Weaving Bookmarks by Lauren Roberts, first published on BiblioBuffet 24.2.2008

Bookmarks come in all manner of material—paper, celluloid, plastic, leather, gold, silver and other metals, ivory (old ones), yarn, fabric. Impromptu bookmarks—the kind you just stuff into a book when you need a quick place to mark your place have included straw, gold coins and other interesting objects as well as (legend has it) bacon. Many were and continue to be made as inexpensive advertising vehicles, but some companies make lovely bookmarks as miniature works of art to be enjoyed or given as gifts. One of these is Papilionaceous, a British weaving firm that specializes in trimming for quality clothing and furnishings.

I first became aware of Papilionaceous when the gracious owner, Robert Ely, contacted me about his bookmarks. What I saw left me stunned. Make of thick silk, these creamy, sensuous rectangles of fabric with humorous, gorgeous or elegant images drew me in. I now own the Ways With Words one (above) and have plans to add several more to my collection. The story behind Papilionaceous is a fascinating one, and I thought BiblioBuffet’s readers would enjoy getting to know the man, the company and the bookmarks.

BiblioBuffet: “Papilionaceous” is an interesting name choice for a business with its etymology meaning “butterfly.” Why did you choose that name for your business? How big is your business?

Robert Ely: I worked in retail selling for a number of years prior to setting up in weaving and spent quite a while selling (and wearing) bow ties. Part of the thought behind weaving narrow fabrics was that I could weave silk specifically for bows (I am often asked why I don’t make ties. Ties are cut across the grain of the fabric so that they tie nicely. What I do simply is not wide enough for this, bow ties are cut straight). In France, bow ties are papillon and I had a conversation with a customer one day about, if I remember correctly, the Romans believing that butterflies were in some way linked to the soul and this gentleman made a connection with bow ties as being a window to the soul of the wearer. When I got to finding a name for my new silk weaving company, a word meaning butterfly-like seemed entirely appropriate.

The business has remained small. I set it up with the intention of weaving in the manner of a hand weaver but with the capacity of a modern producer. This is still the case; I design, sample and weave everything myself but can still deliver several thousand metres of ribbon if that is required.

Narrow fabric silk weaving is rather a specialist area to start with; specialising within that makes some products very specific indeed. Our most visible products are the work we do for gent’s braces and silk bookmarks. Less obvious, though work which many people worldwide will have seen, are the trimmings for costume. Do you recall the hatbands used in the film, Master and Commander? I can tell you they were black silk grosgrain—woven in England. I also have a customer that buys just one thing from me—black basket weave silk. It is used to cover the buttons on hand-tailored evening wear on Saville Row.

BB: What is your professional background? How did that bring you to create Papilionaceous?

RE: I studied handweaving at college. My first job out of college was selling silk ties; I carried on selling moving through menswear and dress fabrics and on to a position selling bridal and dresswear. I had in mind all along that I would return to weaving at some point and the tie selling was just at the time when woven fabrics were returning to the market after prints had been dominant for some time. There was a very gradual process of looking at various fabrics and products, working out how they had been done, wondering how I could do something similar, who would I sell it to and so on and this process gathered momentum until I started making enquiries about textile machinery. I knew I was going to weave but also had in mind that there should be a firm industrial base if the potential business were going to progress in the way I imagined.

BB: Your original intent when you began the business was to produce silk ribbon trimmings. What are these used for—fashion, fabric-covered home furnishings, something else?

RE: Trimmings is an area that covers a multitude of different requirements. The desire to embellish is something that I think a lot of people have—though the minimalists have tried to steer us away from it. Silk ribbon is an embellishment that can be applied wherever you desire—to clothes, furniture, curtains, cushions, quilts—the list goes on. One barrier I have found is that as consumers we now have less access to the bits and pieces of embellishment than in former times. How many households still have a box of assorted buttons, sewing threads and to my mind the most important—a box of ribbons! Most of what we buy comes finished: pre-embellished and that is where much of my ribbon goes.

There is a large amount of cross fertilisation between the various product areas that we cover. Many designs have appeared as both braces and bookmarks and others have also been used as trimmings. I don’t make a distinction at the design stage. As a broad generalization the more graphic/figurative designs tend to have been the braces/bookmarks and the abstract ones trim.

One other thing that can be slightly confusing particularly now that we have manufacturers such as myself who use the Internet to also sell direct to the public is that there is product which is mine to show and sell and product which has been made to commission and generally doesn’t appear on the site. Much of the furnishing trim I have produced falls into this latter category; it’s out there but I don’t publicise it.

