Types of thread… – there are so many! Just from reading clothing labels, we are used to different fibres in your threads. There’s cotton and linen, silk and cashmere, hemp and jute, polyester and nylon, and many more. When looked at in a systematic way, the first distinguishing factor is whether it is a man-made or a natural fibre. (If you want to read more about fibres in general, I recommend this Wikipedia article.)
Many of these are used by bookbinders. Fibres are used to secure pages to each other and to the covers, for actual binding thread but also for cords and tapes used as support and connection between the book block and the covers, for headband stitching and decorations on the covering material, as well as attaching a covering material to book boards. And let’s not forget that fibres may make up the covering material you are using in the first place (when covering boards in paper or fabric).
Threads are used when sewing dust covers, pouches, or bags to protect the books, and leather thongs (which arguably are fibres, too) and fabric tape can be used for added features such as book marker ribbons and closures.
Ideally we want all our books to be made quickly, from cheap materials that keep the book in good condition forever on a shelf but are compostable once we don’t want them anymore. The book should remain looking perfect at all times and at the same time open easily and readily stay open. Stains should be easy remove, but marking, dying and painting on should be easy, too. …
Since the world is not perfect, we have to decide which of many desireable properties are most important to us in any given case. That makes bookbinding so very interesting to me: Every single book is a problem that has to be solved. Sometimes simply stapling is the best binding method for a job (nothing than a simple stap binding with wire). Sometimes we will instead want an ornate leather bound tome with lots of gold finishing and fore-edge painting. – And most of the time something in between is what we settle upon.
When it comes to durability, not only the choice of material and binding stype are important, but how the different, employed materials and techniques fit together.
From the view of a book conservator it is much preferable if the thread fails before the paper does. When the thread tears through the paper, pages fall out. And althought a failing thread also means that pages and whole signatures will come loose and might fall out, re-binding or housing a stack of paper that’s not torn is so much easier, than first menting a weak and broken fold. On the other hand of course, if the thread is too weak, it will fail needlessly – and annoyingly – while the paper is still in good condition.
The best paper, conservation wise – as far as I am aware of – is rag paper. And it is the sort of paper that conservators have a lot (like in hundreds of years) of experience with. Rag paper from earlier times (like in the middle ages) might have contained cotton but also all sorts of other plant based fibres like linen and hemp. Thus it is not surprising that we find that linen thread is most sympathetic to the paper made from it: It ages at about the same rate, and thus becomes weak at about the same rate.
And thus it came to pass – or at least that is how I understand matters and imagine history to have developed – that in the West we overwhelmingly use linen thread for (hand-)bookbinding, and it is widely viewed as the best choice of fibre. Obviously there are different strengths available, and conservators who work with already aged and weak paper will choose a weaker thread than a bookbinder who binds new paper. But in general linen thread is strong because flax, the plant that produces the linen fibres, grows to tall height, making a thread that is exceptionally hard to break. That makes it ideal everywhere where a strong thread is sought. Historically as well as still to date, linen thread is therefore used in all kinds of traditional crafts: leather works, sail making, tent making, for puppets on a string, or for sewing on functional elements like buttons – and of course for bookbinding. And as bookbinders we always dabble in other crafts: We employ leather working techniques for leather volumes, embroidery for fabric covers, and so on. How wonderful and practical that we can always stick to the same thread that becomes like a familiar friend under out hands. And all that with the knowledge that we have chosen the best thread in any case.
A while ago (in 2014), I bought the book “Japanese Bookbinding” by mast bookbinder Kojiro Ikegami, and more recently I rediscovered it and followed some of his instructions more closely.
In (Western) bookbinding books targeted at beginners the Asian or Japanese bindings are taught in a much simplified way (I wrote similar instructions here) that make it a very accessible method for quick and easy notebooks. But when done properly, they can be elaborate, lush, and quite far from the quick and dirty method we are used to calling an Asian binding.
One of the things I discovered was that he uses mainly silk thread for his bindings. As I wanted to learn Japanese bookbinding better, I decided to source some threads…
I don’t want to bore you with things I have already written about. Check my blogpost from last autumn, in which I showed you different silk threads that I tried and how the binding turned out. Following that post, I asked a couple of binders for their opinion in exchange for some free threads. I ended up sending threads out to:
I asked all of them what kinds of binding they would want to try the thread on, and depending on their answer, I sent them slightly different samples.
The first Cecile tried was the Fine Silk I sent her. You can find it in my shop here. Her verdict:
experiment with @buchertiger silk thread : and my conclusion is that it is the best thread I have ever tested even on very small surfaces ! 👍Cecile Coyez from Reliure Coyez
From Heather I don’t have any photos to show, but she wrote about her experiments. She tried the thread on some pamphlet bindings:
I used the silk 12/3 on a pamphlet binding. I was easy to thread into the needle, despite being a bit fluffy on the cut end. – Nice springiness to it, but the softness of the thread makes it very easy to pull through sewing holes. Unlike linen thread, it sits and stays, like a good dog, to where you pull it.Heather Dewick on testing my silk threads
8/2 Super Spun Silk; a pamphlet again: It feels a bit looser than 12/3, sits in sewing holes really well, and frays out beautifully once tied off.
5/2 Super Spun Silk: as above, but it has untwisted in some places, so looks a bit uneven.
fine varigated silk thread: much thinner, but still very strong”.
As you can see above, Toben followed my experiments and did a series of stab bindings. If you want to read more about how he faired working with the threads, you can read a whole blogpost about his experiments here. In summary he wrote:
I would not hesitate to purchase or use any of these and happily recommend them. Ultimately the 8/2nm “super” spun came out top for me, with the variegated Silk Perle 5 a close second. I liked the 8/2 best of all because of how it held up both during and after binding. It sews easily, kept it’s shape, and hasn’t lost its definition. The Silk Perle did get slightly fluffier in binding, but I’m a sucker for variegated colours so all is forgiven.Toben from Baile Mor Books
He did have a few difficulties with the thread and found (just like I myself, see previous blogpost) that the thread got a bit fluffy while sewing. It is a common recommendation among bookbinders not to wax silk thread (as we would do with linen) as it then looses its sheen. However, that really only applies to filament silk which can be used for headbanding. This spun silk can, and I think if you binding with it, it should be lightly waxed by hand. – But maybe you want to experiment yourself?
Here’s a link to different threads:
12/3 NM spun silk, with about the same thickness as a Perle 5 thread, and thickest of my natural silks.
8/2 NM super spun silk, about the same thickness as the 12/3, but a bit firmer.
5/2 NM super spun silk, the thickest of the three.
I have various other silk threads available. A description can be found on this page. In brief:
(1) Used under a CC license (click for link to source) – Thank you for making it available!
(2) Photos used with the kind permission of Cecile and Toben. – Thank you!