It started with a book – it turned into a passion!

By Jo Cowie of No Books Were Harmed 

Since I first clapped eyes on a photo of a Chinese lantern created by folding the pages of a book, my life has never been the same.  

I live on the Moray coast with my husband, dogs and cats. Most of my time is spent in my home office, hand folding the pages of books to form words and pictures, turning them into pieces of art, gifts, keepsakes and curios. I say home office...really, I used to live in a two bedroom house, nowadays it's a one bedroom with a cracker of a home studio. 

Never having had any interest in arts or crafts, no one was more stunned than me when I began folding the pages of my precious books. An avid bibliophile for most of my life, I hold books in great esteem. I have always had a profound respect for them.... treat them with care, don't fold down their corners, don't write or deface them, and certainly never, cut them!  

It took me all my time to reconcile my conscience to the fact that I am taking unwanted, pre-owed and vintage books, and by only hand folding them, giving them a new lease of life. Rescuing them from their sure fate of the nearest landfill, and gently rehabilitating them into a pleasing form which will hopefully afford them 'life' for another generation or so. 

A year to the day after came to life, I gave up the day job to focus solely on this genuinely life changing passion of mine – so how did I even get to that crossroads? 

After a few weeks of playing with my new-found addiction, spending every spare minute, minutes I didn't think I had, folding books, experimenting with different design methods, different folding methods and different pattern making methods, I agreed to loan a few of my creations to a pal for her new cafe's window display.

Instantly, I was blindsided by people wanting to buy them. I spent a couple of months saying 'no, no, no'. I hadn't made them to sell, I wasn't a business.  Quite sure this would be a flash in the pan, I swithered and pondered, but I couldn't imagine it would be worth the time or paperwork of becoming self-employed...and then one Saturday, the Hollywood actress Tilda Swinton asked to buy one of my books.  

And I declined. And the following week, I registered ‘No Books Were Harmed In the Making Of This’ as a business - and I've never looked back! 

My vocation bloomed quickly and organically into a wondrous being in its own right, and since establishing No Books Were Harmed, I have never worked so hard nor been so sated, and it's all thanks to the continued support of my amazing clientele and stockists. Not a week goes by that I'm not amazed at yet another opportunity, invitation or adventure coming my way – I regularly pinch myself that this whole thing isn't some amazing daydream! 

As a completely self-taught artist who has never attended a workshop or course the demand for my Introduction to the Art of Book Folding Workshops is awe-inspiring! The feeling of taking skills that I discovered and honed, and passing them on to eager Future Folders is humbling and rewarding – I get as much of a buzz out of every class as my fabulous students. So much so, that this year sees the first Advanced Workshop, being rolled out to previous attendees – lots of those have been SWI ladies, so feel free to request details if you'd like to get on board.  

I continue to be humbled by the support, interest and custom I receive, and am delighted to have my pretties stocked in several smashing outlets all over the country. I also travel the length and breadth of Scotland, popping up as #NoBooksOnTour at events and shopping venues,?and facilitate book folding workshops & demonstrations all over.

Most of my work is commission pieces and I just love working with clients to bring their idea or image to life in a book. In between commissions I add to my every growing catalogue. Most of what you see in my album has already gone to its forever home but can be refolded to order. 

I create my book sculptures by literally hand folding the pages of books. When you leaf through any of these surprisingly robust pieces of art, what you will see is that the words and shapes are formed by me basically making 'dog ears' at the top and bottom corner of each page. Very carefully measured and painstakingly angled dog ears, but still dog ears! The designs you see are the only part of the pages that I haven't folded, as I 'tuck away' the extra bits, leaving only the bits I want to make the word or image. 

I work solely with hardbacked books - I can fold paperbacks, but you need the hard cover to stand up and display itself. 

I can fold any pages, but different grains of paper and different binding methods will produce different results.

Some pages don't lend themselves to detailed designs, and some tend to feather at the edges. 

In many ways working with books feels very much like working with an organic material - no two are the same. 

Even books within a collection will have their own personal quirks and variations, and it's these things that keep me fascinated with what I do. 

I adore working with very old, very thin pages. Bible and encyclopaedia pages are my favourite, although it's always a delicate and very slow process - book folding is never a speedy task anyway! Most of my books take me between 4-6 hours to fold...and that's after the days and days of going back and forth, tweaking my designs, changing measurements and doing trial runs. It usually takes me three trial folds to get to something I'm happy to stick with for the final book. 
I have a notepad full of design ideas. I'm fascinated by geometric patterns, angles, traditional masonry and art, and all kinds of symbols and symbolism. I see inspiration for new designs every single day, everywhere I go. Sometimes the book in hand inspires me. Its title, cover, genre, the font used within, all are things that can spark an idea. Often, I'm working to order and commissions, so it's always exciting when a client asks, “I don't suppose you could do a...”, and I've already got the scribblings of just that subject in one of my note books! Often, one book leads to another. A commission for a dolphin lead me to create an orca; a West Highland White Terrier commission was naturally followed by a Scottish Terrier a short while later. I personally get the biggest buzz out of creating things that look impossible, where the negative space is as important as the main image – think the 'hollow' in the wheels of my very popular bike, or the strong, straight 'gap' in between “HAVE” and “FAITH” - any time your brain fights with you against my absolute truth that the entire book is still there, and your lifetime of logic being convinced part of the book is missing. That excites me, that floats my boat, right there! 


There's a story behind almost every book I make. I've created books for weddings, christenings, birthdays, leaving gifts, graduation, retirement...any occasion you could give a card, I will have created a book for, and then some. 

Unusual ones that stick in my mind was creating "Spidy" in Gulliver's Travels, to go and live in a converted camper van - called Spidy!

Then the original 'heart burst' (pictured) based on a lady's tattoo. To a wee book I had with me during a #NoBooksOnTour showcase in Glasgow. The book was called ‘Special Delivery’ and had a stork on the cover, so I'd folded two wee baby feet in it.

A browser spotted it and snapped it up for his wife - months later I was back down and ran into the same chap again and was delighted to hear the update. His wife wasn't pregnant, but she had just qualified as a midwife when we'd first met, and he'd taken that book to give her it when she delivered her first baby. 

To be a small part in people's milestone events is just the most humbling thing, and I never cease to be touched by what amazingly thoughtful people there are out there, loving each other, looking after each other, and spreading warmth. It's really quite an unexpected part of this journey of mine. 

Depending on their age, publisher, binding process, how they've been used and stored, even identical looking books will behave differently when being folded. I have, however, folded people's old family bibles, university textbooks, treasured books gifted to them and favourite plays. 

 I can do something with pretty much every hardback, it's just a case of if the book you'd like me to use is suitable for the fold you'd like me to create within it. Much depends on the structure of the spine, and how much stress it will handle. I never know until a book is in my hand if it's 100% suitable, but I can always tell you if it's not. 


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