Printing Community Spirit: Ladies of Letterpress

With the upcoming Ladies of Letterpress conference plus Print Week happening just around the corner (September 28, 2017-October 1, 2017) in St. Louis, Missouri, we catch up with Kseniya Thomas on the Ladies of Letterpress’ excellent camaraderie, fun, and cool happenings (and don’t worry fellas, Ladies of Letterpress is happily open to men as well!). The Ladies of Letterpress conference features more than a dozen workshops, panels, printers’ market, as well as a must-see showing of “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film“.

When Jessica C. White and I started Ladies of Letterpress nearly ten years ago, our goal was pretty simple: make it easier for new printers to figure out what they were doing, and why. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it wasn’t easy in the aughts to get good info on how to operate letterpress presses with a minimum of frustration. And the letterpress community was localized and largely offline.

A lot has changed in the ensuing near-decade. Help is readily at hand online no matter what the letterpress problem, Wayzgeese abound coast-to- coast, and our own conference has grown to include workshops, business talks, technical instruction, and more. You never have to print alone, unless you want to! Ladies of Letterpress has grown and changed, and its mission now includes community cultivation, conference planning, trade-show wrangling, group projects . . .

It’s been interesting and rewarding for me to see how letterpress and printing have changed since we started LOLP. Seeing people struggle and succeed in the service of letterpress is inspiring; letterpress isn’t the easiest gig out there, but people fall hard for it and make printing work for them, and keep the art and craft of printing growing and evolving. This evolution inspires me to print my own work when I take a break from my regular jobs.

Though two people started LOLP, many, many people and organizations keep it going with their generosity, enthusiasm, and continued interest. The creative helpfulness of our fellow printers has only increased, and keeps growing as our numbers grow. LOLP represents one thing printers can make when they come together.

Boxcar Press salutes the Ladies of Letterpress and all the other organizations and clubs who are the mentors, tutors, trailblazers, and backbone of the art of letterpress.
The more than dozen Book Arts Centers across the world

Boxcar Talk With Kseniya Thomas

Six years working at a cozy letterpress shop– especially one that’s basking in sunny Pennsylvania — is going to create some nifty pieces and fine design. Or at least it will inspire an entire weekend devoted to the art of the letterpress, ala The Ladies of Letterpress conference. After working in Mainz, Germany for a half-year of traditional typesetting and printing before opening up shop (Thoma-Printers), Kseniya Thomas’s love of letterpress is founded on skill, encouragement, and a big scoop of care. Here, Kseniya weighs in on the letterpress community, printing adventures, and her love of miniatures.

LIVE, WORK & DIRECT I’m Kseniya Thomas, and I’m a recovering English major from Salt Lake City. I currently live and work in Pennsylvania, where I’ve been happy to call myself a letterpress printer since 2005. I own Thomas-Printers, a commercial letterpress shop, and, with Jessica White of Heroes and Criminals Press, am the co-director of Ladies of Letterpress. I’m crazy for the Tour de France, old houses, running, newspapers, and anything in miniature.

INSPIRED BY GUTENBERG After graduating from college, I had a fellowship to study and work in Germany for a year. A friend and I happened to go to Mainz one weekend (I loved movable type, but didn’t yet fully understand the implications!), where the Gutenberg Museum has a working letterpress print shop. I wrote and asked if they accepted interns, and they did, so I moved to Mainz. I worked there for six months, and learned how to set type and print from guys who had spent their whole careers in print shops as pressmen, stonemen, or compositors before offset printing edged them out.

It was great: the shop has hundreds of lead typefaces, and I could print whatever I wanted. I also once printed a birth announcement for a princess, which was neat. I had no idea at the time that I had found my calling in life; even after I returned to the U.S., and realized that letterpress was happening here, I still only knew the basics of the history of printing and the craft of letterpress. And I knew nothing about running a small business!

A SUNNY SHOP My shop is located in the corner of an old shoe factory, with a room for shipping, receiving, and communications (ie, email), and a pressroom with a loading dock. The best thing about it is the tall, south-facing windows; in the summer, the only light I need is my color-correct lamp. I don’t think I’ll ever have another shop so sunny. It’s not decorated per se, except in a paper-stack, envelope-inventory, sample-shelf sort of way. It’s more workshop than showroom, so I don’t worry about hanging too much on the walls.

