If you follow me on facebook and/or instagram, then you have seen that over the last couple of weeks I have made a few books. It’s sad that this is news by now, but that’s how it is.

I always wanted to learn to make limp vellum bindings that rely on lacing in the sewing support for cover attachment rather than stitches. After finishing my skillshare class on indirect tacketing on January, it seemed natural to start a few book blocks to try out this structure. The general idea is rather straight forward: The book block is bound on supports, usually leather strips. The cover consists of a piece of (folded) vellum or parchment, and is attached non-adhesively simply by lacing in the support. While I read a bit here and there, I ended up relying mostly on (the pictures in) Henry Hebert’s post on a paper version of this structure which can be found here and improvisation. Here’s a summary of my decisions and experiences. You’ll find a list of mentioned literature at the end.

How exactly the cover is made, how many of the edges are turned in, whether and how endsheets are attached to the book block and many more details can vary. For the start I didn’t give much thought about the cover construction.

These kind of bindings often have a stiffener inside the vellum sleeve which can but don’t have to be attached to the text block. I decided that for my books, I wanted to sew it on to the text block together with endpapers. Depending on how big the overlap on the inside of the sleeve is, more or less of the stiffener can be visible. Also you can but don’t have to include a paste-down. I’ll talk a bit more about it below, when I show you the construction of the wrapper.
I like to keep my options open for as long as possible, and thus didn’t make final decisions at this point, but I needed to have a vague idea of what I wanted to do so that I could choose endpapers and flyleaf constructions, and I decided to make the three differently, to try out different methods. For support I chose leather strips (5mm so fairly thin) for two of the three books, and decided to use a silk ribbon for the third.

The method for sewing on tapes, which I learned way back from Zeier, lets the thread move in an out sewing along fashion, without doubling up on iteself at any point; much like you would on sunken cords. According to Fritz Wiese this is, however, inappropriate; he thinks it far better to wind the thread around the support, like you would when sewing on raised cords. And so I tried that for the third volume.

If you look closely in the picture on the right, you’ll see that the thread over the strips is doubled.

I enforced the spine on all three volumes with fabric. According to Szirmai in limp bindings there was a transition from flat spines in earlier volumes to naturally rounded spines in later volumes. So for the first I gently rounded the back, but I didn’t really like it all that much and left the other spines I flat.

According to Szirmai the headband worked on such bindings is worked over a piece of rolled up leather with the bead on the spine. The book by Greenfield and Hille has a good instruction and description of this headband which I made a couple of times in the past already.

Last year I purchased a couple of sample varigated silk threads and now was the time to try them out.

The first one I gave a try was the Filament Silk. I have it now available in my shop, but more about that in a different blog post that’s soon to come. The filament silk is incredibly beautiful, so of course it had to be the first I’d try.

The first thing I noticed was how difficult it was to push the needle through the spine. I used a folded piece of leather as an improvised thimble, but pushed the blunt end of the needle straight through the two layers and leather, through my skin and into the finger. Ouch! At least I observed bookbinding rule #1: “Do not bleed on your book.”

Filament Silk

In contemporary books often the headbands are purely decorative. In this kind of binding, the core around which the headbanding silk is would is also laced into the cover, and thus the headbands are contributing to good textblock-cover attachment.

The silk that I used was dyed in the same varigated pattern. But due to its nature and the length of the varigation, all six endbands have a distinctively different colour patter, which I think is fun. The filament silk looked most stunning, and was the first that I reached for, – and I used it again on the third book after also trying the perle thread.

Silk Perle 5 thread

The filament silk likes to stick to the spine lining as well as rough edges on fingers and nails. This makes it rough up and loose its shine. So it is essential to treat it carefully. But it was well worth the effort, I think.

The next step, once all the headbands were made, was to construct the wrapper. I planned for two paper and one parchment wrapper for my books, and naturally didn’t want to start with parchment, instead train with paper first.It turned out that the paper I chose first was much too weak (a printing paper with a cotton content of 60%, but “normal” writing weight): The support is laced through narrow holes in the wrapper, and this is how they hold fast. They are not tied or glued down. Thus the paper has to withstand the pressure of the pressed leather strip without tearing.
But although I wasn’t able to use this first wrapper, it was a good training piece and thus the construction of the next three covers went smoothly. The most important thing I learned was to make a mock-up spine of parchment paper first. I fit the parchment paper neatly around the text block (same height as the signatures, no addition for the endbands), on which I mark the position of the sewing support. This helps position the holes for the lacing in of the support later, and helps me position the book on the wrapper more easily – as I can see all the way throught he paper.

After some hesitation I decided to use this artisan paper for my book:

It was a difficult decision because on the one hand I love the look of this paper and I have been wanting to use it for a long time. On the other hand there were all the reasons for which I had not used it before: The portions where you can see dark strings: These strings look like dried blades of grass, dry and brittle, and they are lying all across the paper like they are sandwiched between two sheets of paper stuck together. And where you can see them, well, there’s only one layer present of course. But you can actually shift them slightly with your finger.

So I wasn’t sure how this would cut or even fold. But I thought, well, the maker will have thought of this and probably it’s better than I think now. And so I gave it a try.

