A journal of workers working
Change of plans
I think what ultimately led to me buying my first press was that I did textile design in college, design for fabric, and then somehow I wound up doing books for my thesis project – handmade books. It wasn’t what I’d planned to do, since my background wasn’t in graphic design.
After finishing the book some copies were placed in the special collections department at the University of Washington. And the special collection curator said “Oh, you’d love letter press!” but I didn’t know anything about letter press at that time. So I took a class, and that was it. Before the class was out I had already found a guy who had this little table-top press for sale and I bought it. And then I got an internship in printing. But I had to stop because I moved back to Portland to work for Nike.
Wishing I was there
I got a job at Nike just sewing prototypes initially. I’d put myself through college that way; I’d worked at a small bra and underwear shop in Seattle. Then my dad had found this job at Nike and I was just like, that seems like a nice way to start. I was there for about 10 months. It was pretty great. I mean, if money wasn’t a concern, that’s a pretty cool job. You’d get a bag -- here’s a parka and a here’s a line drawing showing what it should look like when it’s done, and all the pieces. I learned a lot. Then I got the job in textile design, still at Nike, and did that for a while.
In the meantime, I still had the press at my parents’ house. I was using it in the off hours and doing a lot of printing, and then I got a bigger studio, and bought another press, and just tried to explore it more, and found that I was always wishing I was there, printing. And then after four and a half years at Nike I decided to quit so I could really focus on letter press printing.
I had always said I’m not gonna leave a job just to leave it - you shouldn’t run away from something, you should run towards something. And I was running towards letter press. I was obsessed by letter press, really loving it.
I’d had some paying jobs, but I was so not prepared for getting started in this business. I mean, I had like, $500 in savings. I started by making little posters, and I was starting to do greeting cards, but I wasn’t thinking I would sell them - it was something I did just because I could.
I think letter presses are cropping up more and more, and there’s definitely more of an interest. At the time, when I was starting out, which was only 10 or 12 years ago, you could just get them for free. Literally, people were like, “just get this out of my basement!” It was easy to find them.
The newest one we have here was made in 1950 and the oldest was probably made in the early 30’s. One used to be in a monastery or an abbey. We call one of them El Duke.
I think that letter press is especially tactile, something that people are really yearning for. Little treasures instead of an email.
From computer files we get plates, and then the plates get locked up in the printer. We send out for plates - it’s a photo etching process - and these are magnesium plates that get mounted to wood. It’s an engraving surface that we use, and so they make the plates and we lock them up. We keep them pretty well oiled and maintained. They’re beautiful.
Locked in a room
If I could stop worrying about making rent, about mouths to feed, then I would do more fine art. I mean, I love what we’re doing, but it would be fun to focus on fine art.
I used to fantasize - if I could be locked in a room for 10 years with one metal type and one press, within that metal cabinet the possibilities are limitless! It’s not gonna happen in my life, I have two children, but I think it’s a really nice thought.
I wish everyone could print
If you want some good meditation, just stand next to a press and start printing. It’s the most zen activity. It’s grueling if you do it a lot, definitely a challenge for our printers. But it’s so satisfying, just feeding the paper into it! Setting it up is really fun too, getting it to the point where it’s ready to print - I wish everyone could print.
One thing we want to do next summer is have a week where we do a work shop for kids. I think it’d be really great, to take kids who have shown signs of promise in the area of art and than say to them, you’re gonna spend a week in here and make a poster.
We have a liability issue, so we have to make sure everybody follows the rules about freelance time, but everyone here is welcome to use the studio for freelance projects. It’s definitely a great resource.
Something along the way
Looking back, I never would have thought that it would have evolved in this way. I’m so glad I never followed what I thought was a list of things to do in order to get to this point. It’s been more about finding your way as you go, and enjoying that. I think that in itself is just good advice. It would be terrible to model yourself after someone else, because you might lose sight of yourself, you might miss something along the way. I think the beauty of it is just discovering your own process.
Photography by Daniel Sharp. Interview by Daniel Pasley.
Once a year, 1,400 exhibitors and 14,000 savvy stationery buyers from around the world come to the National Stationery Show.
Tess got her start printmaking when a University of Washington’s Special Collections Curator took notice of a handmade book she made while in college there. The Special Collections Division is the Libraries' major resource for rare and archival materials covering a broad range of topics, formats, and periods.
Egg Press employees will share their artistic talents in a group art show at Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters SE Division location. The exhibition will be up from September 2 through the end of the month.
We asked Tess if any of her presses had names. Only one – El Duke.