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Sarah Hurtt is Binding History and Fashion Together


It’s that time of year again – Performance.gov’s #FedFashionWeek campaign is running from September 8-14. Join us for this fun and unique opportunity to meet fellow federal employees and learn how their functional fashion helps make an impact for the public each and every day.

This #FedFashionWeek, we’re spotlighting one of our collaborators, the U.S. Government Publishing Office and their resident bookbinder, Sarah Hurtt. Their mission? To carry on the ancient art of bookbinding and marbling through an ever-changing digital age.

What if your everyday job was to have a (literal) hand in creating something that will be a part of history? That’s the living reality for Sarah Hurtt, a bookbinder who helps hand-craft the Nation’s history one marbled pattern at a time.

Sarah has been a bookbinder for the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) since 2015. She and her colleague, Head Forwarder Joshua Crotty, work together to recreate past marbling designs by hand for routine publications to preserve their historic look. In addition to carrying on the history of publications, Sarah also has opportunities for creative outlets, such as hand-crafting leather-bound, marbled boxes for the President of the United States.

Prior to her start at GPO, Sarah knew she had a passion for bookbinding. Her love of art from a young age led her to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From there, she continued her journey with a Masters in Fine Arts in Printmaking from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After receiving her MFA, Sarah moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught box making, bookbinding, and printmaking at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Arts and Design. When she heard about an opening at GPO for a Bookbinder, she knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to “work with my hands in a specialized craft…[which] will be a part of our Nation’s history.”

Bookbinding & Marbling: The Fashion of Publications

Traditionally, marbling represented a form of security; for example, if one page was removed from an accountant’s ledger book, the mismatch in the marbled pattern gave it away. Today, marbling serves a more decorative purpose, giving federal publications a more stately look.

Sarah walked us through the marbling process, noting her top two “fed” fashions that help her accomplish her job: her apron, which keeps her clothes clean from paint, and the marbling bath, where the marbling magic happens. “The bath is made of carrageenan, a natural ingredient from Irish seaweed, and water,” Sarah explained. “I let that mixture sit overnight. When I’m ready to marble the edges of a publication, I add acrylic paints to the bath.” Depending on the desired look, she then uses different tools like combs and rakes to make patterns in the bath. After gently dipping the newly smoothed, trimmed book into the bath, she lets it dry for a finished product.

GPO's customized graphic for #FedFashionWeek 2021 shows Sarah Hurtt dropping different colored paints into the marbling bath.

A Rare Talent in a Digital Age

These days, the art of bookbinding and marbling isn’t as common, especially at the scale of publication that Sarah produces at GPO. Programs and job opportunities like Sarah’s are dying out, becoming almost non-existent. In fact, the courses she once taught at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design no longer exist. “We’re very lucky to be doing our jobs here at GPO,” she said. “Finding a job as a Hand Bookbinder where you’re working for an actual institution or shop as opposed to being self-employed is pretty rare.”

Throughout the years, she’s seen first-hand how the industry has changed, with the popularity of the digital book market and the desire to conserve rare books rather than recreate them. Despite these changes, Sarah continues to practice and maintain the heart and essence of traditional marbling by hand while still allowing it to work in harmony with a new, more advanced digital environment.

Since joining GPO in 2015, Sarah and Joshua have found ways to improve the marbling process. For example, they introduced different types of paint and adjusted the paint-to-water ratio, which created more vibrant and consistent colors in GPO’s marbling. They also invested in new combs, which made it easier to match patterns while still keeping the traditional steps at the forefront. “There is a sense of pride in continuing this long tradition of hand bookbinding, and we strive to keep our craft relevant in this digital age,” Sarah said. Although it’s undeniable how rare a talent Sarah and her colleague have at GPO, thanks to their dedicated work (and their functional fashion accessories), they continue to preserve the Nation’s history one marbling bath at a time.

Sarah Hurtt, GPO Bookbinder, presses one of the finished books together post-marbling bath.

Learn More

Want to learn more about Sarah and how she’s using marbling to shape the Nation’s history? Check out this video of Sarah and her colleague Joshua in action. For more information, visit the U.S. Government Publishing Office site.