A Different Sewing Process

sunk cordsWhen was the last time you really looked at a book? Like, not read a book, but examined how they’re made? Books are, as I say sometimes at work, received objects, like apples or chairs. People notice, visually, how one is different from another, but they rarely think about how they’re put together. And that’s a shame, because (as I’ve learned in my work) the construction of books is fascinating.

Last time I was here, I talked about the process of making a dress to wear at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in support of my work place, the American Bookbinders Museum. Despite a bunch of drama, I made it to the opening day, respectably turned out. I expect to fine tune my outfit throughout the run of the show–and compared to the Queen and the well-turned out upper class ladies, and the lower-class women of the make-believe stews, I look rather, well, dowdy. What do you want? I’m an Irish factory woman, working in my father-in-law’s bindery (yes, I have a character and a backstory).

Yup: after all that sewing, I spent eight hours… sewing.

old-booksMost people, when they think of “old fashioned” books, picture something leather-bound, with ridges on the spine, sort of like this:

Those ridges are cords, to which signatures are stitched. In the picture above, you can see the cords on the book-sewing frame (the woman looks like she’s playing a harp, doesn’t she?). For hundreds of years, this was the way it was done: sew along the inside fold of a signature, come out, wrap around the cord, sew back in to the fold, and on and on. It makes a strong spine that will hold the pages securely even if one thread breaks.

Of course, it takes time. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, time was a luxury. The point of industrialization was to do everything faster and more easily, creating a product that could be produced cheaply. One by one, the processes of  producing a book were mechanized. Except for sewing. Well into the 1870s (and well past the period covered by the Dickens Fair) books were sewn by hand, usually by women like the one pictured above. What good was it if a publisher could print, press, cover, and decorate materials enough for 40,000 books a day, when sewing couldn’t keep up? There was a limit to how many sewers a publisher could hire to sew–a limit on space, and a limit on cost. The solution: sink the cords. By cutting channels in the spines of the books, publishers allowed sewers–rather than sewing out and around 3-6 cords per book–to basically run a thread past the sunken cords (number now reduced to 2 cords per book) and out the fold at the other end. Genius. Cut the sewing time significantly, permitting publishers to keep prices lower. Spine cutting machines (essentially submerged rotary blades over which a worker would slide the spines of a stack of books) made it fast and easy. And cheap. Remember cheap.

Of course, you’re producing a significantly less well-made book. With the old process, if one thread broke, you had a good chance of the book staying together. With these mid-19th-century books, if a thread broke it was likely that a signature or more could drop out.

So there I am at the Dickens Fair, sewing signatures with the admittedly inferior sunken cord method, because that is exactly the way books would have been sewn at the time. People came up to me all day, asking questions (exactly as I’d hoped) and admiring my handiwork. Well, 1) I’m still learning, so my technique is still a bitt wobbly, and 2) this gave me an opportunity to explain about how books were sewn “when me Da was a boy,” and to predict that someday they’d find a way to sew the books by machine.

They did. In the 1870s a guy named David Smyth invented the first really functional book sewing machine, and even today hardcover books are referred to as “Smyth sewn.” There’s a bit of immortality for you.

If you happen to be in the Bay Area? The Great Dickens Christmas Fair runs on weekends through December 18 (and I’ll be there at least one day a weekend, sewing on sunken cords). And the American Bookbinders Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10am – 4pm, with tours on the hour.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


A Different Sewing Process — 2 Comments

  1. I remember looking at how books were structured when I was a little kid, because I’d already been making my own books out of paper towels (the only paper in the house at the time) but they fell apart so easily. When I saw the signatures and the stitching below the binding I was impressed, but realized I was hopelessly outclassed.

    I do remember envying a friend who was taking a bookbinding class at her fancy private college, when I was in my twenties. They even made paper, as I recall.

  2. My big brother Jim loves hand sewn books. He’s taken every bookbinding class he can find, often in London at one end or the other of a river cruise on the Continent. He made me a book for my blood sugar readings, complete with a printed spread sheet for the pages. The 1 inch thick book will last several years. It was the bestest birthday gift evah!