pen & ink

Until a dozen years ago I wrote a lot of letters by hand. Even now I handwrite daily, scribbling in little writing books and sketchbooks with my beloved fountain pen. This autumn we spent a day in a 1920’s schoolhouse in the village museum, and I watched the children learn to write with nib pens dipped in ink. I came away determined to revisit the old fashioned pen & ink.

pen & ink

Like so many technologies, writing using a metal nib with a reservoir dipped in ink has progressed rapidly from exciting innovation through to common practice, finally retiring as an art form. Like stone lithography, turning wood on a pole-lathe, throwing pots on the wheel, composing on a typewriter, hand-stitched books and hand-spun wool, I am ever so fond of the obsolete art form.
calligraphy practice
No surprise then, that calligraphy took my heart. Practice, practice, when to dip the pen, touch it to the edge of the bottle to release excess ink, how to hold it, the pressure, the angle;
pen & ink & blotter
Remembering to clean the nib on a scrap bit of cloth, when life interrupts. I’ve used pen & ink as a drawing tool, but as a writing tool I am enraptured with it.
calligraphy with pen & ink
What elation. No, I will not cook dinner! No! I will not sweep the floor! I only want to write and write and write. The best sorts of materials result in beauty even in drips and splashes, scratches and mistakes. This ink is beautiful but takes an age to dry. I think of blotters, and I wear stains on my fingers. I love the idea of a person’s ‘hand’ and that one can recognise it. Forgeries, postcards, old documents, accounts. I gaze at the old things as on a painting. I deeply appreciate the digital age for its effortlessness, but oh, I adore the beauty of the handmade. Slow? Yes! Messy. Indeed! Can there be a balance?
I’ll devote a spot at my writing desk (first the poor desk must recover its legs, heartlessly broken off on its journey to Canada!) to the nib pen, its leather inlay was designed just for this. So were loveletters – though I fell in love with my sweetheart at the dawn of ubiquitous email, and most of our writing is digital. As my sweetheart is far away in England just now, I think the odd messy, handwritten, ink-splashed letter might be just the thing for us. And you?

writing desk

One of the traditional skills I’ve been studying is quite compatible with a predilection for fixing up old furniture. The fine art of haggling. I once read that if the seller doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve asked for more, and if the buyer doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve paid less; when they both negotiate, everyone goes away feeling quite satisfied with themselves. At any rate, between antique shops, online auctions and vintage markets, I’m in training. Just recently I bargained my way into a great deal on a neglected old painted secretary desk. The writing desk came home with us, to be refinished like several pieces I’ve worked on at the old cottage.

writing-desk

The yellowed paint was sanded a little and lightly coated with Old White chalk paint, and I removed old paint from the ornate handles with a dull scouring pad; they came up beautifully, though I admired some of the texture and left it. The good old fashioned leather inlay needed a gentle scrubbing and oiling to restore, it’s a beautiful surface to write upon with just a sheet of paper, though I’m usually working in a sketchbook or writing book. My fountain pen will be a natural match for the piece, when it returns from Germany where it is kindly being repaired, as I had the ill fortune to drop the lovely thing and crack it. Now the desk needs a coat of wax to protect its surface, but I’ve been too impatient to use it!

I adore this bit of furniture, I am thrilled to find it is such a well considered design. All of the drawers lock with a charming key, along with the desk that opens and shuts so elegantly. I love that I can lock up my work for the night, put it away, finished. I’m so pleased to have a devoted place for writing, with drawers and cubbies to keep all manner of papers and objects that didn’t have a good home before. My laptop fits it well, and having a dedicated place to work on it means that I don’t feel I am always working, and that work is everywhere. The top of the desk is just right for a collection of inspiring objects to gaze at, though I can see a bookshelf would also fit beautifully, and the leather inlay has clearly been used just as much for cups of tea as for writing. Ideal companions. If I could persuade my tall child to share, I think her typewriter would look debonair on it. My first experiment in painting fabric, an upholstered chair, had one more coat of a linen shade and is the perfect fellow to the desk, pretty, comfortable and ergonomic no less. When not in use the bureau looks dashing in the corner, which I consider an achievement for a workspace. Secretaire. Well made.

read more tried & trues.
read more stories about handcrafted things.

typewriter

Our tall girl fell in love with an old family desk typewriter this summer, and spent hours composing stories at it. Something about a typewriter appeals to her romantic sensibilities about writing. I have to agree. I think the immediacy, the physicality, the sound of a typewriter possesses something gorgeously satisfying. Not unlike my beloved writing book and fountain pen. Only punchier! The aura of it’s history, all those writers and typists, since the late 19th century, surrounds you.

typewriter © elisa rathje 2011

For her birthday, my sweetheart found her a beautiful 1930’s machine, a Bluebird. Its petite and low like a Jaguar roadster, and it already has quite a mystery story running through it. We’ll see if she let’s me take it for a spin.

button press

Over at the enthralling Regional Assembly of Text, just up the street from the tea shop and the old wool shop, I learned to make a button. An appleturnover badge, carefully assembled on their beautiful old-school press.

appleturnover button © elisa rathje 2011

A sweet artist who works at the Assembly, Rachel, made the button with me. We cut the paper to fit the button size on their super punch.

appleturnover button © elisa rathje 2011

appleturnover button © elisa rathje 2011

appleturnover button © elisa rathje 2011

Put front and back pieces with the image into the buttonmaker, and pressed each side.

appleturnover button © elisa rathje 2011

Magic.

You can pay a visit to the Assembly of Text and make your own buttons on their button press. We love to go and stamp and type to our heart’s content. I picked up a ribbon for our old Royal there, to keep our little typist in ink. I wish we were in town for their letter writing club. Delightful. Thanks Rachel!

update: how nice is it that there’s an assembly in victoria, bc, not far from our new home on the lake?

pot cupboard

A bedside table has become one of my most beloved, essential pieces of furniture. I saw a photograph of an antique French pot cupboard years ago and fell for it, head over heels. I’ve been longing for one, something made from real wood, something with some history and character, something elegant and highly functional. In London we had a very wide bed, it fit all of us when the children joined us in the night but left no room for a little table. My family surprised me with a pot cupboard on Mothering Sunday. Great secret! I am so lucky.

marbled.jpg

I’m partial to writing before bed, and often upon waking to plan my day, so I like to have my fountain pen and writing book in a drawer, with a good lamp, at a good height. A spot for the ink bottle is very nice. It sounds simple, but without these, my best habits fall apart. I misplace my writing materials, it’s too dark to write, I get disorganised and distressed without the bedtime routine I’m fond of. I like to have my knitting nearby, a couple of books I’m reading, a glass of water or a cup of tea. This one is marble topped, so I needn’t worry about my cup. Its colours are quite entrancing.

pot-cupboard.jpg

In fact the cupboard is also lined in marble, as it was originally designed to hold a chamber pot. How do you like that for old fashioned? It just so happens that the table perfectly matches the old bed I refinished.