Tuesday, January 22, 2013


DEBORAH CROMBIE: A couple of years ago--wait, make that a couple of books ago--a friend gave me the gift of an Iona journal. Influenced by reading Elizabeth George's Write Away, I'd decided I wanted to keep a novel journal. This was not just a progress record, or someplace to scribble snatches of scenes, but a record of the evolution of ideas in a novel. It's always hard for me, once a book is finished, to explain where I got the idea for that particular story. A novel is such a slippery creature--ideas and story lines work their way in, willy-nilly, from such unexpected sources, and I seldom remember how they merged together

But I wanted a special journal, something to inspire me and make me stick to my goal.  This gift, crafted from leather and handmade paper, was just the thing, and I've been hooked ever since. My notes have been spotty, but I keep at it, and am now into my third novel journal. And, oh my, is this one gorgeous. I'm hoping it will inspire a book that lives up to it!

And here to tell you more about Iona Journals, is the artist/craft person herself, Mychal Mitchell. (And I dare anyone, techie or Luddite, not to want one of these treasures.)

DEBS: Mychal, you were a interior design/architecture student. Tell us how you got interested in bookbinding, and specifically, handmade journals. (This is such a great story!)

MYCHAL: Well, after graduating from Arizona State back in 1992, I scraped up enough money to go backpacking around Europe for several months.  My favorite classes in school had been architectural history related, and so I was super excited to see all of the old buildings I had read about and studied for years.  I took a journal with me that my roommate had given me for graduation,  and was filling it quite quickly with sketches, and watercolor paintings, and musings on the culture....until one day five months into the trip,  I was in the Termini train station in Rome, which is filled with tiny little thieves, and one made off with my pack, journal inside!  I was pretty devastated to lose that book...5 months of writing and sketching...gone!  Luckily a few days later in Venice, I met a friendly  (and deliciously handsome, I must admit!) street artisan
to whom I confessed my frustration at being without my constant companion ( said journal )...and he quickly whisked me down an alley to his friend's bookbinding shop.  What a thrill to be in his little bookstore...to be surrounded by the smell of leather, and such exquisite books!  Growing up in Arkansas, I had never seen anything like what he was making, and was completely mesmerized.  Seeing my enthusiasm for his craft, the old gentleman allowed me to spend several afternoons watching and assisting with his bookbinding.  I certainly wasn't thinking this was my next job, after all, I had just spent 6 years getting my degree.....I was going home to become a famous architect!  But as fate would have it,  that was not to be. 

DEBS: But you didn't immediately come home from Italy and decide to go into the journal-making business.  How did you get from there to here, with a thriving studio in creative East Austin?

MYCHAL: I actually bought a journal from the lovely little man in Venice, and I took it with me everywhere!  I did a bit of traveling around the states and moved to Seattle.  Then took a job on a fishing boat in Alaska, and did that for a couple of seasons, and the journal just got more fabulous from the wear.  I filled it quite quickly, and was rather spoiled by writing in a book of that quality. It would have been difficult to go back to the cheapy ones I'd been used to before. I searched high and low for similar books, and came up empty-handed.  So I bought a scrap of leather and some beautiful handmade watercolor paper while on a west coast road trip with my friend Brienna.  While she made beautiful intricate beaded jewelry, I tried to recall what I had learned the year before in Italy.  We sat side by side on the beaches of
California and Oregon, practicing our crafts to give to friends and family, until we were approached by a cafe owner who needed a little booth in front of his place during an upcoming street fair.  We agreed, and set up a card table with our wares on it, and I think I sold 5 journals that day.  I remember saying to Brienna afterwards "Wow, we're eating Thai food tonight!  My treat!!"  That really was a huge splurge for us at the time!   And that was the beginning really.  It just kinda grew little by little over the years.  I really took it slow, and didn't try to do too much too quickly....I was still thinking that I would eventually "grow-up and get a REAL job".

DEBS: Can you tell us how you make the journals? What materials do you use, and the process involved?

