Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell

Chapter VII

Marking up — Sewing — Materials for Sewing

Marking up

This is drawing lines across the back of the sections to show the sewer the position of the sewing cords.

Marking up for flexible sewing needs care and judgment, as on it depends the position of the bands on the back of the bound book. Nearly all books look best with five bands, but very large, thinnish folios may have six, and a very small, thick book may look better with four. Generally speaking, five is the best number. In marking up trimmed sheets for flexible sewing, the length of the back should be divided from the head into six portions, five equal, and one at the tail slightly longer. From the points so arrived at, strong pencil lines should be made across the back with a carpenter’s square as guide, the book having been previously knocked up between pressing-boards, and placed in the lying press. It is important that the head should be knocked up exactly square, as otherwise the bands will be found to slope when the book is bound. In the case of a book which is to be cut and gilt in boards, before marking up it will be necessary to decide how much is to be cut off, and allowance made, or the head and tail division of the back will, when cut, be too small. It must also be remembered that to the height of the pages the amount of the “squares” will be added.

About a quarter of an inch from either end of the back of a trimmed book, and a little more in the case of one that is to be cut in boards, a mark should be made for the “kettle” or “catch” stitch. This may be slightly sawn in, but before using the saw, the end papers are removed. If these were sawn, the holes would show in the joint when the ends are pasted down.

If the book is to be sewn on double cords, or on slips of vellum or tape, two lines will be necessary for each band.

It has become the custom to saw in the backs of books, and to sink the bands into the saw cuts, using “hollow backs,” and putting false bands to appear when bound. This is a degenerate form, to which is due much of the want of durability of modern bindings. If the bands are not to show on the back, it is better to sew on tapes or strips of vellum than to use sawn-in string bands.


The sewing-frame need by bookbinders is practically the same now as is shown in prints of the early sixteenth century, and probably dates from still earlier times. It consists of a bed with two uprights and a crossbar, which can be heightened or lowered by the turning of wooden nuts working on a screw thread cut in the uprights (see Fig. 29).

To set up for sewing, as many loops of cord, called “lay cords,” as there are to be bands, are threaded on to the cross piece, and to these, by a simple knot, shown at Fig. 28, cords are fastened to form the bands. The “lay cords” can be used again and again until worn out.

Fig. 28.
Fig. 28.

To fasten the cord below, a key is taken (see Fig. 28) and held below the press by the right hand; the cord is then pulled up round it by the left, and held in position on the key by the first finger of the right hand. The key is then turned over, winding up a little of the string, and the prongs slipped over the main cord. It is then put through the slit in the bed of the sewing-press, with the prongs away from the front. The cord is then cut off, and the same operation repeated for each band. When all the bands have been set up, the book is laid against them, and they are moved to correspond with the marks previously made on the back of the book, care being taken that they are quite perpendicular. If they are of the same length and evenly set up, on screwing up the crossbar they should all tighten equally.

It will be found to be convenient to set up the cords as far to the right hand of the press as possible, as then there will be room for the sewer’s left arm on the inner side of the left hand upright.

A roll of paper that will exactly fill the slot in the sewing-frame is pushed in in front of the upright cords to steady them and ensure that they are all in the same plane.

When the sewing-frame is ready, with the cords set up and adjusted, the book must be collated to make sure that neither sheets nor plates have been lost or misplaced during the previous operations. Plates need special care to see that the guards go properly round the sheets next them.

Fig. 29.
Fig. 29.

The top back corner, on front and back waste end paper, should be marked. When this has been done, and all is found to be in order, the book is laid on a pressing-board behind the sewing-frame, the fore-edge towards the sewer, and the front end paper uppermost. As it is difficult to insert the needle into a section placed on the bed of the sewing-frame, it will be found convenient to sew upon a largish pressing-board, which will lie on the bed of the frame, and may have small catches to prevent it from shifting. When the board is in place, the first section (end paper) is taken in the left hand and turned over, so that the marks on the back come in the proper places against the strings. The left hand is inserted into the place where the sewing is to be, and with the right hand a needle and thread is passed through the kettle stitch mark (see Fig. 29). It is grasped by the fingers of the left hand, is passed out through the back at the first mark on the left-hand side of the first upright cord, and pulled tight, leaving a loose end of thread at the kettle stitch. Then with the right hand it is inserted again in the same place, but from the other side of the cord, and so on round all five bands, and out again at the kettle stitch mark at the tail, using right and left hands alternately. The centre of the next section is then found, and it is sewn in the same way from tail to head, the thread being tied to the loose end hanging from the first kettle stitch. Another section is laid on and sewn, but when the kettle stitch is reached, the under thread is caught up in the way shown in Fig. 30. These operations are repeated throughout the whole book. If the back seems likely to swell too much, the sections can be lightly tapped down with a loaded stick made for the purpose, care being taken not to drive the sections inwards, as it is difficult to get such sections out again. When all the sheets and the last end paper have been sewn on, a double catch stitch is made, and the end cut off. This method is known as flexible sewing “all along.”

Fig. 30.
Fig. 30.

Fig. 31.
Fig. 31.