CARE FOR YOUR BUSINESS My best business advice is to learn to love your customers like family. They need care and attention just like family, and are the single thing, even more than hard work, that will keep you in business. Also, if you’re just starting out, don’t get caught up in playing catch-up with more established printers; there is no right way or one way to get where you want in this business, so your way is as likely to succeed as anyone else’s.

DESIGNED FOR PRINT I’m a printer who can design in a pinch, but I work with several great designers who can handle it when things get complicated. It’s nice being able to have designers who are familiar enough with the letterpress process that the finished product is going to print up great.

THE DAILY GRIND I do print full time. And when I’m not printing, I’m doing the 1000 other things a small business owner must do. Chief among them: worry, answer emails, write estimates, talk with clients, and a host of other pre-press, post-press, finishing, and ordering duties. Every day is different and yet comfortably similar, and now that I’ve been doing it full time for six years or so, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

ADVANCING A COMMUNITY I’m proud that Thomas-Printers is surviving the economy and doing well. Most recently, I’m proud of Jessica and I for organizing the best conference I’ve ever attended. The Ladies of Letterpress conference was such a happy, fun letterpress-fest, and it was thrilling to see so many ardent letterpress supporters and printers in one place.

It was also encouraging to see that letterpress is still going strong, new people are starting to print every day, and people are loving what we make more than ever. I cannot wait for a repeat next year!

BOXCAR’S ROLE It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without Boxcar, neither Thomas-Printers nor Ladies of Letterpress would exist. I got my start setting type, but setting type for every client isn’t a good business model for me. So the Boxcar Base is as important and valuable a tool as the press itself. Aside from the base and plates, Boxcar is the friendliest, fastest, nicest supplier I work with; the positive attitude and enthusiasm of the owners and staff has in turn contributed to the good-feeling and camaraderie in the letterpress community.

PRESS HISTORY My first press was a 12×18 Chandler & Price that I bought from Bill Welliver through the Letpres listserv. I used it for everything, large and small, for almost three years, until I bought a 10×15 C&P that allegedly only had had one owner and then sat in storage for 30 years. I also have a treadle-powered 8×12, which is handy when the power goes out. C&Ps are great presses, simple to use and relatively readily available, and are capable of a lot of fine work.

WHAT’S NEXT Ladies of Letterpress will be at the 2012 National Stationery Show for a third year with a new, super, wonderful, talented group of printers. And the second-annual LOLP conference is happening again-stay tuned for more details.

We’d like to give bigs thanks to Kseniya for taking the time to give us the scoop on Thomas Printers!

Boxcar Talk with Ladies of Letterpress

Ladies of Letterpress, an online community dedicated to women printers, began with just two women who strive to promote the art and craft of letterpress printing. Kseniya and Jessica have worked hard to build this fantastic online community where members discuss process, advice, and share resources. The Ladies are growing more and more each day and have recently awarded their first annual scholarship to one of their members to help develop printing skills and also attended the 2010 National Stationery Show in New York as a joint exhibit with some of the members.



How did Ladies of Letterpress start?
Kseniya: Jessica and I met a few years ago at an Oak Knoll Fest, which I was attending as a book fan, and where she was exhibiting with the University of Iowa. Her fabulous badges caught my eye, and they got us talking about starting a nation-wide organization of the same name (which started as a loose association at the University of Iowa). We found Ning, and went live with it in late 2008. Now we have almost 600 members, and big plans!

Jessica: Ditto what Kseniya said. We met in the fall of 2006 at the Oak Knoll Fest, a conference for book arts and fine press, where she told me about her ideas for creating this type of community. She already had a website ‘dedicated to the proposition that a woman’s place is in the printshop’, but wasn’t seeing any real results, while I had made those patches just for fun, without envisioning much more until we started talking. We decided on the spot that we should work together to form this community, and create a forum where women printers could come together, have discussions, share skills, and keep in touch. We live in different parts of the country, so we’ve kept in touch and made it happen all through emails and occasional phone calls.