BB: At the risk of making myself look silly, I must confess that I first came across the term “braces” in a paper bookmark I own from “Bee Braces.” I was puzzled because it looks nothing like, well, braces (on children’s teeth), which is what I had assumed when I first saw it. It wasn’t until I googled the term that I realized it referred to what we Americans call suspenders. I do like your term—gent’s braces—better. Is this a major line for you? Was it one of your original products? Do the braces have designs on them too?

RE: My shipping documents to the US carry both terms so as to avoid confusion at customs. Though ask for suspenders in the UK and you will be directed to the ladies’ lingerie department . . .

The very first order I delivered in 1996 was silk for gent’s braces and I have been supplying the same company ever since so I guess I must be doing something right. Yes, the braces all have designs as well and in fact there is quite a lot of crossover between brace and bookmark designs. I design and weave specifically for the width (and length in some cases) of the braces. Many men are still of the belief that braces are not there to be seen by the public (if you remember that the notion of a gentleman removing his jacket in public is still considered bad form in some circles) and so the design is there primarily to please the wearer. Of course the more public display of braces is also something that we cater to and they are often conversation pieces in their own right. The most recent design that we have delivered features the entire ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech from Henry V. It runs the entire length of both sides of the pair—no ‘pattern repeat’ at all.

BB: How did you come up with the idea for adding silk bookmarks ? And why bookmarks? What attracted you to them? When did you add them to your line?

RE: Silk bookmarks were on the first list of possibilities when I was giving thought to the future business. I like the notion of small beautiful things; my father was a goldsmith and it’s possible I have always been drawn to the precious. Aside from their function, bookmarks are quite self contained; they are entirely what they are. To take the weaving that I produce and finish it in such a way that it is individual to whoever is holding it I find very pleasing. The first bookmarks I produced came about because I was in a store to see a menswear buyer and on the way out bumped into the book buyer; we got talking and a few weeks later the first bookmarks were delivered. (For the record, the menswear buyer didn’t take anything!) The year was 1998, so that means we have now been making silk bookmarks for 10 years. I’d better start thinking about an anniversary edition.

BB: Are bookmarks more difficult to make than ribbons and trimming?

RE: Every item has its own restrictions and possibilities; but that is what weaving is all about—you have your warp and your weft and you try to bend them to your will. In many ways it is nice to design within finite boundaries, without thinking about how five yards of repeat will look. At the same time all of the impact needs to be in a rather small space.

BB: Bookmarks are or were until very recently a tiny area of collectibles. Do you think English readers are more likely to use them than American readers? Or are most of your buyers collectors or businesses who want to use them as corporate gifts?

RE: The truthful answer is that I don’t know. In terms of volume the vast majority of our bookmarks are bought by private individuals. My personal experience is that many are bought as gifts; that friend or relative whose house is stuffed with books is seemingly a difficult person to buy gifts for—until you find the perfect silk bookmark. I have several regular buyers who would not consider themselves collectors but nevertheless admit to framing the bookmarks, or keeping them in their protective sleeve even when they are using them. And others again who buy them as gifts but never quite seem to get around to giving them away.

BB: What limitations if any are there in working with silk on such a relatively small item? Is it harder or easier working with a small area than a larger one?

RE: I think of what I do now as a very concentrated form of weaving. I do far more weaving in a square inch than I did in a square foot when I was hand weaving. Or, to put that in a computer context: an image printed at 72 dots per inch will have 5,184 dots in a square inch, a silk bookmark design has 28,000 dots in a square inch. Silk is not the easiest fibre to work with. As a natural fibre, it has its inconsistencies and imperfections, but it also has qualities not found elsewhere. Weaving ribbons brings additional concerns. The edges and back are going to be seen so there is nowhere to hide from a structural point of view.

BB: How does a bookmark begin? (I’m not talking about commissioned designs, but one of your own making.) Do you see a design in your head and then sketch it out on paper? Do you use a computer? Or are you inspired by something like a building or animal and go from there? Take us on your journey from initial idea or proposal to actual bookmark.