MYCHAL:  I really try to be as "green" as I can.  We use only surplus oil-tanned leathers.  These are typically full hides that have been passed over, or rejected by larger manufacturers of handbags, belts, & boots.  If a hide has even the tiniest imperfection, the big guys don't want to work their machinery around it,  whereas my customers tend to gravitate toward those very pieces.  I cut everything by hand, and so I actually try to highlight those particular "imperfections" by placing them right on the front of the book. The small leftover pieces usually are used for making our "cubs" ( little 3"x3", 40 page pocket books ).  Most of my books have no scars or brands or stretch-marks from the cow,..but those that do tend to sell quickly in Texas! Our papers are all archival.  2 of them are custom made for us from recycled fabrics, and are treated specifically so that they don't bleed or allow inks from fountain pens or markers to soak through.  We also recently started carrying a smoother paper that is not handmade, but it is awesome, and eco-friendly due to the fact that it is made from Bamboo.  We tear every single page of our books to size by hand from the parent sheets which are typically 20"x30" or larger. Also, the hemp twine that we stitch our books with is hand-waxed entirely by us.  It is very labor intensive, stitching a book by hand.  There are no glues in our binding method, which makes the book more durable in the long run.  Glues tend to break down over the years with fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and can cause the pages to fall out.  Stitching the papers directly into the leather ensures that the two will remain a unit for many future generations to enjoy.  Most of our leftover leathers and papers that are too small for our cubs get donated to local schools for art projects.  I feel really good about the low impact we have on the environment. Trying to keep the landfills empty!

DEBS: You must meet interesting people at art fairs all over the
country, and have some very interesting customers. Can you tell us
about some of them? 

MYCHAL: Ahh yes!  I just returned from lunch with one of my favorite customers, Mikey.  She is such an inspiration!  When we met years ago at an art show, she had never really done art in her life, but was more sports minded gal.  Then she saw my friend Benno's journal ( Benno is another story altogether!)  She was so moved by his watercolor paintings that he fills his books with on his travels, that she decided to do an illustrated journal of her own upcoming trip to Africa.  She bought a book called The Decorated Page, and really learned most of what she did with her journal from this book!  And I must say, it has inspired thousands of folks!  She's a gem of a person, as well as being an incredibly creative human being!  ( And the fact that we both were given a boy's name at birth sort of bonded us immediately! Yes, my name is pronounced like "Michael"  ) I also meet new fabulous people at art shows every weekend.  My fellow artisans in the show are constantly amazing me with their skill and genius, and then the folks who come and show me what they've done with my books are always blowing my mind a little.  I am just a craftsperson....I am good at what I do, I do know that...but I also have to admit that I don't always feel very artistic or super creative.  It just makes me giddy sometimes seeing what my work brings out in other people.  It truly is inspirational!

DEBS: Lately you've added antique hardware to some of your journals. How did you get interested in that, and how do you find the pieces?

MYCHAL: Oh I do love the new hardware pieces.  I've been making the books as a business for almost 18 years now, and I was needing something new to give them a little boost....and I needed a new creative outlet.  So I was thinking about the locks we used to have on diaries when I was a little girl.  That made it so special and secret!  So I headed out to Round Top, Texas ( halfway between Austin and Houston ), where there is this crazy gigantic flea market/fine antique show  every year, to search for some inspiration.  After digging around for hours, I found what I thought was an old decorative hasp that Icould attach to the cover of a book. I was able to find a male counterpart to use with it, and a sweet vintage padlock, and it sold almost immediately.  But when I went searching for more, I couldn't find any, until some old geezer pointed out that what i had used had not been a hasp, but an old icebox hinge that just happened to have a perfect size hole in the front of it.  Those particular hinges were nearly impossible to find...so I started searching for various icebox hinges, and had a metal worker friend cut slots in them so i could turn them into "hasps".....and it worked!  Now I'm kind of obsessed with finding these old pieces for the books.  It has evolved into using door hinges and doorknob back plates, and so forth.  The rustier, the better.  I've also been playing with patina solutions a bit, to try to get some blues and greens in the copper rivets that i use to attach the hardware.  It's a little like being a painter, playing with the solutions and trying to get the perfect effect....sometimes frustrating, and sometimes pretty fun, I must say!  It's really not a bad life at all!!

DEBS: So, dear REDS and readers, if you are as smitten with Iona as I am, visit Mychal's website and take a look at these stunning books. They come in all different shapes and sizes; they can be used as photo albums, sketch books, diaries, quilt journals, or--novel journals. Your imagination is the limit.

And just to get you started, Mychal is going to give away one of her "cubs", which is just the right size to tuck into a purse or pocket and go everywhere with you! I'll announce the lucky winner on tomorrow's blog, and in the meantime, Mychal will be checking in to answer questions and respond to comments. 

(Oh, and by the way, my new journal looks very much like the teal one in the picture with the hydrangea, except mine is a lovely deep violet-wine color. You should be green with envy.)

