I have started to work with the book “Japanese Bookbinding. Instructions from a Master Craftsman” by Kojiro Ikegami already in 2014, five years ago. If you don’t know it, you should at least try to take a look at it at your local library. By many it is considered THE book about Japanese bookbinding.

Like many books about a craft, it starts off with a section about tools and materials. There you can read that an important part is played by binding thread and cord. And about them he writes:

A variety of threads and cords are used in Japanese bookbinding, including flat cord, silk bookbinding thread, silk buttonhole thread, unbleached hemp thread, and natural hemp fibre that can be twisted into cord. Flat cord is used instead of thread in Yamato bindings and also serves to secure rolled handscrolls. Silk bookbinding thread (approximately equivalent in size to a #5 pearl cotton thread) is preferred for most stitched books, but since the lighter-weight silk buttonhole thread (sizes #16 and #17) is more widely available, this can usually be substituted. Because buttonhole thread is only half the weight of bookbinding thread, it should be used doubled when stitching larger books. […]

excerpt from “Japanese Bookbinding” by Kojiro Ikegami
The quoted passage in the book

You’ll notice that linen thread is not mentioned anywhere. Yet, when we in the west bind our notebooks in a Japanese or generally Asian look and style, we usually use linen thread. I think there is nothing generally wrong with that: It’s the thread we use for other bindings, and so it’s what we have at hand, – and it does the job. Yet: If you want to make a Japanese binding in the true style you need a different thread.

Last year’s silks and trials

In spring last year I introduced first silk threads to my shop. Dyed in a varigated pattern from a family business in Southern England, the different sizes and types that I stock give you plenty to try and experiment with. You can find them in my shops on Folksy or Etsy. I also wrote about the different threads in more detail at the bottom of this page. But this spring, I searched further.

Traditional Japanese Bookbinding

The humble start: making rice starch paste

I sought out several new sources of silk threads that might work as a binding thread and ordered a lot of samples. And then, this summer, it was finally time to get to try them in a real-life situation.

By the way, if you want to try it yourself, you still have a chance to become of of my test-users (influencer). If you have been binding books for a while, but never used silk thread, you are very welcome to drop me a line, and I’ll consider you. I’ll send you a bunch of samples, you use them, and then report back what you think!

After making paste, the first step in all bookbinding it seems, I chose some papers to use for covers. Some of them were fairly thick and I figured they didn’t need backing. But among my chosen papers were some beautiful Chiyogami and according to Ikegami’s instruction I backed them with more Japanese paper. (I tried different ones. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my favourite backing paper is the same that I also use for backing fabric.)
Other than when backing fabric, the paste is applied to the decorated paper directly, the backing paper smoothed on top. Then turn around, paste up the edges, and let dry with the paper side facing out.

making paper cord for the inner binding

While the paper was drying, I prepared the inner bindings. First, paper for the pages is folded and stacked. I chose some Japanese calligraphy paper for some of the books – and I folded those according to Ikegami’s instructions. For other notebooks I used my usual go-to sketching paper. It is great for all kinds of applications, writing and sketching alike, and since the book is to serve as a notebook, it made sense to me to use that paper. This is thicker, however, and I decided not to double it.

Then the inner binding is made, using paper cord that I twisted out of left-overs from the backing paper.

the inner binding

The inner binding helps keep the book block together both while finishing the rest of the binding, but also beyond if anything should come apart.

Unfortunately I failed to make more pictures while I finished the books. But here are the next steps for short:

  • Fabric corner pieces are added to the tail and head on the spine of the book block.
  • The covering paper, wider than the text block, is marked with the text block’s dimensions and the edges folded, corners cut.
  • The first (and subsequently last) page is stuck to the front edge of the cover.
  • Punching sewing holes.
  • And finally: The sewing itself.

As see, a Japanese binding done properly is far from the quick notebook I often made for a scribble notepads. Here are my results for different threads:

The Silk Threads and the Bindings

Super Spun 5/2 silk thread

This is a “leather” paper and one of those that I decided not to back. It was also the first I made of the batch, and to my shame I have to admit that the corner piece is not quite the right size. Please ignore…

comparison between 5/2 silk on bottom, perle 5 silk in the middle, 4-ply linen thread on top

From the silk threads I decided to take on for now, this is the thickest. It is a bit thicker and rougher than the dyed perle 5 that I have in my shop already, both of which are thicker than Crawford’s 4-ply linen. I thought it would be a good match for this relatively coarse covering paper.

I used all the silks without adding any wax but that’s something I might – carefully – try. It does have a fair amount of “fluff” this thread.

spun 12/3 silk thread
12/3 silk – same thread as above

The next thread I tried is a spun 12/3 nm thread. It is a bit thinner than the first, and a bit firmer. It seemeed to do well with the slightly less rough paper, and compares very well to a Perle 5 thread, maybe a tad thinner.

The “super” spun 8/2 thread I tried next is about the same in thickness, but has additional spin and is a bit sturdier.

Those three are the threads that I all deemed very suitable and decided to order in a larger batch. They are all available through my shops on Etsy and Folksy (from September 16th).

I tried more threads, though, and I still wonder….

The book above was bound with a 16/2 thread. It does its job here, and it could always be taken double, as suggested by Ikegami himself. However, I figured it was maybe a little bit too thin, and the other threads preferable.

This pink silk thread – I think it is very beautiful. The colour is very lightly variaged and ranges from a strong vibrant pink to orange here or there. It might have to be taken double, although for this book with only Japanese paper, also for the book block, I thought it served it well.

And those two, finally, were bound with a thread which I bought under the same “silk thread”, but I am fairly sure it is not pure silk. (Should I decide to take it on, I’d have to investigate further.) It *is* a Japanese thread, though, produced for and used in Kimono embroidery. It hink it went especially well with the paper that already has some gold accents.

My new Silk Stock in comparison with familar Perle 5 and Linen thread

What do you think? Add any of the other threads? And would you want to see buttonhole/finer thread added? I am looking at a range that would be available in colours, but it’d had to be doubled at least…

Call for Application

I’ll keep on trying different threads. Would you like to try some yourself and have a say? Get in touch before the end of the coming weekend, and I’ll consider you as a test-user. I’ll send you some samples (of course for free) and you’d send me your opinion. I’ll send more detailed information to all who would like to try, so let me know!

2 replies on “Silk Thread for Asian Bindings – General Talk, Pictures, and Call for Applications”

  1. How do you ensure the knot that you finish off with doesn’t undo? Isn’t silk thread quite slippery??

    1. Hello Kaye,

      this thread is not perceptibly more slippery than for example linen. But you can do everything that you’d also do for linen to keep a knot in place. You could for example wax two ends you want to knot together and it’s stick a bit better. If you mean the end of the thread in the binding I made – it’s traditional to actually stick it down between the pages with a tiny bit of paste and just generally, when everything is done tightly, it’ll just not slip. There’s no movement or action on this end, as it is stuck between the fixed pages. Even when you move the book and open and close it and whatnot, that all doesn’t effect where the knot is sitting. That’s the nature of this stab binding.

      I hope that answers your question sufficiently. I am not completely sure what knot exactly baffles you.

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