RE: Much of what I do starts with the weave itself. There is a way of weaving that I am exploring at a particular time and the design comes about to help with that exploration. Sometimes it then makes it out into the world and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t necessarily start out as a bookmark either, but at some point in the process it starts to become one. As I handle all of the design myself there is plenty of crossover between ideas. Yes I use a computer. As a means of ‘talking to’ the loom the computer and floppy disc have replaced point paper and punched cards. I wouldn’t be doing this, in fact I couldn’t be doing this, if the computer were not here. The time required would be prohibitive. But, as with a word processor, it is only a tool.

Inspiration is most often from colour, texture and form and I have always taken photographs. In a slight paradox, designs that start with photographs actually involve more drawing than those which start with drawing. Most of that drawing is done on screen, though I use pencil and paper for layouts as it’s often easier to sketch something free hand first.

BB: Are there certain grades of silk you use? How are the bookmarks woven? How does your design and manufacturing process work?

RE: Yes, I use the same grade of silk almost exclusively—it’s around 40 denier (approximately 0.03mm in diameter). The bookmarks are woven on a jacquard loom. This is a loom which gives a very high level of control over what the yarn is doing and what colour gets used where; all of the 28,000 points per square inch have to be told what to do and it’s the jacquard mechanism that does that. Each bookmark piece has two repeats of the design, one being upside down relative to the other. After being cut off the loom each piece is stitched on the wrong side then turned inside out to give the finished shape.

The design and manufacturing process would still be recognisable to most hand weavers. A design is worked up to a certain point or level of detail then that is sampled on the loom to see how it is coming along, then revised and taken on further, re-sampled and so on until I’m happy with it and then we go ahead and produce it. Sometimes it can go backwards and forwards many times, other times it’s right first time.

BB: I have your Ways With Words bookmark from that book festival. It is exquisite! Tell me about some of your commissions. When someone comes to you, do they generally have an idea of what they want or do you come up with the design?

RE: The first job is usually to get the client to understand just what the possibilities are, what is likely to work well and what should perhaps be avoided. For example, people are aware that we can do complex images but are often surprised at how good text looks.

The Ways With Words bookmark was fairly typical of the process. It is my local literary festival so I went along to see the organisers with a box full of samples, and we had a very productive conversation about what their bookmark might eventually look like. We discussed possible images and typography and their thoughts on colour. A few days later they sent through some ideas which I then put into a rough layout and sent back. This initial layout is actually very important. Often where images are concerned simply cropping it down to fit the area of a bookmark gives a very clear idea of how well it will work. It sounds obvious, but until you cut it to size you don’t really see what the impact will be. In general I would say that people have a notion of the character of image that they wish to use but that that may need sourcing, editing or creating from scratch. With business commissions there will usually be something in existence that presents a ‘house style’. With private commissions, e.g., bookmarks for wedding favours, there is much more of an investigative process, of suggestions and discussion, to come up with something that fits the personalities of the couple.

BB: What are some of the hardest design challenges you’ve had?

RE: The hardest design challenges are almost exclusively the ones that I give myself. In recent years these have involved multiple layered ribbons, ribbons that are woven as several tubes which are then turned inside out through each either before the final product is realised—in this case for audio cable sleeving. Graphic designs can be challenging when I am pushing the boundaries of what I want to achieve with weaving; working from photographs where I want to preserve the photographic quality but also to make it quite clear that it’s not a photograph, it’s not a woven photograph, it’s something that is different to both photography and weaving and has a particular quality of its own. Satisfying that search for that intangible quality is certainly a challenge.

With commercial designs, for example, working with fine art images, I believe it is necessary to preserve the original artists handwriting whilst not simply being a facsimile. This often means spending quite some time looking at how the painting was painted and then transferring that quality into the woven design.

BB: What is your next upcoming design?

RE: The next bookmark design is a 21st anniversary edition for a UK bookstore.
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BB: The bookmarks in the animal series are hilarious and wonderful! Tell us about the artist whose designs you use, Simon Drew, and how you came to work together.

RE: I first became aware of Simon Drew’s work when on holiday as a schoolboy—the one I remember is Puffin (picture of a puffin) Nuffin (same picture without Puffin). We used to come down to Devon from London, and I bought some postcards from his gallery. Twenty or so years later the gallery is still there, Puffin/Nuffin is still in print, and I have moved 250 miles from my original home to weave within a few miles of it.