And just for fun, I'm adding an impromptu pic from my first Iona journal. This is No Mark Upon Her in progress. Other pages have story threads, character names, photos clipped from magazines that suggested characters or settings.  You can do anything, really, even if you don't consider yourself very artistic.  Enjoy!


  1. Of course I wanted one as soon as I started reading and looked at the photo. Before I even got to the good part, the interview, I was thinking, how can I do this? My writing will be a mess. It will look awful. I'll ruin it. How will I do it? But I want one anyway.


  2. Oh, wow . . . this is absolutely incredible. The journals and photograph albums on your website, Mychal, are absolutely exquisite! I am in awe of the talent to produce such lovely works of art [and of the talented folks whose filled journals you’ve shared . . .]

    This has reminded me of a course I took in college in which we had to actually set the type and print a page for a book and then bind that page in some sort of cover. It was an amazing experience . . . I hadn’t thought about it in years, and I’m sad to say that over the course of many moves, I don’t know what became of that little book. But you’ve reminded me of the great pleasure I had in creating it and I can truly appreciate how wonderful you must find it, Debs, to create one of your novel journals in such a beautiful book.

  3. What a great story! The journals look a little steampunk, don't they? So beautiful.

    My problem with such exquisite gems is that I can't bear to spoil them with whatever I might add. It's the unlimited potential that gets to me; once you choose you can never unchoose.

    Mychal, I love how you try to have zero waste, too.

  4. I love these!!! Count me in!!! Dee

  5. Beautiful work, Mychal, and I love the devotion to your art. Alas, I have forever given up pen and paper save for a few pesky checks to write. How about check-book covers in this same wonderful vein? I will be watching the website. Best of luck!

  6. These are beautiful! I am fascinated by the process, thanks for sharing it.

    Karen, I know what you mean about the unlimited potential... Once I start a journal I feel like any of those other choices would have been much better!

  7. Fabulous story--thanks Debs and Mychal! I'm very struck by how adventurous you were coming out of college. I spent a semester abroad and was terribly homesick the whole time...

    Now off to look at the website...

  8. Wow, what beautiful work Mychal. I don't know how you can even part with one of them after the hours of work making it.

    My handwriting is the worst, so there is no way I could bring myself to write in one of these. But I could certainly see using it for inspiring pictures and such.

    And what a great idea to contain all the thoughts about a novel in progress. It will always be there for you to refer back to see what you were thinking during the creation.

  9. Truly wonderful works of love and art!

  10. These are just gorgeous1 i'm so sorry i didn't learn about you before Christmas (but there's always next year.)
    The website is really beautiful
    The Hardest part is deciding which to get first.
    Thanks for visiting...

  11. Wow--I'm impressed, both with the lovely quality of the journal and the fact that you can keep up writing in one, Debs. I have started various notebooks but never to work through the development of a whole novel. You'd better contact your alma mater now to bequealth them your journals!

  12. Oh, dear. I've been wanting one of these gorgeous journals since Debs told me about them a year or more ago, Mychal. Your post today may push me right over the edge into buying one - off to look at your webpage. Your work is just exquisite.

  13. Oh,gorgeous gorgeous.....it is an inspiration just seeing them!

    I tried doing a novel journal for The Wrong Girl..and it was really helpful..until I gave up. I thnk I might have had the wrong notebook.

    So! Off to the website!


  14. This is just great. Thanks for this, because I'm a notebookoholic, among many other things. Can't wait to hop over to Mychal's site for more inspiration.

    I love fountain pens, too.

    (recusing myself from the draw for the cub, having won TWO books on Jungle Red in the past few months)

  15. no no no. Google has done it again. I tried to comment as myself, but Google insisted on my pen name, above.

  16. Just a quick note for those of you who like fountain pens. The paper in my new journal is bamboo, and it's wonderful for fountain pen ink.

    And for those of you who are discouraged by your handwriting, mine is terrible. That's why I put up a photo of a couple of my pages.

    (You can see the box of crayons theme from yesterday here... all the different ink colors:-) I love fountain pen ink.)

  17. These are so beautiful! I've always jotted ideas or kept notes in a journal, but never one this exquisite. When my first book is release in May, I think I may have to buy myself a present!

  18. I love journals and these are beautiful. I have a feeling I wouldn't be able to stop at one.

  19. Wonderful story! My daughter (an environmental educator) would love one!

  20. Hi y'all....Thanks for all of your kind words! Over the years I have heard countless folks comment that they would be afraid to write in books like these, afraid they would "mess them up" or "make a mistake, and ruin it". And for this reason they never make their first mark in it, and it sits on the mantle for years. To this, I usually advise that they start somewhere in the middle of the book...write something that isn't necessarily of chronological importance, and get comfortable with the paper,get in the flow. And then once you've made your first little "mistake", it's much less intimidating to go back and start on page 1. If I write something in mine that I just can't bear to look at again, I paste a photo or do a collage over it....and it is gone!! No one will ever know.

