yes, it seems a little crazy to make all these books when it would be so easy to have them printed. But in the slow quiet of this process, thinking of my grandmother, it becomes clear. This making of books slows me down, way down, enough to impart some good thoughts and prayers into each book I sew. I can’t always change the way things are or always have been, but I can create space for expression.
My 3-year-old marvels at the mess on the table, longing to pull the heavy arm of the paper cutter. I show her how to make a simple, folded book, and she writes intently in the pages with a chubby blue marker. Usually I wait until she is sleeping to sew, but this time I show her all the tools and she watches as another book comes together. Maybe one day my daughter will remember me sitting at the table stitching and decide to make something of her own.
Gwen Van Velsor is founder of Yellow Arrow Publishing, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that supports women writers. Find out more at yellowarrowpublishing.com.