Simon uses a combination of a love of wordplay and a well-defined sense of the absurd in the everyday to combine images and words in wonderful ways. It was due to a request from a customer of mine that I first wove one of Simon’s designs. Having the artist practically on the doorstep to approve samples is very useful as is the fact that I get to see new works as they appear.
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BB: When you create a bookmark you must have reasons for choosing that particular design. Tell us about the stories behind the “At the Theatre” and the “Ballroom” bookmarks. Both appear to be 1920s-era designs. What interested you about these activities in this time period?

RE: Elegance is a word that would crop up a great deal when describing the style of imagery that suits many of the products I design for. That era seems to have done ‘elegant’ better than any other. The graphic style also suits the way that I work and it’s a time that just appeals to me. Neither of these designs was produced to a specific commission. ‘At the theatre’ is based on an original graphic work from the 20s that actually runs horizontally; I liked the langour of the image and re-worked it as a vertical design. It was then picked up by the Theatre Museum in London who asked if they could have it as a bookmark—it seemed perfect. Sadly, the museum is no longer there but the bookmark lives on. ‘Ballroom’ is an accumulation of ideas. I was dancing fairly regularly at the time and combining that with a Deco feel seemed a good starting point for a new design. The orange dresses are there because of one of my favourite dresses that my wife wears, and the chandalier is based on the one in the Crush Bar at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden—where I happened to be sitting when I was working on the design. Bring it all together and give it a good stir!
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BB: Tell us about the “Pebbles” bookmark: how it came about and what it means to you.

RE: My journey to work takes me along nine miles of coast road. Part of that journey is straight along a pebble beach which was one of the main reasons that we moved to the area in the first place. It has become part of my everyday life and I don’t think there can be many people who have walked along a pebble beach and not picked up one or two. So having accumulated a fair few that I rather liked I photographed them and set about turning them into a weave which then became the bookmark that you see. From a practical point of view, when I want to put something in the post or give something to a visitor to take away that will remind them of this special place, this bookmark is perfect.

BB: Do you like martinis or are these bookmarks a tribute to James Bond?

RE: At the risk of appearing a pedant—James Bond drank vodka martinis! Yes I do like martinis. I also like them to contain sufficient vermouth and at the time I produced this it seemed that pouring chilled neat gin into a martini glass was sufficient for the drink to be a martini, so this was a bit of a reminder. Again it’s Deco inspired in feel and I should credit my wife for the type setting.

BB: Do you collect bookmarks?

RE: No I don’t. When I was first working I was within a short walk of many secondhand bookshops and would always read a paperback in preference to a newspaper. My habit at the time was to mark that book with whatever was to hand; often this would be a clothing tag or maybe a theatre ticket—general ephemera. When the book was finished its marker stayed with it and the next book had a new one. So what passes for my bookmark collection is mainly stored between the pages of the shelved novels.

BB: Do you get tired of bookmarks since they are your business? What do you love most about them?

RE: Since I have been making my own I do enjoy the process of deciding which of the stack on the shelf should go with the book I’m about to read. I have also started to look back at the history of silk bookmarks in England. It is slightly disconcerting to feel that there is a continuity with something that largely died out but was once such a vibrant industry.

BB: Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in silk? Is this a family business?

RE: Yes it’s a family business. Both my brother and my wife have an involvement. There does seem to be an extent to which fabric is in the blood though. My father’s father was a tailor and my mother’s mother was a dressmaker. We have to go back to my great-great-grandparents before we find weavers, and they were a family that grew and wove linen.

When I was weaving by hand I used predominantly wool and I think that suited the scale and type of weaving I was doing. Looking forward to what I would use as a long-term material, silk had so many things in its favour. I don’t think you can have an interest in fine fabric and not be drawn to silk; the depth of colour and lustre, the strength and versatility, the tradition.

BB: Is there anything I haven’t thought to ask that you’d like to share?

RE: One of the issues that selling as a businesses such as mine raises is whether we have to a large extent forgotten that such businesses can exist in the modern world. I was exhibiting at an international furnishing fair a few years ago and was met with a large amount of disbelief when I told people that yes we were a modern weaving company that designed and produced everything in our own workshops in England.

The Internet may finally succeed in bringing us back closer to the producers, to put as back in touch with where things come from; and this interview is most certainly an example of that—so thank you.

Bookmark specifications: Ways With Words
Dimensions: 7” x 1 1/2”
Material: Silk
Manufacturer: Papilionaceous
Date: 2007
Acquired: Gift from Robert Ely

Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, 900 bookmarks and approximately 1,000 books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) and Book Publicists of Southern California as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. You can reach her at lauren.roberts@bibliobuffet.com