Monday, 4 April 2011

Don't Shoot Him, He's Only The Bookbinder

When I look at any handcraft, I can't help thinking about the person who made it. Look at the sewing on the left, for example. Pretty ugly, I thought as I prepared to disbind the book. But after seeing what he had to contend with, I can't blame the guy.

This book, by the way, was published in 1872, and this is the binding that was originally put on by the publisher.

If you haven't seen a lot of older sewings, you might not know - this is an example of hand oversewing. Rather than sew up and down along each fold of the textblock, several folds of paper were gathered into one chunk, and that was sewn by stabbing through the chunk, front to back, moving up a bit and repeating. In this case, there were three stitches taken to sew together the whole chunk up the whole length of the spine (page height is 11-1/4" or 28.5 cm). The shortcomings are obvious, I think - the pages can't open flat unless you press them open to the point where the thread either breaks or tears through the paper to the spine. It's flimsy, and it looks horrible.

But I can just see the binder. He'd be working for the publisher, who had loads of books he wanted put into boards quickly and cheaply. Publisher's boards were intended to last just long enough to get the book safely into the customer's hands - after which the customer would theoretically take the book to his binder to have it rebound to match his library.

So the binder had to do it fast, not well. The book was presumably going on to another binder who would "fix" this temporary sewing.  And he had an extra problem. This book is more than 600 pages long, and the normal size of one section is two folds - ie, 8 pages. But here and there throughout the book are twenty or thirty pages that were published in folios - ie, single folds of 4 pages. Single folds are hard to sew because the thread tends to cut right them, so the binder gathered up three or four of them and oversewed the lot at one go.

He also had swell to think about - how much the 75 or so layers of thread needed to sew 600 pages in 8-page sections would swell the width of the spine. The fewer layers of thread you have, the less swell there is, and oversewing changes many layers of thread to only one. The double-fold sections, which were not oversewn, were sewn "two on" - meaning one sewing pass sewed on two sections rather than one - again, to reduce the amount of thread used and to reduce the swell.

So yes, it's ugly. It's bad bookbinding. But in the circumstances, totally understandable.

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