Bookbinding Techniques with Shirley Levine

Says Shirley Levine, an art journaling enthusiast from NYC: “I have always loved books and reading and was happiest throughout my entire life when I was making things.” Turns out she’s found a way to beautifully combine these two passions. In addition to journaling, Shirley is an expert bookbinder. Would you like to learn how to bind a book? Maybe make your own handmade journal? In this two-part artist interview, Shirley shares book binding techniques, methods and tips to inspire you and get you started.

I can’t remember where I met Shirley first. Was it at the International Quilt Festival in Houston? Or was at our book signing at The Ink Pad in Manhattan in 2010? I know we met up last year in Houston, but I have no idea if that was the first year because–gah!–my memory is a sad thing. But! On Wednesday we had a bookbinding tutorial, remember? And then I remembered Shirley’s post last week on my art journaling Yahoo group (click here to join us–we’d love to have you) and asked her if she’d share with us here. To keep from having a really long post, I’ve split it in half. At the end of this first part, you’ll find links to her posts. (You can, of course, just go to her blog and find them all–there’s a link to that at the bottom, too.) Come back on Monday to read the rest of our Q&A.

Shirley Parker Levine lives in New York City and describes herself as a wife, the mother of 3 and grandmother of 7, and a retired physician in Internal Medicine and Hematology. Her blog is

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Shirley says, “I have always loved books and reading and was happiest throughout my entire life when I was making things. This compulsion took many forms over the years: drawing, sewing, quilting, smocking, silk ribbon embroidery, silk painting with procion MX dyes, and all methods of surface design on cotton and silk.  These were creative interests that fit around my career as a medical school faculty member for nearly 40 years, first in Texas and then in New York.

Q: How did you get interested in bookbinding?

In 2003 I bought Gwen Diehn’s book The Decorated Page and fell in love with the concept of sketchbook art.  I always loved to draw but had no experience with watercolors.  But I wanted desperately to create books like her Italian sketchbook.  I bought a watercolor sketchbook and decorated every other page as she recommende, and then added drawings with pen, ink and watercolor washes.  It took me over two years to fill those 50 pages while working long hours.  But I loved every minute of it.

I bought several types of watercolor sketchbooks, over the next few years, but none really satisfied me completely.  So I gradually started to make my own.

 Q: What were your first books?

I partially retired in 2005, working only 3 days per week, and discovered and joined the Everyday Matters Yahoo group started by Danny Gregory.  My daily sketchbook was an inexpensive spiral Aquabee sketchbook because anything expensive seemed too precious and kept me from freely playing.  Daily sketching and painting led to my blog in Jan. 2006 and I moved to the Moleskine watercolor sketchbook in the summer of 2006, almost as soon as it became available.  But I hated the landscape format of that Moleskine book and was only using it while searching for good watercolor paper, in a bound watercolor sketchbook, in a portrait format, and at a reasonable price.

Almost simultaneously I discovered a blog post by Jan Allsopp, from Australia, about two books she recycled as sketchbooks for a vacation in Europe, one for the Italy portion and one for Provence.  I corresponded with Jan, bought a few books on bookbinding, and recycled my first book – a multiple signature, cased-in, codex book using the cover and some illustrations from a book on Elizabeth I.  My daughter’s family was living in London for a year and I used that sketchbook for play while I kept more conventional sketchbooks for my visits.

 Q: Why did you decide to make your own journals?

I make my sketchbook journals so I can have a book I love.  For several years I had great angst about finding a perfect book because I didn’t like the size, the paper, or format of commercial watercolor journals.  But I was simultaneously struggling with my inability to be free with books that seemed too special and expensive.  Now I get to determine the paper that I want to use, the size of the book, and the number of pages.  And they are not very expensive to make.

 Q: What kind of work do you do in the journals? 

My sketchbooks are filled with pen and ink drawings with watercolor washes.  I love to draw and to use drawings to document my days.  Many pages are filled with activities from that day – even my grandchildren’s toys and everyday objects from my apartment and neighborhood.  I don’t have much experience with mixed media and rarely work in layers, although I sometimes collage a drawing done on scrap paper into my daily, chronologic visual journal. Drawing and painting are my favorite parts of the process, and I love having a row of 40+ journals on my shelf which reflect my life since 2003.  I write enough on a page to remember the events or the reason for including specific objects, but these are not my written journals.  I write daily in a separate journal.

Here are links to Shirley’s bookbinding tutorial:


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Come back Monday for the rest of our Q&A~~sorry we couldn’t get it all in, but we didn’t want to have to cut anything out to make it fit~~in the meantime, have fun learning how to make your own custom sketchbooks~~a perfect adventure for your weekend!


Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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One Response to Bookbinding Techniques with Shirley Levine

  1. MellyTesta says:

    Shirley taught me to make recycled books and now I make my own journals too! It’s catchy! Great article Ricë! Thank you.