Rust and Indigo For A Chinese Thread Book

Thanks to the delightful kindness of Kit Tyrrell, one of my blog readers in the UK, I have received two booklets by Ruth Smith about folded books that can contain many compartments. One such book is the Chinese Thread Book (AKA the Miao Dong thread-and-needle case) that I mentioned in my last post. Kit had found the booklets at a textile show in the UK and had made the needle case using soft Japanese paper. She was so generous in sending them to me to have a go, too.

One of Ruth Smith's instruction books:

(You can see the thread book on the far right of the cover pic)

The traditional Miao thread and needle cases can have up to thirteen folded 'containers' stacked on top of each other and enclosed within covers that shut like a pocketbook. Miao embroiderers kept thread, needles, patterns, etc, in these “pockets”

For the annual CBBAG (bookbinding) swap ( themed “Envelope” this year) I was looking for an interesting way to bind and/or contain a collection of 20 artistically-made 'envelopes' containing creative enclosures.

We were encouraged to explore the 'Conceal-Reveal' concept inherent in the theme. I had in mind to make a multi-pouch container based on the traditional needle-and-thread cases made by the Miao people of South West China. Their needle-and-thread cases are usually made from paper, often handmade, and decorated with symbols and designs of cultural significance. (In fact, the Miao designs are a principal means of handing down their history since until recently, the Miao people were 94% illiterate, having no written records, relying instead on oral and graphic-image storytelling and record-keeping to transmit and preserve their ancient culture)

Instead of paper, however, I decided to use my (pre-reduced) indigo and rust dyed fabrics (stashed from last year) because of an indigo connection: the Miao people are famous for growing indigo (three species) and for indigo-dyeing their handwoven hemp clothing that they later applique with exquisitely skilful embroideries.

In addition, I thought that placing the CBBAG Swap envelopes inside still other 'envelopes' that also 'conceal' then 'reveal' seemed another appropriate and enriching concept to explore, and one that links to the curiosity, excitement and mystery we might experience in turning the pages of a book.

This is what my Chinese Thread Book looked like when it was done: I needed four larger compartments each topped with one smaller 'box' or 'envelope'; the eight compartments are mounted on cloth-bound book board covers. Each of the larger 'boxes' contains five art envelopes (about 5″ square) with an enclosure; the smaller box on top contains small cards bearing the name of each participant in the project.

But first, there was many a trial and much mess and often, confusion…More books of instruction and also You Tubes were gratefully consulted…

After the confidence-building reading and video-watching, on to the trials – playtime!

On the studio table is some rust and indigo dyed cloth laid out for auditioning as book cloth (cloth backed with paper to use in bookbinding)

Some trials with paper – origami folds to make a box:


The vintage linen (below) dyed with rust and indigo was successfully backed with thin mulberry paper to make book cloth. I adhered the cloth and paper together with Heat 'N Bond and Steam-a-Seam; no wet paste or glue for this application, though I have used it very successfully before. But wet glue had been a mistake in a previous trial with another kind of cloth). Lessons learned from paper trials and the cloth-wet glue trial led to success with the first of the four folded cloth 'envelopes' AKA origami-fold boxes:

Smaller boxes are stacked (glued with PVA) on top of the larger ones and open up to reveal their contents:

The paper layer of the bookcloth of which the wee boxes are made is painted with indigo; the cloth side is rust printed cotton. Some of the thin mulberry paper tore but I fixed that easily with acrylic glazing liquid – in fact, giving the whole mulberry paper layer a thin coat of glaze which serves both to enhance the indigo blue colour and to strengthen the paper. (The Miao people varnish their paper). One has to give some thought to the colour of the paper that lines the cloth before adhering cloth and paper together and folding it – something I failed to do! The result: a lot of unwanted white showing! So I made a wash from the indigo and CAREFULLY painted it on the white paper/outside of the boxes…though after the thread case was finished, not before, which would have been safer.

Inside the wee box, a little card for each artist with their name:


Inside the larger folded boxes five 'envelopes' with their enclosures:


On top of each of the five 'envelopes' inside the larger box I placed a lid made from my hand made and hand dyed indigo and rust paper. I intended the 'lid' to conceal the contents briefly even after the box is opened…you lift the lid by a wee loop.Each of the four lids is different:



This box shows my own CBBAG 'Envelope' inside:


The case for the folded boxes is covered with rust-printed linen and furnished with ribbon ties: It looks like a hard-cover book.


