Book Art · Zhen Xian Bao

Workshop at the Met

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

The bookbindery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art takes care of many hidden floors of books. It’s like a secret place, mostly below ground level, under the Watson Library, which is entered through a discreetly placed door not far from the great hall. Many years ago, once a week for three years, I volunteered in the bookbindery. A few days ago I visited the Met to do a full day of PD with the staff of the bindery. They wanted to learn about the Zhen Xian Bao

Jenny's Zhen Xian Bao
Jenny’s Zhen Xian Bao

This was my first time teaching the Zhen Xian Bao, aka Chinese Needle Thread Pack, or Chinese Thread Book to a group. We started at 9:30 sharp, broke for an hour of lunch at noon, and worked straight through 4:30. At the end of the day we were completely saturated, and everyone had made exquisite models. This was dream-team group of artists and binders, in a fully equipped bindery. I can’t imagine another group in any other place who would have accomplished so much in one day.

There was so much that I did not have to do to get ready for this workshop. Most significantly, I did not have to do any paper cutting.

In the Bindery at the MET
In the Bindery at the MET

Everyone either brought in their own papers, or they used papers already in the bindery. After explaining how to determine the paper sizes to create the size book that each person wanted, people cut their own papers to size.


Yukari's paper
Yukari’s paper

Oh the papers that people brought! From orizomegami papers, to paper-backed fabric, to indigo papers with gold flecks, to Dick Blick assorted papers and more. The gorgeous papers kept coming out!

Mindell making a twist box
Mindell making twist boxes

Here’s a five things I learned from this day of teaching: 1) teaching, then making, four twist boxes takes a good bit of time. After making a gazillion of these, it takes me about 5 minutes to make one of these boxes, but it takes making about 1/2 a gazillion for these to get fast at making them. I assured everyone that the other style boxes we’d be making wouldn’t take as long, and in fact they didn’t take as long. The twist box is a tough one to begin with, but it’s the way to begin.

2) We started the day with people working at their own desks, and much had to be done at these solitary work areas, but not everything.

In the bindery
In the bindery

Crowding around a single work table and working together was incredibly efficient and enjoyable, especially as the day wore on.

Working together
Working together

Folding the second and third layers books while jostling for space around the demonstration desk went surprisingly well.

The four twist box version of the Zhen Xian Bao
Doris’s Zhen Xhen Xian Bao

3) I showed in a variety of different constructions of Chinese Thread Books. I’ve noticed that the most common structure that people teach is this one with four twist boxes on top. I thought I’d encourage people to make all sorts of other different decisions with their structures. It became clear very quickly that  it was incredibly satisfying for everyone to make the exact same structure.

Sophia's Gold Flecked Thread book
Sophia’s Gold Flecked Thread book

Trying to get everyone to do different things would have been too confusing for everyone. Everyone was able to help everyone because we were all doing the same things.

Written directions
Written directions

4) People liked having written directions. I’ve only written out directions for the twist box with a pinwheel top, which is in the current issue of Bound & Lettered, and which everyone had, compliments of the journal’s editor John Neal. I think every single desk had the magazine opened to this page all day, even after we were completely finished with the twist box.

Zhen Xian Bao
Mindell’s Bao, with Green with Gold Pinwheel Twist Boxes and Andrijana’s mostly Indigo Zhen Xian Bao

5) I had thought that if we had the time and energy I would show people how to make the boxes with a flower top. All I can say now is ha ha. There was no way we could have done one thing more. As it was, we ended the day before some people put covers on their creations. I didn’t worry too much about this though, after all, these people are bookbinders. They cover things.

Some with covers, some without
Some with covers, some without

Besides absolutely everything and everyone that made this an incredible workshop day, people who teach (like my friend Susan Share) will appreciate this: I didn’t have to cut any paper for prep, I didn’t have to teach this group anything about cutting, gluing, putting things under weight, and – this was a surprise – when I had to ask people to fold a piece of paper into thirds they could that flawlessly, immediately.. Turns out bookbinders at the Met make hollow spine pieces all the time, which are made by folding paper into thirds. No problem!


Miriam's book
Miriam’s book

What a great day. As we walked back out into the world after working all day in the underground, wending our way through the places that remain mostly unseen, we past this most unusual sign:

Underground at the Met
Underground at the Met

Big thanks to Mindell Dubansky for wanting her staff to become familiar with the historical structure called the Zhen Xian Bao, and especially thank you for letting me be the one to show them.














11 thoughts on “Workshop at the Met

  1. Well done you. They sound like the dream group to teach! I have taught this structure twice now to crafty but non bookbinder people. It went better than I thought, some finished a simplified version in a day and some took home a half finished more complex version ..their choice.. Interestingly I did the simpler boxes with them first to give them confidence then worked up to the twist fold box. That felt right for them, I think some of them might have freaked out if I had started with the twist fold!


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