France's crafts in focus - September 2019
Modern-day careers in the age-old art of bookbinding
France has a reputation for the quality of its bookbinders.
Students from all over the world – notably Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and Japan – head here to learn this ancient craft.
It is estimated there are 240 workshops and 1,800 relieurs-doreurs in the country who bind books by hand and often add on detail in gold.
Most – an estimated 65% – work on their own, and have notable clients, including institutions such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Sénat, Assemblée Nationale and museums.
There are two types of work. The most commonly practised is reliure classique, which consists of restoration or binding important documents and books, either for individuals who have items they wish to preserve for future generations or for libraries, archives, ministers and town halls.
It is work that demands a high standard of technical knowledge.
The second is reliure d’art, when the aesthetic side is important, which is mainly for individual and original works.
It is a job in which meticulous attention to detail and patience are required.
It takes at least 15 days to bind a book by hand, and sometimes several months for a historic book. Bookbinders work with high-quality mater-ials, including handmade paper, leather and gold.
Tools of the trade include presses, scissors, guillotines, supports for sewing books together, and scalpels for working the leather.
Other techniques, such as marbling, are often learnt for this craft.
The most basic qualification is a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) arts de la reliure which lasts two years and can be started after the brevet school exam at 16.
This can be followed by a two-year Brevet des Métiers d’Art (BMA) art de la reliure et de la dorure, and then by a two-year Diplôme des Métiers d’Art DMA arts graphiques option reliure-dorure.
A higher-level diploma, the Diplôme National des Métiers d’Art et du Design (DN) MADE Livre, takes three years.
Béatrice Fauste works from home in Sarlat, Dordogne, in her workshop called La Grange aux Livres (la-grange-aux-livres.com).
She came to the business late, only learning to be a bookbinder at the age of 45.
As well as reading, she said she had always loved books for themselves and was curious when she came upon an amateur bookbinding group which met up in nearby Montignac.
This experience persuaded her to switch career from human resources.
A Franco-Irish woman, Anne Marie Mamet, agreed to take her on as an apprentice and taught her the many skills required for the trade.
After three years learning on the job, she felt ready to pass the CAP arts de la reliure.
She said: “I studied in higher education for six years after the bac, but this was just as difficult and daunting, with a huge amount of learning – and oral, written and practical exams.”
She then stayed with her tutor until she retired, and launched on her own three years ago.
“I am never short of work,” she said. “Perhaps 65% of my clients are private.
“Some might want me to restore a book that is of personal value to them and for me to give it a hardback cover in leather to make sure it will last for years to come.
“These can be either high quality publications or even paperbacks which have sentimental value.
“They can also be original works of art, or a self-published book, such as a client who researched and wrote his family tree.
“In the Dordogne, there are four bookbinders and I think in part we find enough work due to the high English-speaking population here.
“I find the British have a real understanding of the value of books and many of my clients come from the UK.”
Her other work comes from institutions, including mairies and archives which might need ancient documents preserving.
She also creates albums and notebooks, decorated in style with marbled or printed papers.
She says it is difficult to put a price on her work as each project is different, but €80 is the minimum and it can go up to €350 for a small ancient book – and higher still for precious books.
The skills required include knowing all about paper and learning to clean and repair holes on damaged pages; sewing, as the pages in hand-made books are sewn together using different methods; how to use gold; working leather and knowing which type to use for which job; and other associated tasks, such as using a press to flatten the pages.
“Fifty different skills are used for each book,” said Mrs Fauste. “You never stop learning and I enjoy passing on my expertise to others. I take on trainees and run courses for the public, who can learn to make a book and to restore one of their own books.
“I really love this job. I have an adorable clientele.
“I work with noble materials, such as gold and leather and paper.
“You never rush, because you are aware that the aim of everything you do is to make something last well into the future, so it is important to take the time to get it right.”