  21. Mychal, thanks for the advice. You have inspired me!

    A friend has a similar journal that they use as a guestbook for their ranch vacation property. Next time I'm there I'm going to check to see if it's one of yours. And if it isn't, I'll give them one as a bread and butter gift for later. They are really beautiful, and would suit the ranch perfectly.

  22. Mychal, kudos for finding your creative niche. I've always felt that those who create--food, art, writing,etc--imbue their creations with their inherent love of the process itself. I have no doubt your journals carry that "aura" (for lack of a better word) that encourages the creative side of those who own and write in them. One can only imagine what wonders those journals have encouraged in the folks who buy and use them.

  23. I. Love. These.

    Debs, I've been keeping a journal for years, and after reading Elizabeth George's book, I started keeping a separate journal for each book, including the poetry books. I've found it to be a wonderful creative activity and very useful, as well, haven't you?

    I love notebooks, and my family knows this about me, so they often give me notebooks and journals. This Christmas, I received a wonderful small leather-bound journal with fantastic paper and a beautiful multi-colored journal with cover handwoven from recycled newspaper and magazines with great handmade paper--and it makes such a difference to have lovely books to write in. (I'm also a fountain pen and multiple colors of ink user, plus colored pencils for diagrams. I can't draw to do sketches.) But these journals I'm loving are hardly a patch on Mychal's real works of art! Swoon!

    And for those afraid to use their nice notebooks, perhaps begin by pasting in a photo of a character or place--or one you want write about. I keep a separate journal just for writing exercises. I believe that, like a musician or dancer, we writers must still do our exercises (our scales, if you will) on a regular basis to keep learning and growing as writers. You might try using your notebooks that you're afraid of spoiling for such. Or as travel journals. I never remember the camera, but always have a notebook and so I write my "pictures" and descriptions and memories.

    Another thing to do is tell yourself that one of your nice notebooks is just to get your mistakes and bad writing out of the way--like a sacrifice. Put an ink blot on page one (that you can decorate in many ways later). Write a little nonsense in here each time before you write your "serious" work. You'll be surprised with what you find you've done.

    Can you tell I used to teach journaling classes? Zipping my lip and signing off now. But oh, what. gorgeous. books.

  24. OH, that's such a wise idea, Linda!

    I'm always "afraid" to use my nice journals.

    I'll rethink.. xoo

  25. My god, those are beautiful! If I were a hoarder, I'd hoard journals. I love them in every size, shape, and color!

    I, too, was inspired to keep a novel journal after I read WRITE AWAY. I love how Elizabeth George excerpted bits from her journal for the chapter intros. Even Ms. George feels insecure about her writing sometimes--what a comfort to know this.

    I write my novel journals in composition books (the black and white speckly ones)...A Mychal journal could elevate my journaling efforts--or intimidate me? :-)

  26. Oh, so lovely! My watercolor teacher, Karen Leigh, keeps amazing travel journals like these -- I've been urging her to get them published -- and lent me "The Decorated Page." I take an Arches watercolor sketchbook when we travel, and a small paintbox. The most fun was painting on the banks of the Seine and getting so absorbed that I didn't notice how EVERYone cranes their necks to look when they see a sketchbook. (Mr. Right took a picture -- it's on my FB page, somewhere ... .)

    And old hardware, mmm! I love love love stories of people making a living making things they love! Thanks, Debs and Mychal!

  27. These are lovely-My daughter does thie when she travels. All the lovely arty journals with pictures and sketches and words about her trips. She would love one.
    As would I. I'll have to look at the website.

  28. These are gorgeous! I'm going to have to start making list of all the people I want to buy for this year and give these as gifts. Thanks so much for this post!


  29. http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Decorated-Journal-Compendium-Journaling/dp/1454702036/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1358877678&sr=1-3&keywords=the+decorated+page

    The author of The Decorated Page has a new book that combines her two previous books. I am going to order it asap!

    Hank, I've done what Mychal suggested--pasted pictures or collages over boo-boos. You really CAN'T mess up these books. You can tell my approach is, um, free-form...but that's what helps the ideas flow.

  30. As a beginner bookbinder for the past 12 years, I can say I'm definitely "green" with envy for Mychal's talent, story and environmentally friendly ways. Brava!

