When visitors at TSLAC’s Summerlee Conservation Lab learn about conservation treatment, they often ask questions about sewing books. Does sewing really hold a book together? (Yes!) Do you actually sew books by hand? (Yes!) The following is a quick introduction to sewing a book in a conservation treatment.
In many of the 19th- and 20th-century books at TSLAC, sewing is the primary way the pages are bound. When the book was originally made, large paper sheets were folded and trimmed into pages. The pages usually nest together in bundles, which bookbinders call sections. The bookbinder used a needle and thread to sew through the folds in the sections, securing all the pages together in the right order. After sewing, linings of paper, textile, or leather were adhered over the sewing to further strengthen the book’s spine.
Sewing is fundamental to a book, so today’s conservators leave it in place whenever possible. But sometimes, a book is so damaged that it must be re-sewn. When this happens, the first step is to remove the original sewing to separate the leaves.
It’s likely that some of the paper folds are damaged, so the conservator mends them with thin, flexible Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.
Then, the conservator follows the original sewing pattern to re-sew the volume. In the 19th century, binders began taking shortcuts to reduce time and materials in their work. Today’s conservator will follow those original shortcuts, often sewing two or three sections at a time.
Conservators use thread and other components that have a similar weight and thickness as the original sewing. This helps the repaired volume to flex and move as intended. It also helps the repaired volume to fit back into its original cover.
After lining, spine shaping, and covering, this book is ready to read.
P.S. – It’s been a wonderful 10 years writing this blog. As I transition to a new position at the University of Texas School of Information, I look forward to reading new posts here in the future. Stay tuned!