Uncover a treasure-trove of crafting tips and inspiration with help from a rare book librarian and examples from Natalie Chanin, Liesl Gibson, and more.
A Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Deep in the stacks of any library is a wealth of inspiration waiting to be uncovered, and a plethora of projects ready to be tackled. In BiblioCraft, crafting aficionado and rare book librarian Jessica Pigza shares her secrets to scouring those musty collections—both in person and online—for everything from vintage needlepoint magazines to historic watermarks and Japanese family crests. As a host of the New York Public Library’s Handmade Crafternoon series, Pigza has helped creative people of all types take advantage of these hidden riches.
BiblioCraft also presents more than twenty projects inspired by library resources from a stellar cast of designers, including Alabama Chanin founder Natalie Chanin, Liesl + Co. founder Liesl Gibson, Charm Patterns founder Gretchen Hirsch, illustrator and fabric designer Heather Ross, Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney, and others.
Whether your passion is pillows or coasters, fascinators or fabrics, Pigza will show you how to turn your local library into a global crafting goldmine.
I'm lucky to work as a rare book librarian at the New York Public Library, one of the nation's largest research libraries, with unparalleled collections of both antiquarian and new books, handwritten documents, maps, vast runs of magazines, and more. On any given day, I might assist a graphic designer who is interested in finding examples of a particular early typeface, or help a children's book specialist to compare illustrations used in different editions of an iconic children's story. I might assist in identifying a previous owner of a volume in the library's collection, based on the bookplate found within the book. Or I might welcome a class of history students from a local college who have come to learn how early printed books were printed, folded, and bound by hand. A big part of what I love about being a rare book librarian is the chance to learn about and discuss the artisanal skills needed to make books during the handpress era. From how paper was made to what sewing stitches were used for bindings to historical ink recipes, I'm always curious to learn more.
While I didn't necessarily appreciate early printed books when I was a kid growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, I did grow up immersed in a world of crafts of all kinds. My mother made clothes for me and my sister, and my mother's own mother worked in a fabric shop and was a skilled seamstress (among many other things, she made fabulous clothes for my Barbie doll, including a leopard fur cape that I still have). At home I had plenty of chances to dabble in all sorts of crafts, including macramé, ceramics, candle-wicking, punched tin, crochet, plastic canvas, cross-stitch, and even cornhusk doll–making. And I'm forever grateful that my mother taught me how to use her sewing machine, because I've been making my own dresses and skirts for years.
My love for making things by hand has long been tied to books. As a kid I loved poring over pattern catalogs when my mother took my sister and me to the fabric store.
School texts from one hundred years ago can reveal how students learned to measure, draw, and stitch in the past, and they led Brett Bara to create geometry-inspired fabric pyramids (this page).
And my recollections of paging though my mother's craft books have led me to try to add vintage titles like The Woman's Day Book of Soft Toys and Dolls (1975) and The Good Housekeeping New Complete Book of Needlecraft (1971) to my own library at home. In some cases I've succeeded in persuading her to give me her copies, and in others I've tracked down and purchased copies for myself. This way, I can remake a favorite afghan or a beloved stuffed hippo whenever I'm ready.
I've always loved poking around at flea markets and used book shops for interesting old arts and crafts publications. Strangely, however, it wasn't until I had been working at the New York Public Library for a few months that it dawned on me that I was basically sitting on top of a craft book gold mine. The fateful day arrived when I was invited to start blogging for the library on whatever topic interested me, and my colleague Rebecca Federman pointed out the obvious—that I should write about crafts. From that day forward, I've wandered through the stacks, I've dug around in our catalog, and I've found vintage patterns, 1920s needlework magazines, Victorian home decorating guides, 1970s DIY books for kids, nineteenth-century type specimen books, and other unique sources of inspiration to share with the curious.
Always eager to spread news of my library's collection further, I've gone beyond blog posts and have also offered small instructional classes to the public, during which I help people learn how to use the library to find their own vintage craft inspiration. I've also been hosting Handmade Crafternoons at the library since 2009, with the help of my cohost and library volunteer Maura Madden. Each of these free events is built around a theme and includes a special guest, a project, and a spread of books from the library's collections. These events draw in a variety of people who all share an interest in handicraft and handmade material culture, and it's been heartwarming and emboldening to see a community like this form at my library. Especially memorable events in this series have included weaving on DIY looms, making personalized radial maps, and creating handmade pop-up books.
Type specimen books like this 1872 example from William H. Page & Co. offer eye candy for typophiles. Julie Schneider studied books like this when designing her stationery (this page).
My outreach efforts have taken a few surprising turns as well. At a local yarn shop, I had a fabulous time giving a talk on finding vintage knitting and crochet patterns in the library. I've also had fun sharing selected items from the library's collection with designer and illustrator Heather Ross's workshop students (a hands-down favorite book with the group was an eighteenth-century natural history of fish with unbelievably colored, practically kaleidoscopic illustrations). I was even fortunate enough to work on a video series in collaboration with Design*Sponge, called Design by the Book, in which I matched five wonderful artists with library collections that inspired them to create new work. Each artist gave me a wish list of research topics, and it was just as exciting for me to discover sources in the library that were new to me—including illustrated histories of wrought iron, fanciful books on space travel, and fabric swatch catalogs—as it was to observe how each artist transformed what he or she saw at the library into a new creation. The artist and illustrator Julia Rothman, for example, created a repeating pattern of men in uniform inspired by a pictorial directory of military insignia, and she used her design on a limited-edition pillow she named, appropriately, At Ease.