The covers fold flat to keep the folded boxes flat inside, and they are wrapped around with a ribbon:


And a final protective 'envelope' : one to slip the ” Envelope” case inside, made of indigo and rust printed cotton and linen; free motion stitched label.


Next time: A look at some of the envelopes and their enclosures!

And maybe some Philip Taafe ( I must stop making that promise…the truth is that I took some photos at the gallery where his show took place but have not received permission to use them…so until I do….I did write and ask for permissiom at the gallery but the answer I received was not clearly a YES or a NO…so I have to clarify…I do believe an artist has the right to the work being represented by images that he or she wants so I cannot go barging ahead to publish my own little snapshots without a clear OK…But if I cannot use my own photos, I know I can use theirs)

And thank you once again to Kit Tyrrell who, through her amazing kindness, provided me with the necessary instructions for this interesting and challenging bookbinding project




28 thoughts on “Rust and Indigo For A Chinese Thread Book

  1. Wendy, your work is exquisite! I would love to see this project in person, especially because of my time in South West China. I have a piece of Miao fibre art that I want to show you! I hope to be in Ottawa in June and would love to see you!

  2. What a glorious project Wendy! I loved looking at every photo an description and look forward to seeing the next details in your next posting! I have a book of Shereen La Plantz and I am going to see if the instructions for the hidden envelopes are in them!

    1. Hi Ginny
      The book I have was reissued after her death by Shereen’s husband under slightly different format. Check it out on the web if you want to buy a copy.
      It combines a few of Shereen’s structures.
      Thanks for the visit and the applause!


    1. And you are a more than kind one, Ms. Kit, to have committed that “random act of kindness and senseless act of beauty” by sharing your books with me


  3. Hi Wendy, what a fascinating project! I am continually amazed how new, brilliant ideas continually appear. So thanks for sharing this with us. The Chinese thread book is beautiful.

  4. This project is truly magnificent – and enchanting and calling out to me to spend more time looking at photos, getting out some cloth and paper and learning how to..but getting to that place of beauty where this project sits will take many hours of learning..and yes, I am going to be doing just that. Thank you for the wonderful story in words and photos. Kristin

    1. Many thanks, Kristin! The research was entirely pleasurable and it is in my very bones to share such things!

      I wish you the same pleasurable pastime


  5. Hi Wendy–Lovely work! I have the Ruth Smith books as well, and want to make a case out of non-woven fabric or a stiffened paper (like tissue paper) so I can stitch on it before creating the book. Don’t know when I’m going to get to this project, but it’s been poking at me for quite a while…

    1. Yes, Carol,
      I was also thinking of trying non-wovens, also – wondered about their ability to take a really good knife edge crease which is key to success in this folded booka.

      I think stiffened paper would certainly work – it worked here, with heavy-duty Heat N Bond on mulberry paper – you could try two layers of thin soft paper.
      LMK how it goes if you try it. One could paint glue on the paper and let it dry, too, to make a stiffened material



  6. So beautiful! I made one of those books awhile back but mine was for function and not nearly as elaborate as yours. It was quite the origami exercise though!

    1. Thanks Debbie!
      But looks can be deceiving about the difficulty…a series of well-creased folds made in order produces square box from a large square of paper. I will post a link next time for people to try. No measuring, just folding


  7. hello there, I am new to this. I have bundled some leaves and bark on prescoured and premordanted cellulose. how long should I let it sit and do I have to keep it moist. I also did’t dip it in a plant dye bath, cuz I liked the off white color of the shirt. anyway.. your site has been most helpful. thank you so much. I am loving this so far.

    1. Thanks, Donna
      If you decide to do one for yourself, be sure to match the grain of the book cloth and the cover boards. You want the fibres in each to pull in the same direction when they get glued together. That also applies to the making of the book cloth – try to match the grain of the backing paper and the cloth. (Some papers have no grain; and if you use tyvek or pellon as cloth, they have not grain either, so matching grains would not matter)


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