Brown bag sketchbooks

brown paper bagsI have wanted to do something about this stack of large, heavy-duty brown paper bags—the kind that you get your bok choy and bananas in, at a farmer’s market—that I carried home from some yard sale ages ago.

Today I cut the bottoms off, leaving a kind of paper ‘tube’; I then slit the tube with a large kitchen knife at the side folds into two pieces, cut the resulting two sheets in half once more, and then folded the sheets, ten at a time, to form signatures or sections. A few quick stitches using heavy linen upholstery thread, some cloth tapes cut from a scrap of printed cotton, some glue and half an hour under the press. Just like that, I have two brown paper books, a hundred leaves (200 pages) in each. I may, or may not, worry about covers (I’m a bookbinder. That means most of my own books spend their lives half-finished and coverless…)

brown paper journalsI have a lot of good art papers, and at least a dozen hand-bound drawing and watercolor sketchbooks, to take on my travels…but I needed some scribbling-and-doodling books that didn’t feel precious; made of the cheapest possible paper and roughly sewn together, so that I wouldn’t be afraid to waste the pages, to draw and write utter garbage, to jot down phone numbers and shopping lists. I like that the pages in these two books are creased. There are some stains and spots where the bags got rained on last year. I even left the double-thick strip—where one side of the bag was glued to the other—to form a margin on some pages.

Often, it is in such cheap and accessible books that the best work gets done. The mind is so strange.

stranger things have happened

I began to test various dip pen nibs on the rough, hairy paper, trying to figure out which nib would work best. This random line from an audio book—Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives—I was listening to as I began to write appeared on the first page. I guess I have unwittingly named one of the books…

testing pen nibs on the paper

24 thoughts on “Brown bag sketchbooks

  1. Lovely idea! I used to work in a company that made those brown paper bags and it’s amazing how many people think they are more environmentally friendly than plastic. The transport and production of paper is much lengthier than plastic and for 5 trucks of plastic you’d have maybe 9 or 10 of paper, making more trucks on the road, and now I’m digressing! Really lovely idea though!


    1. LOL, I can imagine…because the world today is just one big consumer organism, not even paper can escape being part of the massive manufacturing hemorrhage. Paper is environmentally friendly in other ways, though…an organic matter, it will break down like any plant cellulose when it’s in landfill, for example, while those plastic bags only break down into smaller bits of plastic that fill the oceans with a kind of immortal dandruff… 😦 The idea is to use paper bags that you’ve acquired some other way…to re-use the paper, in other words. And a journal’s a good way to use paper, it isn’t a temporary thing, one tends to keep journals. Thanks for the note and the giggle!


    1. Hi, Carrie, I’ve been away from Manila for a long time, so no I haven’t heard…when I started, no one else was really doing it…’di pa uso sa’tin. I taught some classes there, before I left the country…if there are bookbinders there now, that can only be a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dave (or Sharynne? 🙂 ) Yes, I love Kraft paper, that warm, orangey brown, it’s the perfect toned ground for painting…add a little white and black, and you have depth and the illusion of a much wider range of colors, just like that! It’s a little hairy for writing with pointed dip pen nibs, though!


  2. I, too, have a stack of brown paper bags waiting for recycle. This is a far better usage than just tossing them in the recycle bin. I rather like the roughness and rustic look of them. I’m not a bookbinder, but I do have some sewing skills, so I’m going to give it a try. Mahalo.


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