Altered Books

by Helen Williams

Altered books - a guide for beginners

An altered book is a published book which has been changed in some way, for example by painting, stamping, writing on, tearing, cutting, folding, stitching, burning or colouring pages.

Making an altered book is a great way to experiment with a variety of new ideas, techniques and materials. Because (usually) only 2 pages can be seen at any one time, you can really let your creativity and imagination run riot to make a unique piece of artwork. Being limited by page size has the advantage of allowing you to use up all those precious scraps of fabric, little sample pieces of stitch and fancy bits and bobs that most creative "textilers" collect - but which are often too small to use in more conventional ways.

I was introduced to the idea a few years ago by textile artist Angie Hughes when I took part in a "round robin" altered book swap that she organised, and so enjoyed this that I now make my own altered books and teach others how to make them.

Choosing a book to alter

Suitable books can be found in charity shops, jumble sales, or the sales sections in libraries and bookshops - or you may already have an unwanted book you would like to use. Books with the majority of pages in text often work best.

Consider using a book which ties in with your subject or which has a special meaning to you. Look at recipe, travel, poetry, craft and children's books, as well as adult fiction.

Any type or size of book can be used, but for most projects a hardback works best, as you then have a ready made cover to alter or decorate further.

Check the type of paper the book contains. Some older books have very thin pages, so 2 or 3 of these may need to be stuck together to make them strong enough to work on.

If you plan to add collage to a lot of the pages, you may need to remove some of the original ones to allow the book to close when completed.

altered book


Before starting, you need to consider...

How much, if any, of the original text do you want to be able to see?
Using thinned gesso, emulsion or other paints, inks, tissue, tracing paper, nets and lace will allow some of the wording to be visible - this can add an interesting dimension to your own work, especially if the text relates to your topic in some way.

Are there any key words on the page you could highlight, to reflect your artwork?

Do pages need to be stuck together to make a stronger surface before decorating or stitching onto them?
PVA can distorts thinner pages, use glue sticks instead. In addition to glues, adhesive webbing can be used between pages to strengthen and fix them together, but take care not to burn pages when ironing - though this can look interesting too!

If adding hand stitch, are you happy for this to show through onto the next page (can give nice results) or should the stitched page be decorated first, then stuck to the next to conceal the stitches?

altered book

Ideas for decorating pages

Paints, gesso, inks, crayons (wax ones will act as a resist, too) can be used to colour pages. Applying media only to selected sections of the page allows areas of text to show through.

Different effects can be achieved by applying paint etc with a wet or dry brush, sponge, roller or scrumpled rag. Use a cloth or sponge to wipe away some of the colour, drop further colour onto a still wet page or use bleach to remove some colour (protect clothes and surfaces to prevent them getting bleached too.)

Try folding pages together then unfolding them whilst medium is still wet (pages might be fragile)

Scribble wax crayon over pre-coloured pages, then scratch through the wax with a thick needle to reveal parts of the surface beneath.

Decorate pages with layers of tissue paper, fabrics, lace, pieces of newspaper, magazine, musical scores, photocopied images and text (copyright must be respected, though). Paint over the surface with paints, inks, gesso, tea or coffee to give a variety of finishes.

Print, hand stitch or write over decorated pages.

altered book

Once pages have been decorated...

Small pieces of stitch, found objects, letters, pictures, maps etc. can be attached to the page with stitch or adhesive, hidden in small envelopes, niches, pockets or concealed behind flaps, doors, windows etc.

Luggage labels, tiny little books, bookmarks and beads etc can be fastened to threads to form decorative "dangles".

Illustrations, your own or from copyright free images, can be drawn over pre-coloured pages.

More lace, foils, photographs, text, found objects, paint, wax, print - anything that can be stuck or stitched to the pages - can be added to give a rich, layered effect. Or, of course, you can leave the layering and go for something altogether more restrained.

The cover

Best completed at the very end, so that it doesn't get damaged as you work on the inside of the book. Covers can be decorated with similar techniques to those used on the pages or something entirely different.


Helen Williams offers workshops on altered books, hand embroidery, design, transfer dyeing and mixed media textiles