Sewing a Book

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  When the book was originally made, large paper sheets were folded and trimmed into pages.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.

Removing sewing thread from a book.
Removing sewing thread from a book.

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.

Japanese tissue was adhered outside every fold to prepare this book for sewing.
Japanese tissue was adhered outside every fold to prepare this book for sewing.

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. 

Sewing a book.
Sewing a book.

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.

After treatment.
After treatment.

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!

From Staple Binding to Sewn Binding

TSLAC Conservation recently completed treatment on the Basic Electrician: Students’ Manual for All Arms.  This 1928 publication by the U.S. War Department introduced American soldiers to the foundations and skills of practical electrical repairs for arms used in the field.

This volume was found staple-bound, with no boards or spine covering, stored in an envelope.  The text was punched for an unknown type of binding device.  The first three leaves, including the title page, had detached and broken into fragments.  Reference staff obtained copies of these leaves from another institution, whose copy of the book was similarly staple-bound with no outer covering.

Book before treatment, staple-bound with damaged leaves.

Book before treatment, staple-bound with damaged leaves.

Top priority for this treatment was to affix the replacement leaves and stabilize the volume for shelf storage.  Since the staples were restricting the opening, risking future leaf breakage, we decided to remove the staples, sew the volume, and create a new case binding.  With no historical example for the sewing or binding style, we were free to choose methods that accommodated the text.

First, we made the copies of the damaged leaves into double-sided replacement pages with proper registration.  A historical look wasn’t possible for these leaves given the low contrast, black-and-white copies provided, but archival-quality Permalife paper was used for long-term stability.  The replacement leaves were hinged together, and the volume was punched and sewn using a supported link stitch on three tapes.  The volume was gently rounded and backed, and then cased into a new case covered with toned Japanese tissue.  The tissue gives a leather-like appearance to blend with other volumes in the collection.

Replacement title page bound into volume.

Replacement title page bound into volume.

This treatment mixes techniques typical of both circulating collections work (the replacement leaves) and special collections work (the rebind and the covering) to create an accessible volume with a historically viable appearance.

Book after treatment

Book after treatment

Deciphering a Sewing Pattern

Today’s entry is for all you book conservators out there.  And for the rest of you, here’s a scintillating look into the world of book structure!

In some of our early 20th century US government bindings, I’ve noticed a sewing structure that’s been a little difficult to decipher.  It’s definitely machine sewing.  It looks rather like smythe sewing.  But the stations don’t appear entirely regular.  And they seem to be positioned off-center from the sewing supports.

A particularly damaged 1910 US census finally offered up a clearer picture.  Here, in a region with approximately 50 leaves removed, we can see a sewing support and remaining thread.

Exposed sewing threads and sewing support.

Exposed sewing support and sewing threads.

Well, this is novel!  Typically, one might see sewing threads passing around a support.  But here, the threads travel directly through the supports.  If you look closely, you can also see a back-and-forth pattern that creates offset sewing stations as the thread travels between sections.  After examining intact sewing earlier in the volume, I created the following diagram of the sewing pattern repeating three times across six sections.  Note how the pattern reverses between supports 2 and 3. 

Sewing diagram

Sewing diagram

If pressed, I’d call this supported, two-on smythe sewing.  Can anyone confirm or deny whether such a thing could or does exist?