Bookbinding with… William Morris

Serendipitous encounters

Years ago, impressed by this  “Willow Bough” design by the English textile artist William Morris (1834-1896), I had tiled a swatch I found online into a bigger sheet — so that I can use it in a future bookbinding project.


Then I forgot about it and it lay hidden in my computer.

Then two years ago, I chanced upon it in a restaurant in Japan.

I was thrilled to see the “Willow Bough” in the flesh and thought it was period-appropriate in the Western-style stone house.


Nice drapes: Meiji-no-Yakata restaurant, Nikko, Japan.

Then I forgot about it.

Then a few weeks ago I saw it again.

This time, a Book Arts Society Singapore (BAS) member, unknown to her, wore “Willow Bough” to a workshop.


Nice garb: “Excuse me, do you know you are wearing a William Morris?”

Interesting, I thought.

The day passed but this time the tug of unfinished business persisted.

Time to get started on that long overdue idea of a book!

A walk in the country

First, some background.

I googled and found that “Willow Bough” is still in production as a fabric for upholstery, bedding and wallpaper.


Available from The Original Morris & Co., UK.

William Morris’ patterns — plants, flowers — are always very well designed but they are often rendered in heavy, gloomy colours.

But this “Willow Bough” design is uncharacteristically light and airy, with a clean, white background.

Then I discovered its origin. Just watch this video from 2:31.

In the video, Linda Parry, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, described how Morris found inspiration for this design in the surroundings of his countryside retreat:

“May [Morris’ daughter] mentions going for a walk one morning and he literally came back, sat down and drew that straight off and obviously it’s from the willows outside the manor. It’s kind of very evocative, very interesting, a lively design, because although it is completely static, in its patterning it does have a kind of movement that you get through willow boughs.”

This was at Kelmscott Manor, Morris’ summer home in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire.


Kelmscott Manor. Photo: Historic Houses Association, UK.

Wait a minute – does that name ring a bell?

Book as art

Book artists will no doubt have heard of Kelmscott Press (1891), the printing press Morris founded in his later years.

It is known for lavishly illustrated, handprinted books. It was Morris’ reaction against the declining standard in book production during the industrial revolution.

Resolutely anti-mechanisation, Morris made it his mission to prove that handprinted books were superior to machine printed ones. His references were what was considered the gold standard at that time — the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages such as the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospel.

Today, Kelmscott Press represents the apotheosis of book arts during the Victorian era. Its masterpiece is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896), of which 425 copies were printed on paper and 15 on vellum.

Christie’s (New York)‚ in its December 8, 2015 auction had a copy with binding by the turn-of-century London bindery Sangorski & Sutcliffe (now part of Shepherds) that was sold for US$50,000.


The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from the British Library.


One of the covers. Photo: Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA.


Going, going gone: Sold for US$50,000. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press.

A quote by the man himself:

‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.’

Bedroom surprise

Back to “Willow Bough”. Visitors to Kelmscott Manor — a heritage house now open to the public — will no doubt make a beeline for Morris’ bedroom where the famously over-the-top bed is the star attraction.

But for “Willow Bough” fans, his wife Janey’s bedroom is more likely the prize.


Just look at this — it’s “Willow Bough” country!


That, that and that – all “Willow Bough”. Photo: Country Life Picture Library.

Make a book

For my book, I decided on longstitch with a window on the spine.

I made one with a bias-cut window on the spine — a twist of a willow leaf — but found that to be problematic during stitching.

Then I tried again with a simple rectangular window, which proved much easier to work with, making two books at once.

And with that — three “Willow Bough” books in a week — it’s done!

Here are some photos.


First, a visualisation on the computer.


Something old, something new.


Longstitch with a bias-cut window. Kraft paper for some earthiness.


With a square window – before and after stitching.




I am not the only one who have used “Willow Bough” for bookbinding. Down in New Zealand, Michael O’Brien runs a very charming bindery and uses William Morris wallpapers by Sanderson & Co., UK for his covers. Good choice!


See more of Michael O’Brien’s work at:


And then I saw it again in a bookbinding book published by Misuzudo in Japan. Coincidental?



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