as a noun:
- an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation; also : a piece based on such a phrase
- a distinct variation
- to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff
First known use of riff- 1935
getting ready to riff
(clockwise from left: my heavily annotated copy of Exposed Spine Sewings by Keith Smith, my big binder of personal notes & stitch samplers, (the green page is fun foam- easy to sew through when working out a group of sewing ideas), wood glue for constructing stitch samplers & practice cards, piercing template, stitch sampler & practice card.)
As a bookbinder, I love learning new sewings, but I also love riffing on sewings I already know. The process is like solving a puzzle. First, I have to examine the way the stitches from a particular sewing duck and weave to look the way it does yet maintain the tension that holds the whole book together, and then, I set to work on figuring out how to alter the original sewing and still end up with a book. Sometimes, I combine parts from two different sewings to make a new-to-me interpretation. I'm a pretty geeky person bookbinder.
But, for all my geekiness, I'm also a pretty irreverent bookbinder. I've read those rules in those formal books on bookbinding, and, mostly, I chuck them out. Thinking of having to be so careful, of having to "follow the rules" made me anxious, so I stopped following the rules. I wanted to see what would happen.
Would my books fall apart? Would they be grotesque? Does it really matter if I am not measuring down to 1/64"? Can't I just use Elmer's? What if all I have is a soup spoon and a thumbtack, and not a bone folder and an awl? (the answers- nope, nope, nope, yep, and yep, you can make a book just fine.)
I once entertained a class by making a book without using a ruler. With so many bookbinders worshiping the God of Precision at the Altar of Expensive Tools, how did I get to be such a heretic?
Way back when, hmm, eighteen years ago or so, I took my first bookbinding class and fell hard for the idea I could make a book. Given that I loved books with my whole bookwormy heart, and had serious crushes on the feel of nice paper and the smell of paste, I was destined to be hooked! I took more bookbinding classes over the next couple of years, progressively learning more complicated sewings.
In one particular class, about fifteen years ago, I was really lost. Somewhere in the beginning, I missed some incredibly important bit, and just couldn't figure out what was I was doing wrong. I was so lost I cried! And, I wasn't the only one reduced to tears that day. The teacher, widely admired and kinda famous, was stern, rigid, and intimidating. My fellow students and I were paying big money to take a class where we were scolded, patronized, belittled, not allowed to talk to the people sitting next to us, not allowed to ask questions or for help, and either kept up with the pace of the instruction or failed. The instructor actually used the phrase, "sink or swim" to describe the class during the introduction.
Luckily, at lunch, some friends helped me figure out what I was doing wrong, and I made it through the class.
The class structure wasn't that uncommon; I had taken similar bookbinding classes from other instructors. This "boot camp" mentality was an accepted norm. There was, and still is, a whole faction of people teaching bookbinding this way- heavy on the rules and low on encouragement.
After that experience, I taught myself by working through the bindings in various books. Instead of looking at some of those complex diagrams for sewing bindings and feeling my eyes glaze over (oh, all those little numbers and arrows, and aaaaaarghhhh...), I'd sit down with needle and thread, and work my way through those squirrelly diagrams, one little number at a time. Those complicated diagrams began to make a lot more sense, and I made a lot of books. I also learned a lot about the "rules."
I learned which "rules" were actually structurally important, which "rules" were icing-on-the-cake rules (ones that improve the appearance of your finished book), which "rules" were really meant for rebinding rare texts to preserve them for all eternity, and which "rules" were just added by anal-retentive, and occasionally sadistic, instructors. (Just kidding! Well, about the sadism, not kidding about the anal-retentiveness.) I learned that I could alter the instructions for a sewing and still have a book at the end.
Maybe more importantly, I found a way of approaching bookbinding that has continued to keep the joy and pleasure in the process of making books. The process of learning and experimenting became play. While a finished book is indeed a lovely thing, enjoying the process of making that lovely thing is good for my soul!