When one needle full of thread is exhausted, another is tied on, making practically a continuous length of thread going all along each section and round every band. The weaver’s knot is the best for joining the lengths of thread. A simple way of tying it is shown at Fig. 31. A simple slip knot is made in the end of the new thread and put over the end of the old, and, on being pulled tight, the old thread should slip through, as shewn at B. The convenience of this knot is, that by its use a firm attachment can be made quite close up to the back of the book. This is a great advantage, as if the knot is made at some distance from the back, it will have to be dragged through the section two or three times, instead of only once. The knot, after having been made, must be pulled inside the section, and remain there. Considerable judgment is required in sewing. If a book is sewn too loosely, it is almost impossible to bind it firmly; and if too tightly, especially if the kettle stitches have been drawn too tight, the thread may break in “backing,” and the book have to be resewn.

One way to avoid having too much swelling in the back of a book consisting of a great many very thin sections is to sew “two sheets on.” In this form of sewing two sections at a time are laid on the sewing-frame. The thread is inserted at the “kettle stitch” of the lower section, and brought out as usual at the first cord, but instead of being reinserted into the lower section, it is passed into the upper one, and so on, alternately passing into the upper and lower sections. This will give, if there are five bands, three stitches in each section instead of six, as there would be if the sewing were “all along,” lessening the thread, consequently the swelling by half. It is usual to sew the first and last few sections “all along.”

The common method of sewing is to make saw cuts in the back, in which thin cords can be sunk, and the thread merely passes behind them and not round them, as in flexible sewing. This method, although very quick and cheap, is not to be recommended, on account of the injury done to the backs of the sections by the saw, and because the glue running into the saw cuts is apt to make the back stiff, and to prevent the book from opening right to the back. Indeed, were a sawn-in book to open right to the back, as it is expected a flexibly-sewn book will do, showing the sewing along the centre of each section, the saw marks with the band inserted would show, and be a serious disfigurement.

Fig. 32.
Fig. 32.

Fig. 33.
Fig. 33.

Mediæval books were usually sewn on double cords or strips of leather, and the headband was often sewn at the same time, as shown at Fig. 32, A. This is an excellent method for very large books with heavy sections, and is specially suitable for large vellum manuscripts, in many of which the sections are very thick. An advantage of this method is, that the twist round the double cord virtually makes a knot at every band, and should a thread at any place break, there is no danger of the rest of the thread coming loose. This is the only mode of sewing by which a thread runs absolutely from end to end of the sections. The headband sewn at the same time, and so tied down in every section, is firmer and stronger than if worked on in the way now usual. In the fifteenth century it was the custom to lace the ends of the headbands into the boards in the same way as the other bands. This method, while giving additional strength at the head and tail, and avoiding the somewhat unfinished look of the cut-off ends of the modern headband, is, on the whole, of doubtful advantage, as it is necessary to cut the “turn in” at the point where strength in the leather is much wanted.

At Fig. 32 is shown in section the three methods of sewing mentioned. A is the old sewing round double bands; with the headbands worked at the same time with the same thread; B is the modern flexible sewing, and C the common sawn-in method.

Books that are very thin or are to be bound in vellum, are best sewn on tapes or vellum slips. The easiest way to set up the sewing-frame for such sewing is to sling a piece of wood through two of the lay cords, and to pin one end of the vellum or tape band round this, pull the other end tight, and secure it with a drawing-pin underneath the frame. The sewing, in the case of such flat bands, would not go round, but only across them. To avoid undue looseness, every three or four threads may be caught up at the back of the band, as shown in Fig. 33.

Materials for Sewing

The cord used should be of the best hemp, specially made with only two strands of very long fibres to facilitate fraying out. For very large books where a double cord is to be used, the best water line will be found to answer, care being taken to select that which can be frayed out. If tape is used it should be unbleached, such as the sailmakers use. Thread should also be unbleached, as the unnecessary bleaching of most bookbinder’s sewing-thread seems to cause it to rot in a comparatively short time. Silk of the best quality is better than any thread. The ligature silk, undyed, as used by surgeons, is perhaps the strongest material, and can be had in various thicknesses. It is impossible to pay too great attention to the selection of sewing materials, as the permanency of the binding depends on their durability. The rebinding of valuable books is at best a necessary evil, and anything that makes frequent rebinding necessary, is not only objectionable on account of the cost involved, but because it seriously shortens the life of the book.

Experience is required to judge what thickness of thread to use for any given book. If the sections are very thin, a thin thread must be used, or the “swelling” of the back caused by the additional thickness of the thread in that part will be excessive, and make the book unmanageable in “backing.” On the other hand, if the sections are large, and a too thin thread is used, there will not be enough swelling to make a firm “joint.” Broadly speaking, when there are a great many very thin sections, the thinnest thread may be used; and coarser thread may be used when the sections are thicker, or fewer in number. In the case of large manuscripts on vellum it is best to use very thick silk, or even catgut. Vellum is so tough and durable, that any binding of a vellum book should be made as if it were expected to last for hundreds of years.

In selecting the thickness of cord for a book, some judgment is required. On an old book the bands are best made rather prominent by the use of thick cord, but the exact thickness to be used is a matter for taste and experience to decide.

A very thick band on a small book is clumsy, while a very thin band on the back of a heavy book suggests weakness, and is therefore unsightly.

In bindings of early printed books and manuscripts an appearance of great strength is better than extreme neatness.

When the sewing is completed, the cords are cut off close to the lay cords, and then the keys will be loose enough to be easily removed. The knots remaining on the lay bands are removed, and the keys slung through one of them.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52