With the creation of new technology, many antique skills have disappeared. One of these is the art of letterpress. Karen Sawyer, the owner and operator of Pier Six Press, says that letterpress “is the old style of printing — that’s how all printing used to be.” Everything is manual. The printer sets out physical type instead of electronically creating the words or graphics.
With the introduction of modern computers and machines, typesetting is rarely used. But Sawyer continues to utilize letterpress in her business. “Eighty percent of our cards are printed by letterpress,” she says.
She appreciates the qualities that letterpress produces. Letterpress “is distinctive because it leaves a little bit of an impression” on the paper, Sawyer says. Unlike the flat work of modern printers, letterpress printing produces indentations, adding to the design and texture of the pieces.
“Letterpress is unique because it’s one color at a time,” Sawyer adds. It’s a multistep and time-consuming process. “For you to have three colors, (the print job) needs to go through the press three times,” she says.
Sawyer found her love of letterpress while attending college in Portland, originally to study illustration. “But, (like) any good art school, they have you test other mediums, and the medium I tested was printmaking,” she says. “And, more or less, it was love at first sight.”
Afterwards, Sawyer took a cornucopia of jobs at print studios, including one in Switzerland. She eventually came back to Washington, where she met her husband and started her family. Eventually, Sawyer decided to start Pier Six Press. “I always wanted to have a letterpress business, so I bought my proof press instead of a car, and here we are,” she says.
Sawyer sells her products online and through events. “I have a lot of outreach,” she says. “I still have people meet me at in-person events.” These include Urban Craft Uprising and Manette Fest. “If it’s a local event, I’ll probably take part,” Sawyer says.
However, most of her business comes from wholesale shows or outreach through Faire, which Sawyer describes as an ordering platform “like Etsy, but for wholesale.” Customers can also buy directly from Sawyer’s website at piersixpress.com.
Pier Six Press offers a plethora of merchandise. “We do cards and art prints,” Sawyer says. “We are collaborating with the Puget Sound Candle Co., and we’re doing limited edition candles. We do some tote bags, and we have stickers.”
Sawyer loves her work. “What I like about cards is that they are tactile,” she says. “Even with COVID, you don’t have to see a person to give them a tactile communication with a card. It still is very physical.”
She also likes the communal nature of her products. “Times are really contentious right now and I think art is a really great way to bridge gaps,” she says. “There are these little moments which we can still celebrate, even if a lot of the world right now is full of anxiety. That’s what I try to produce with my cards.
“You don’t have to have a discussion with the uncle that you don’t agree with, but you can still send him a card, telling him that you care,” Sawyer continues. “You can still reach out in ways that don’t have to be antagonistic.”
A simple, handmade gift can be an olive branch or a symbol of love — and “you can reach out in a loving, caring way” through cards, Sawyer explains. “That’s what I want.” The letterpress products that Sawyer creates are avenues for building bonds with others. They are opportunities for creating community with one another.