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Sewing the book

In this video, Elizabethanne and John talk about sewing early modern books.
Once the book was printed, it was sent to be sewn and then bound. Sewing was urgent because it brought the gatherings sections of printed paper together to form a text block. This ensured that no pages were lost. Initial bindings were sometimes temporary structures, allowing the purchaser to have the book bound in a style of his or her choosing. The most basic form was stab stitching, so-called because the entire text block was sewn through the side of the inner left margin. It held the text block together, but it presented problems for readers, making it difficult to open books properly.
This type of stitching could really only work on short works, such as pamphlets, because it was simply not possible to stab stitch an ordinary sized book. The most common method of sewing books was on supports made of either leather thongs or cords. I’m delighted to be joined by John Gillis, a conservator in Trinity College Dublin, to discuss some of the ways books might be sewn on these supports. In this video of the conservation of the eighth century Book of Dimma we can see how this was done. The two most outer stations of the spine are known as the kettle stitches. This is a change-over ever point where a thread moves from one quire to the next.
Thread passes in and out, through the fold of the quire, around each support, until it reaches the kettle stitch at the end of the spine. This process is then repeated with the next quire. This type of sewing, on five sets of two supports, changed little between the time of the Book of Dimma and the late 15th century, and was still being used on larger books through the 16th and 17th century. It produces a very stable text block, which can then be mechanically attached to the boards of the book. That type of sewing structure was very much the gold standard because it produced very sturdy books. But wasn’t it very time consuming and costly?
I’ve heard that relatively early on, at least in the 16th century, binders began to cut corners. Yes. Almost as sewing itself developed as a system for joining pages together, they started to look at ways of reducing time and, obviously, cost, particularly as the demand for books increased. So innovations, such as skip station sewing, were introduced in the 16th century. This meant that the sewing thread, instead of wrapping around each individual sewing support, missed one. And this obviously increased the pace at which the book could be sewn. But also, unfortunately, decreased the strength of the structure. And is it possible to know the type of sewing by looking at the outside of a book? You can tell.
You can draw on a number of factors– when the book was printed and bound, where it was printed and bound. Because you will get traditions, depending on where a book was produced and that can give you clues. Also, particularly as the book ages and components start to break down, often some of these internal components are exposed, as say, a paste-down comes away or a piece of the spine leather drops away, you can actually see the internal components. And I’ve also heard that there were other ways of cutting down on labour.
For example, endbands, which were originally a support feature in early books that you could see the support fixture at the head and foot of the spine, as we see in this example of a late 15th century book. But they gradually– in fact, relatively quickly, became more a decorative feature. And even on some very cheap items, were an optional extra. We see in the 17th century book where the endbands have only been attached at the sides. And because of that, they become unstable. Absolutely.
Again, yes, it was, at one stage, particularly in the later Medieval period and even into printing, it had a structural feature because the endbands was sewn on a core and that core also attached to the binding boards. So it, in fact, became a supplementary sewing structure. But quite quickly, the first thing that happened was the core was cut, was abbreviated, at the ends of the threads, so it no longer attached to the binding. And as you say, it slowly kind of decreased in structure from there, down to the 19th century, when it was simply a decorative feature, where you could buy your endbands on a roll and simply stick them on the spine.
Paying attention to sewing structures is important because the sewing structures of a book are as much of an indicator of the cost of production as the choice of tooling. Absolutely. And as time progressed, as production methods changed and, for the most part, declined in quality, this had a large effect. Production needed to increase and in order for production to increase and bring costs down, there where cutbacks and you had the introduction of machine made papers in the 19th century, which obviously don’t survive as well. You have a reduction in the quality of the materials used to bind the book and all of these are indicators of the declining quality in general.
And just as much as looking at the tooling on the outside, you can see this in the quality of the materials used, what the tooling was put onto. [CLOSING SOUND EFFECTS]

After a book was printed, it was sent off to be sewn and bound. Sewing books was a very important part of the process to make sure no pages were lost and a book was held together in a firm text block.

The Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library has provided a useful illustrated online booklet on Medieval & Early Modern Manuscripts. Bookbinding terms, materials, methods and models (Yale, 2015) which explains some of the terms used in this section of the course.

Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin, and Dr John Gillis, Senior Conservator, Preservation and Conservation Department, Trinity College Dublin.
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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