IT’S a craft that dates back millennia and it’s still practised right here in Sheffield. Reporter Rachael Clegg hears from two Sheffield bookbinders about what it’s like working in an historic trade...

Sue Callaghan, a bookbinder and her shop based on Devonshire Street in Sheffield
Sue Callaghan, a bookbinder and her shop based on Devonshire Street in Sheffield

City’s bookbinders are practising a trade dating back thousands of years which has changed very little in all that time

CROSSING the threshold of Sue Callaghan’s shop is like stepping back in time.

The tiny Devonshire Street store has been home to Sue’s bookbinding business since 1978, though its contents suggest it’s been standing here much longer.

Sue, aged 59, leans over her tiny counter with glasses perched at the end of her nose. Rolls of book leather, book cloth and book paper burst from a rack behind her, dozens of dust-covered ink bottles are peppered throughout the shop and archaic-looking tools hang from the wall.

In an age where new, mechanically-bound books are bought in soulless supermarkets, Sue Callaghan’s somewhat old-fashioned bookbinding enterprise is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s a historic venture, too.

Bookbinding originates from India, where religious passages were copied on to dried leaves, which were then stitched together and paginated. The process was then adopted by Buddhist monks, who took the idea to Afghanistan, China and Iran in the first century BC.

Then, with the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, bookbinding became a massive trade. And since then the process has barely changed.

“I use all the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years. Bookbinding is one of the few trades that hasn’t evolved with technology,” says Sue.

To illustrate her point, a series of prints of bookbinders working more than 100 years ago adorn the walls.

“See, that’s a sewing frame – the one I use is very similar,” she says.

The advent of bookbinding was revolutionary, according to Sue.

“Without binding we wouldn’t have books, we’d be using scrolls, which were chained to churches. Books meant that people didn’t have to travel to these places to learn how to read,” she says.

Sue’s expertise, which she has built up over the past 35 years, has provided her with a steady stream of customers.

“I’m very lucky, I don’t really advertise as I have enough work to be getting on with.”

Clients have ranged from students needing their theses binding, people wanting periodicals bound or restorative work – Sue’s favourite.

“I love the restorative work the most, though it’s a huge responsibility. It’s the challenge that I like, sometimes I get a book and I think ‘where on earth do I start?’ but I love bringing it back to its former glory.”

A librarian from Birkdale School in Broomhill drops in with a 19th-century edition of the Domesday Book, which has just been found in the school’s history department.

As with all jobs, Sue examines the books in front of the customer.

“This isn’t the original cover,” she says, authoritatively.

“It’s made from sheepskin, you can tell by the way the skin moves. It will need new binding and fly sheets.”

The librarian then produces a second book, The Language of Flowers – a beautifully-illustrated book about plants.

“This looks like it was published around 1870s, I can tell from the binding,” says Sue, carefully removing the remaining glue from the disintegrating binding.

Sue’s approach to books is like that of a doctor in surgery. But then, she’s more than familiar with the anatomy of books.

“I can tell just from the binding whether a bookbinder was slap-happy, whether he loved his work or whether it was just a job for him – and I say ‘him’ because they were always men.”

Even before Sue started training as a bookbinder’s apprentice more than 35 years ago, she was gradually amassing her own collection of books.

“I was always interested in books. My father worked in publishing and then opened a bookshop in Bath – although we’re all from Sheffield originally.

“I started bookbinding as a hobby, because I loved books and had quite a lot of my own. But once I started I knew I wanted to do it as a living.”

Having trained in bookbinding, Sue, from Totley, returned to Sheffield and set up her shop on Devonshire Street. The range of her commissions reflect the length of her tenure in the trade, with clients including Renishaw Hall and Chatsworth House.

“The commission for Chatsworth House was quite nerve-wracking,” she says.

“The book was huge – about three feet nine inches by 18 inches.”

But her oldest commission was a book dating back to the 15th-century. And while we assume that the older a book is the more fragile it is, this is not the case, according to Sue.

“In the late Victorian times they used all kinds of acidic substances which damaged the books and made the binding very weak. A 17th-century bound book will last much longer than one that’s just over one hundred years old.”

Sue is one of three bookbinders in Sheffield – all of whom are women, each with a very different approach to binding.

Heather Dewick works on the other side of the city centre, on Bank Street.

The 44-year-old creates bespoke book covers from all manner of items from tea towels to images from the classic Ladybird books.

“I’ve had people send tea towels of their favourite places to be made into a book cover and I’ve been asked to create bespoke albums. But I also use traditional bookbinding materials such as book cloth and leather.”

Heather, from Pitsmoor, trained in conservation and worked in ceramic restoration but developed an allergy to the chemicals required to restore ceramics.

“I had a bad reaction to the chemicals, which is why bookbinding is great – it’s just book cloth, paper and leather. Bookbinding has changed so little over the past few hundred years that it’s an historic trade.”