How did each of you first get into letterpress?
Kseniya: I had a six-month-long internship at the printshop of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany after I graduated college; the internship was a part of a year-long fellowship. When I applied for the position, I really had no idea what they did there, and less of an idea about how they did it–I actually thought they made books! But I was quickly disabused of that notion when, on my first day, a retired type-compositor handed me a set of reglets and started teaching me all sorts of German letterpress vocabulary. I spent the next six months setting type from their fabulous, 1000-case collection, printing small jobs–once for a princess–and pursuing my own projects. It was absolutely wonderful; little did I know where it would lead!

Jessica: I remember seeing some letterpress printed posters and broadsides while I was an undergrad at East Carolina University, but at the time I was completely focused on sculpture, especially metal work and casting bronze and iron. It wasn’t until grad school, when a friend of mine showed me how to set type late one night, that I was hooked. By that point, my work had already shifted to printmaking and book art, and I think the tactile qualities of setting type and printing on a Vandercook brought the sculptor and printmaker sides of me together.


Besides Ladies of Letterpress, what else do you do?
Kseniya: I’m the owner of Thomas-Printers (new site coming soon!), a commercial letterpress shop in Carlisle, PA. We debuted a new wedding line, YonderYest, at this year’s Stationery Show.

Jessica: I have a print shop and bindery, Heroes & Criminals Press, where I make books and prints, and occasional commission work. I also teach printmaking and bookbinding workshops at Asheville BookWorks, and will be teaching papermaking and book art this fall at Warren Wilson College.


What was your very first press, and are you still using it?
Kseniya: My first press was a 12×18 C+P NS, and we still use it for big things (posters, broadsides, etc.), and die-cutting.

Jessica: Well, the secret-midnight-printing-session at school was on an SP15, which I continued to use while in school. I’ll always consider it my ‘first’. I just graduated last year, moved to Asheville, NC, and purchased a Kelsey 5×8 and a Showcard press. The Kelsey is my on-the-road press, the one that I take to differences places when I give demos. Most of my printing these days is done on the Showcard or on one of the Vandercooks at Asheville BookWorks, where I often volunteer and teach workshops.

Who or what inspires you the most?
Kseniya: I’m inspired by music, my home state of Utah, non-fiction in the New Yorker, and the wonderful work produced by the other Ladies of Letterpress! Also, of course, the desire to stay in business is very inspiring. In the same vein, I find the number of new people starting letterpress shops/studios completely inspiring. It means that people are still wanting to try the scariness of managing your own business, making things by hand–and it shows that the demand for letterpress-printing is still high.

Jessica: I’m completely obsessed with books, especially book illustrations. Some of my favorites now are the same favorites from when I was a kid: E.H. Shepard, Edward Gory, Max Ernst (especially his collage stories), and Kate Greenaway. As you can tell, I’m a little stuck in the past, but I also love contemporary comics and graphic novels, and some of my favorites right now are Anders Nilsen, Chris Ware, and Marjane Satrapi.

What’s your favorite thing about working with Boxcar Press?
Kseniya: The people who work there! The fabulous pics on! Also, the Boxcar Base, without which I might not be here today.

Jessica: A few years ago, I saved up for a 13 x 19 Boxcar Base and still use it regularly. It felt like such a splurge at the time, but now I can’t imagine getting anything done without it.


What was the experience like for you at the National Stationery Show?
Kseniya: It was unspeakably great. The best part was meeting all the wonderful people we did, including the other Ladies in the booth. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better experience, or for better people to work with. This isn’t to say that the planning, purchasing, organizing, arranging, etc., weren’t stressful and a lot of work, but I think it was worth it. We’ll be back next year!

Do you have any suggestions for people hoping to exhibit next year or how to promote their new product lines?
Kseniya: Having only exhibited once, I don’t have much advice, except to start early! Start the fall of the previous year–earlier than you think you should. The last few weeks will be consumed with all the details, so it’s good to have as much squared away as soon as possible.

What are you looking forward to?
Kseniya: I’m looking forward to what the future holds for Ladies of Letterpress (it’s going to be great!), and next year’s NSS, seeing all our old friends again, and making new ones!

Jessica: I hope I can make it to this year’s Pyramid Atlantic Book Arts Fair, The Book (R)evolution. I’m also excited about some special events for Ladies of Letterpress that are now in the works!

Anyone is welcome to join Ladies of Letterpress, even the guys. Membership is free.