    And as an avid reader, I'd like to assure all you writers that I'd read anything you all put in these journals.

  31. We kept journals for each of our children and it's so much fun to go back and read about what they did at 7 days old; at 2 years old; and so on. My husband's cartoonist so there are illustrations! And paste-ins -- like the Chinese fortune I got that told me I was pregnant... and it turned out that I was.

    Otherwise I'm afraid I'm not big on journaling. I always forget to take pictures, too. I could say I "live in the moment" but that's just a lame excuse.

  32. I love the combination of pictures and words in an image, and enjoyed looking at the samples on the website. I cannot imagine being able to control the lines in the tiny spaces the way these artists did!

    I have taken some watercolor classes, and I always include a written line in the piece. I've also done some nice travel journals -- but, as many have said today -- nothing nearly as lovely as these.

    The paper looks so inviting!!

    Love this post.

  33. Mychal, now that you've been making journals for quite a few years, do you still keep one?

    And you visit art shows--so excited you'll be in Fort Worth in April!--can you tell us what you have coming up in the next few months?

  34. They are beautiful books. I tried to keep a diary when I was a kid and had been the recipient of one at Christmas. You know the kind, looks like leather with a little lock and key. After one week I quit writing in it after I discovered my older brother had opened it and written his version of some incident I had been venting about in my so-called personal diary. Ugh.

  35. I think my last comment was eaten by interweb gremlins.

    For those of us who love fountain pens and different colors or ink may I recommend the Pilot Disposable Fountain Pens? They just rock and sooooo inexpensive.

    And I love using stickers of all sorts in my journaling. I pick them up at Michael's and at Staple's. My latest are Alice and Wonderland stickers - too fun!

  36. ATTENTION ATTENTION I am seeing Brad tonight! Email me instantly--or I will just get signed books and send them..to the next people on the list!

    And the winners of Brad Meltzer's book are:

    Danielle Gomes and Jennifer Rummel

    Contact me at h ryan at whdh dot com

    and send me your address!

    whoo hoo!!

  37. Hi Hank, I'll add my name to the list for Brad's book!

  38. Mychal,
    I love your work! My first thought was that my handwriting is so horrible that I'd be too intimidated to write in one of your journals. THEN I thought that, gee, if I won one of those "cubs", I could practice in it, and maybe even move on and work up to buying myself one of your regular pieces. IF I won a "cub", as my Starter/introduction to fine craftsmanship...

  39. so to answer Deb's question earlier...YES! I still keep a journal. But admittedly, not daily like I did when I was in my 20's and early 30's....but ALWAYS when i travel! I have a lousy memory, and so a travel diary is a must for me. I take glue-stick with me everywhere I go, and am constantly sticking area maps, bus/plane/theatre tickets, and business cards, and postcards, and random doo-dads in my books to remind me of the flavor of the place. And I love going back over them later and reliving the whole experience.

    As far as art shows go, I am so thrilled to be invited back to the Ft. Worth Main Street art fair! It is my biggest show of the year sales-wise....can't go wrong with 400,000+ folks coming through, right? But I will also be in Scottsdale, Orlando and Houston in March. And New Orleans Jazz Fest In April...love doing that show,,,I eat a lot at that one! And this summer I'll be in Chicago and Ann Arbor ( and if all goes my way, also in Madison, Park City, Sun Valley, Portland and Kansas City!) If any of you want to be kept in the loop when I show up nearby, just sign up for my mailing list on my website.... www.ionahandcraftedbooks.com . We also offer discounts to folks on our list from time to time. Love seeing the same people year after year, and seeing what they do with their books...so inspiring!

  40. Oh, yes, do come to Kansas City, Mychal! Please!

  41. The best way to get over journal intimidation with one of Mychal's beautiful books is just to be brave, gird your loins, and make your mark. That's what being creative is all about, isn't it? Being afraid, but doing it anyway? I've long since gotten over my fear of messing up an Iona journal. I use them for journals, quilt documentation, and gifts to friends. But there IS one thing you need to beware of: once you use one, you'll be too spoiled to want any other kind! Great to hear from you, Mychal! Hope to see you in Fort Worth in the spring.

  42. Awww Sweet Gigi! Thanks so much for your kind words! I do hope to see you there on Main Street this year. It's been far too long! xo

  43. I've been to the website, what wonderful books. I have done some bookmaking myself and truly respect the effort that each one takes. I will be visiting your store and possible catching you at an event. Sorry I just missed you at Cottonwood.