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Bookbinder keeps alive centuries-old techniques

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Sep. 18--The growing popularity of personal journaling and scrapbooking has contributed to a growing appreciation for fine bookbinding. An artisan-made book with a leather cover embellished with hand-tooling or embroidery has a great appeal to eye and hand as well as the heart, inspiring the desire to own a book that says what is within is special.

Heather Dabrowski of Darien creates handmade books that answer that yearning. She will be bringing them to the Country Folk Art Festival at Kane County Fairgrounds this weekend. Here is what she has to say about her little-known art that is a revival of very old techniques.

Dabrowski started working with leather early in 2003 after taking a refresher course on bookbinding at a studio/art gallery in Lemont, Artful Gatherings. As a writer, she owned several store-bought journals people had given her over the years and took the class in order to rebind and replace some of them.

"The class was in Long Stitch Bookbinding. That fired me up," she says. She spent $100 on the class and "the following weekend bought $400 worth of leather and went gung ho."

After going through several majors from secondary education to public relations at the now-defunct Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa, Dabrowski fell into business and technical writing, graduating in 1991. She has worked for IT (Information Technology) at SkillSoft, a global corporation headquarters in Nashua, N.H., for the last 11 years.

Dabrowski, 36, says she always was interested in art, and tried her hand at drawing and painting. As an avid writer, she filled up her own books. In her job as technical writer, she does project management, using methodology and process.

"What I found with bookbinding is you do everything in stages, applying similar skills in an artistic way," she says. "You cut your leather, you choose the color, texture, style. With some of the leatherwork, I do embroidery. I'm able to create free-flowing patterns that will look like a hardbound book. If you look at a high-end leather-bound book, it may have gold embossing and have lines on the spine, perhaps a little filigree. For certain designs, I try to do artwork on the spine mimicking that."

"My parents were academics and always had some great books around," she says. They had a great collection of old hard-bound books in leather, which her father, a nuclear-power researcher who traveled in the military, was able to find in places as far away as Egypt.

"Dad would sit down with me on a Sunday, and we'd pull out the old books and look at them. He had a series of French plays from the 1700s by famous playwrights popular to that period," she says. She was only 9 1/2 years old at the time, yet it impressed her "how incredible it is to see something that old. And how beautifully they are made."

"Every book is hand-sewn. I use no machining at all in what I do," she says. She uses the Italian long stitch. "The true form of long-stitch bookbinding occurred in Italy around the 14th Century. It creates a nice spine, and the book lies flat when open." A special bookbinder's needle can be used to do the stitching, but she prefers crewel needles.

The time involved in making one of her small journals, 5 1/2 by 5 inches -- from starting to cut the leather, preparing the handmade paper, and assembling the book -- is about 2 1/2 hours. If embroidery is involved or she is making her own paper for decorative end sheets, it takes longer. For the small journals, she uses linen and parchment papers, and in the large journals, she uses an artist's paper that is good for any medium including watercolor.

What inspires Dabrowski? "I would say a combination of nature and the love of old books and getting back to how books are not made today, unless you are going to pay $150 to $200 for one," she says. "Everything [else] is still glued and mass-manufactured. My home backs onto the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, the largest forest preserve in Du Page County, with some of the best vegetation and varieties of wildflowers. I love being outdoors and find a lot of inspiration and ideas for color in nature."

Dabrowksi uses browns, buffs and deep reds in her books. She also will use some that are not so traditional, she adds, such as "bright red, a sea green, a muted mustard and a skin-tone color. When you combine the skin tone with a thread color and perhaps a design color, it looks great," she says. "If I see more modern design in a paper, colors you wouldn't normally put together like a rich purple with an olive, something different, I might try it."

This is Dabrowski's third appearance at the Country Folk Art Festival. She also will participate in the Kris Kindl market Thanksgiving weekend in Schaumburg and the For The Love of Art show sponsored by the Lemont Artists' Guild the first weekend in November. Dabrowski also sells through trunk shows and book parties.

Her small journals, 5 1/2 by 5 inches, cost $25 to $50. Her large artist's journals, 9 by 6 inches, range from 126 to 196 pages and cost $50 to $80. She also makes 9-by-6-inch photo books ($75 to $120) with black card stock acid-free paper. "I make a small matching personal journal to go with it. Made with a leather or deerskin cover, the photo books cost $80 to $120.

For more information: Call 630-910-5869 or visit

FOLK FESTIVAL: The 23rd Annual Country Folk Art Festival will be held form 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 25, at the Kane County Fairgrounds, Randall Road, between Illinois Routes 64 (North Avenue) and Illinois Route 38 (Roosevelt Road), 1 one mile west of downtown St. Charles. Admission: $8 Friday and Saturday, $6 Sept. 25Sunday; children under 15 free. Call: 630-858-1568 or visit


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