First it seemed like it was not better but worse than expected. I couldn’t avoid a cut right through one of the “windows”, and it was hard to cut the “grass” neatly. Folding seemed a nightmare, with some of the blades breaking. But once the folds had settled, and I had given the ends that stuck out here or there a trim, it now seems more fragile than you might wish for in a journal that you’d transport in a backpack, but stable for something on a shelf.

For the second book, I decided to use a paper wrapper again, but this time chose a fairly thick Thai paper. I think this one worked best from the materials I have tried so far. Its a thick and strong paper that has the feel of fabric almost. The book block I used is the one with the perle thread headbands, and I think the slightly rougher look of the headbands go very well with the overall impression of the book. Really happy with this one:

And for the third I finally used parchment: It took me a couple of days to stitch up a large enough piece in “Frankenstein” manner: from different parchment pieces, I saddle stitched a large enough piece to use as a wrapper:

It turned out that this parchment was the toughest material to use. I suppose when you use one piece it’s easier. When I stitched up that cover, I chose the position of individual pieces so that they fit together well, rather than observing grain direction. And the thickness and pliability of the different pieces varies slightly, and thus it turned our really hard to fold neatly. But I succeeded in the end:

All three books have turned in edges all around, but all of them are slightly differently constructed and hold together differently on the front edge. To explain this, let me tell you a bit more about the flyleaf construction I used for all the books.

The first book block (the one with the rounded spine that sits in the grass cover) has a stiffener which is made from a stiff paste paper that I received as a gift from Christine a while ago. I was going to show this paper off and thus used no paste-downs/fly leaved for this block.

The second book block (that sits in the Thai paper wrapper) has scrap watercolour paper as a stiffener which I intended to hide completely: I gave it a folded flyleaf + pastedown construction from an Italian paper.

The third book has a stiffener that has a misprint on it (or rather a ghost of a print which I didn’t want to keep). It matches colourwise with the silk bands onto which it is sewn, but I didn’t think I’d show off much of it. As a flyleaf I chose a Kozo paper in a saturated blue (to go with the purple of the silk ribbon) and as this has two nice sides, I decided to only include the fly leaf:

Above you see how the inside of the first book looks like. I always intended to show off this stiffener. Because cutting and folding the wrapping paper was rather difficult, I decided not to cut off the edges of this wrapping paper. So instead of making cuts in the top and bottom turn-ins near the spine, and then slip the stiffener underneath the turn-ins, I placed the stiffener on top. Were there front and back edges turn in, this created a natural pocket for the stiffener to sit in.
The core of the headband is the only one of the leather strips which does not sit (loosely) between the stiffener and the wrapper, but reaches back through the stiffener at the second hole. I then glued down the ends to the stiffener to give it that little bit more stability

Above you see the two endsheets included with the second book. When I constructed the text block, I thought, I would glue down one of them, such that you would open the book directly to a spread with this patterned paper on both pages. However, I rather liked the fact that the wrapper is attached non-adhesively, and also the paper was wide enough, so that I could hide the ugly stuffener completely behind the wrapping paper:

Here I made cuts at the spine, such that the stiffener sits behind the top and bottom turn-in. Again the sewing tapes sit between the stiffener and the wrapper, holding on by friction in the holes alone. The core of the headband goes back through the stiffener, and I gently glued it down. Then I attached the long front flap with two tackets to the turn-ins. And this is how it looks from the outside:

And above you finally see the inside of the third book with the actual parchment construction. I was going to use the tap and slit construction described in the blog post by Henry Hebert, but as mentioned before, the parchment turned out rather reluctant to be folded and stay snug. So instead I used some more of the ribbon as a tie down, both to connect the front and back with the top and bottom turn-ins, and also to enforce the book-block and wrapper connection, as the ribbons felt much more slippery than the leather tapes and I wasn’t sure enough that they would hold on well enough. Here all the ends, both of the headbands and the sewing tapes stayed between stiffener and turn-ins.

The books will be available on Etsy soon. But if you make me a reasonable offer right now, I am happy to let them go for half of what I currently have in mind if that spares me the pain of listing them through Etsy.


J.A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Binding, Ashgate Publishing 1999. ISBN 978-0-85967-904-6

Franz Zeier, Schachtel. Mappe. Bucheinband. Die Grundlagen des Buchbindens für alle, die dieses Handwerk schätzen: für Werklehrer, Fachleute und Liebhaber, Haupt Verlag 1983, ISBN 3-258-03182-7

Fritz Wiese, Der Bucheinband. Eine Arbeitskunde mit Werkzeichnungen, Schlütersche 7. Auflage, Nachdruck der erweiterten 6. Auflage 1983, ISBN 978-3-87706-680-5

Jane Greenfield & Jenny Hille, Headbands. How to Work Them 2nd revised edition, Oak Knoll Press 1990 (1986), ISBN 0-938768-51-4 (Paperback) ISBN 0-938768-18-2 (Hardback)

One thought on “Three Limp Vellum Bindings

  • Cathryn

    Great post with a huge amount of information! I particularly liked the Frankenstein binding. ; ]


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