life in balance

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Letterpress printing at Old City Press


A couple of weeks ago I went to a letterpress workshop at Old City Press, Alexandria’s new letterpress studio and graphic design shop, which opened its brick and mortar space back in December. I was so very excited to see them start to move presses into the old fibre space storefront, which is a place that’s near to my heart as it’s the first Old Town business I ever shopped at when I came back to DC years ago. I’ve got a long-standing interest in letterpress, and I was thrilled at the prospect of having a studio close to me, in one of my favorite retail spaces in the city. I’ve got a project in my mind’s eye for 2014 that requires access to a letterpress studio, and originally I was going to make the trek up to Silver Spring and Pyramid Atlantic, but with a shop so close to home I’d be crazy not to explore what Old City Press had to offer instead – am I right? And so I signed up for the workshop to see what the space was all about.


As y’all know, I take a lot of classes, and they run the gamut from amazing to terrible, so I didn’t know what to expect from Old City Press, but these guys hit it out of the park. I was exhausted when I got home – in that great way that happens when you’ve worked hard on something you care about. They keep the class size very small and we each got tons of personal attention from Pete and Eric (Erik? If you or Pete read this please tell me how to spell your name!), who taught our workshop. We each chose a phrase to print (in my case, “To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong”) and set our phrase in a chase using wooden and metal type from Old City Press’s collections. I think my favorite moment pulling text was when I went into a case in search of some image blocks to use to surround my quotation’s attribution and found two stars. Later, pulling a print, I noted how the stars gave my print kind of a Civil War era political poster vibe… and then realized those posters were printed with lead stars exactly like the ones I was using here and now, in 2014, to pull my own prints. I love setting type because it connects me with a history of printmaking – the same way I love weaving – it’s the common thread, the historical narrative of craftwork. I am definitely more of a printer and less of a graphic designer.


Once we finished selecting our type, laying it out and fixing it in place, we mixed up our inks and pulled a series of prints on each of the shop’s two Vandercook presses; we each got several copies of our posters. I am not showing y’all mine because hey, born perfectionist, and this was my first print pulled in ten years – so not ready for prime time – but I do have a copy of it hanging in my weaving studio. We also had the chance to pull prints using a pre-made polymer plate. Polymer plates are widely used today to save time on typesetting and get a deeper impression on the print. One of the things I found most interesting about the class was that although we typically associate letterpress type with that deep, rich indentation that’s so sought after in printing today, historically it was considered a sign that you were an inferior printer if you got that deep impression on your paper. As Pete said, after all, who wants to read a crinkly newspaper or book? And in fact, contemporary printers can crack wooden type trying to use it to produce that deep imprint, which is why it can be hard to find undamaged wooden typesets. I was completely fascinated by this, having never printed with a polymer plate before, but I think I’m still a true-blue typesetter at heart.


I really enjoyed working with Pete and Eric and I can’t wait to rent more printing time in the studio this year.

Update: Sadly, shortly after I took my OCP class, Pete contacted me to let me know they would be giving away the fonts I intended to work with. I’ve found another letterpress studio that’s geared more to serious letterpress printers and will be posting about working in that space soon!


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It’s incredible how many turns our lives can take in the course of one year, how many changes can rock through us and move us. Though I don’t typically do New Year’s resolutions, January has always been my month to tuck in to quietly process the year that’s gone – and, in an odd, almost mutually-exclusive way, to power into new challenges that previously seemed oppressive. I don’t call them resolutions because they always seem to quietly line themselves up well in advance of the new year; by the time January arrives on the scene, I’m thusly committed. Last year, my challenge was to become part of the local community of weavers here by joining a communal studio space near my office, and that decision rippled through 2013 in truly beautiful ways. This year I’ve committed to taking a basic drawing class, an idea Rebecca supported during my time in her lovely class back in September. It’s a really painful process at times; I don’t have much natural aptitude for it. That said, I decided in the early weeks of this year that I don’t really believe natural aptitude is what makes the difference. Sure, aptitude makes it easier to get your hours in, because natural skill makes practicing less unpleasant, and so you’ll find you practice more. But I think it’s the grit factor that takes you through to true skill. You’ve got to believe you can continue to move forward even in the face of your early attempts, and you’ve got to be gentle as you push yourself to the edge of your skill set, and you’ve got to do it again and again. It’s not pleasant, no, not at all. But it works, and so I believe in it.


My perseverance with weaving in 2013 has led to a new weaving job producing yardage to be used as baby wraps for Clementine Baby Wraps up in Boston. I spent most of January weaving the sample yardage so that Sarah and I could jointly evaluate whether I would be a good fit for Clementine; it’s been a wonderful return to the finer-gauge yarns I’ve always preferred to weave with but haven’t used in a while. Sarah dyes her warps by hand, which appeals to the part of me that’s been interested in planned pooling warps for a few years, and the materials are just lovely to work with. It’s been a fun challenge to weave yardage to spec for someone else, and a wonderful stretch to work with projects that are larger than what I’m used to producing, but the absolute best part of the process is how holy it feels to weave for someone else’s child. I’m a big believer in intentional craftsmanship – meaning I believe that the finished fabric is imbued with my emotions and intentions for its recipient – so I’ve been extremely careful not to work on the yardage when I’m tired or distressed. I’ve also been following Natalie Chanin’s principle of loving the thread – if y’all haven’t heard her talk about this, she goes over it in her Creativebug classes. It’s basically a principle that thread on a spool has a will to tangle, because it’s been all coiled up and compressed and it doesn’t want to lie smooth and relaxed – so before you begin you have to love on it a little to calm it down. She and her staff smooth the thread with their fingers repeatedly, talk to the thread about the garment and how happy its owner will be, how beautiful she’ll feel when she wears it, how the thread is all a part of that process of beauty and comfort. I do this with my warps, too. Untangling the warp is always a part of winding on, and going smoothly and gently through the process, straightening and untangling the warp bit by bit with my fingers, focuses my intent for the work and helps center me as an artisan. I just feel so honored to be able to do this work as I think about the life of the child who’s going to ride around in the fabric, snuggled up and safe. I can’t wait to watch these wraps find their homes as I weave this year.


Final notes: I’m sure many photos of Clementine warps will be finding their way into my Instagram feed, so if you’ve found your way here because you’re interested in Clementine specifically, feel free to follow me over there. I’d love to share my work with you!