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Ladies of Letterpress

This female-founded trade organization provides a virtual town square for printers and print lovers By Jonathan Shipley Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Seattle who collects modern first editions and his daughter’s drawings that cover the walls of his writing space. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lexus Magazine, Diner Journal, and many other publications.

Blackbird Letterpress proprietor Kathryn Hunter works her Chandler & Price press. Hunter is a member of Ladies of Letterpress, an organization “dedicated to the proposition that a woman’s place is in the print shop.” Courtesy of Blackbird Letterpress.
Kseniya Thomas printing sheet by sheet on her Chandler & Price press (she has three). Courtesy of Kseniya Thomas.
A print produced for the Ladies of Letterpress June conference, Type on the Cob in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Designed by Jessica White and printed by Kseniya Thomas. Courtesy of Ladies of Letterpress.
A selection of letterpress business cards printed by Kseniya Thomas, owner of Thomas-Printers in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Kseniya Thomas.
This card is letterpress printed from an original illustration of printer Kathryn Hunter’s favorite vintage typewriter, the Hermes Rocket. It is printed on 110# cotton paper in creole mustard and black ink. Courtesy of Blackbird Letterpress.

There’s a woman in Wisconsin working with a wax stencil right now. There’s a lady in Louisiana using a line gauge. There’s a gal in Galveston greeking. Yes, from Key West to Sydney; San Diego to Chicago; Portland to Saint Petersburg, there are women of all ages in garages and studios and galleries with ink on their hands, sorting metal type and working a letterpress. They’re enthusiastic about working with their hands and creating art, books, notecards, posters, broadsides, recipe cards, paper ephemera, and more. Some of these women, seventeen hundred strong and growing, are members of Ladies of Letterpress, an international trade organization that encourages women printers. Their website is a town square for printers, providing both a space for members to get advice from and share resources with other commercial letterpress printers and offering consumers a market from which to locate and hire reliable independent printers.

Kseniya Thomas conceived the organization with co-founder Jessica White in 2008 upon meeting each other at the Oak Knoll Fest in New Castle, Delaware. “We wanted a place,” Thomas said, “where new printers starting out could get information and ask questions, all the while meeting other printers and feeling a part of a community.”

Thomas herself is no longer new to the craft of letterpress. After graduating from college, she visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. “I asked if they accepted interns. They did, and so I moved to Mainz. I worked there for six months and learned from folks who spent their whole lives in print shops.” Thomas is now the master printer and owner of Thomas-Printers in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she creates one-of-a-kind wedding announcements, birth announcements, custom stationery, CD cover art, posters, broadside poetry, love notes, and more. Thomas’ own love letter to her craft: “I think people love making things because doing so makes them happy, and making things with words and paper makes some doubly so.”

Jessica White, the organization’s other co-founder, runs Heroes and Criminals Press in Asheville, North Carolina. She earned her MFA in printmaking and a certificate in book studies at the University of Iowa and now teaches letterpress classes at Asheville BookWorks and Warren Wilson College. Earlier this year she published Letterpress Now: A DIY Guide to New and Old Printing Methods. The introduction reads, in part, “Every time you make something by letterpress printing, you can feel the materials course through your fingers.”

For a fee, anyone can join Ladies of Letterpress (and yes, men are welcome too). There are different levels to support the organization, from $25 a year for students, to benefactors that go upwards of $1,000 a year. Professionals pay $60 a year and receive, amongst other benefits, inclusion in the Ladies of Letterpress directory, invitations to special events, and a hand-printed, ready-to-frame certificate to hang in their own print shops.

“After buying my first press I longed for support,” noted Kathryn Hunter, a visual artist and owner of Blackbird Letterpress in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I joined Ladies of Letterpress as soon as it was up and running. It is so valuable.” Blackbird began with the purchase of a Chandler & Price “Old Series” platen letterpress (circa 1904) from a longtime local printer. They print with lead “movable” type, vintage letterpress printing cuts, and linoleum and woodcuts carved by hand. Two studio printers work with Hunter at Blackbird, creating personal and business stationery, wedding announcements, and assorted ephemera.

Hunter said she thinks letterpress can and will thrive in the era of Twitter and e-books. “With the digital age upon us, the act of making things by hand has become even more important,” Hunter said. “I think people are drawn to working with their hands, and always will be.”

If the Ladies of Letterpress conferences—not to mention the gaining popularity of the handcraft movement—are any indication, Hunter is spot-on. This past June, the organization held its annual “wayzgoose” in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “The first two were hugely successful,” Thomas said, “so we decided to make the third one a hands-on experience called Type on the Cob.” Attendees were encouraged to take as many classes as they wanted. Courses included wood engraving with Gaylord Schanilec, Platen Press Printing with Barbara Henry, Making a Slip Case with Chemise & Easel with Rory Sparks, and Linotype and Intertype! with Tim Fay and Jim Daggs.

“We have so much fun doing it,” said Thomas.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Seattle who collects modern first editions and his daughter’s drawings that cover the walls of his writing space. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lexus Magazine, Diner Journal, and many other publications.