Creative Caversham – Janina Maher


MANY OF us have coped with lockdown by catching up with some reading. And books – in the form of stationery – have also come in useful to store tidied-up photos and mementos, or for creative outlets such as writing and drawing. In the age of the internet, the old-fashioned concept of the book has very much come into its own.

Local artist Janina Maher, whose work can normally be seen exhibited in Caversham’s Arts Trail, is an expert in creating unique handmade stationery. “I am a complete paper addict!” she says, explaining, “There are so many ways of making books.”

Janina, originally from Bristol, is now settled in Caversham. An accountant for many years, she also loved art and crafts. “Dad was an artist, a graphic designer, who illustrated books, while painting as a hobby,” she explains. “He was most disappointed that I became an accountant! However, in the holidays I would go on courses, drawing, painting and textiles, which kept me sane while carrying out the day job.”

Then ten years ago, I did a one-day course on Japanese stab stitch, and I knew that was what I really wanted to do. I continued the ‘day job’ for another five years, at which point I was doing contract work. I realised I no longer wanted a contract, so I went fulltime into book making.”

The craft of making a book by hand goes right back to the earliest years of the Christian era, when writing switched from being preserved on scrolls to sheets of vellum or papyrus, which needed to be stitched together, then surrounded by protective boards, or covers. The pages – nowadays folded paper – are stitched in a variety of ways, using techniques traced back to the earliest roots of the craft and its origins around the world. Janina often creates books using Coptic binding, a technique dating back right to the second century AD, used by the early Coptic Christians in Egypt when preserving their Gnostic writing, and featuring a distinctive stitching style.

Another thing about Coptic binding is that the book opens out completely flat,” explains Janina. “It contains what we call ‘signatures’ of folded paper. A piece of paper folded three times – known as ‘octavo’ – creates eight pages. Six signatures of four pieces of folded paper makes a surprisingly large number of pages, and these are all hand-sewn together.”

Using linen thread for stitching the pages together, Janina uses a variety of different bookbinding techniques, apart from the Coptic style, taking inspiration from ancient oriental bookmaking such as Japanese stab binding. She has found it fascinating to experiment with alternative methods of binding sheets of paper together, apart from stitching, such as using metal screws, or even cocktail sticks to ‘hinge’ pages together.

As well as selling her handmade books at arts trails, Janina normally devotes a lot of her time to teaching crafts, for the Henley Arts and Crafts Guild, Micklems Farm Creative Workshops, and Ardington School. When lockdown happened, everything suddenly stopped. “I really miss face to face contact,” Janina says. Workshops have begun to move to online, which has been a whole new experience for both Janina and her students.

I did a mixed-media workshop, rather than bookbinding, and it required a lot of materials. I was doing this in my dining room, with most of the stuff on the floor. You can see the aftermath at the end of the workshop! (Pictured) I was quite nervous to start, but I have watched the recording, and it seems reasonably coherent. I have a few pointers for my next session – like try not to get your nose in the way of the camera!” Janina says.

As well as mastering different ways to bind paper, which continue to fascinate Janina, she enjoys decorating the ‘boards’, or covers of her handmade books, and this is where Janina and her students can become really creative. “At the moment I have been using Gelli plate with acrylic paint, but I like to experiment with different materials, using fabric or scrap paper, or even crumpled brown wrapping paper, painted then waxed – marbling, or using materials such as leather,” she explains.

And does she ever discover what her unique handmade books are used for? “They can be for writing, for special occasions such as a wedding, new baby mementos, or for drawing in. At one workshop, as I was teaching the students how to create their own books, one lady started to fill hers in during the workshop. And by the time we had finished, her book was already complete!”

To find out more, here are some links:

Janina’s Facebook Group Bookbinding Unbound