Tuesday, July 23, 2019


The earliest known books were written on dried, treated leaves and sewn together. Before this, there were scrolls, but since I’m focusing on bookbinding, I’m starting with the invention of pages being held together on one side.

BOOK = a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

For this post, I’ll be focusing on that “glued or sewn together along one side” bit.

Once the written word transitioned from scrolls to flat pages, a binding method was needed to keep the pages together and in order.

Back when monks copied individual books by hand, books were also bound by solely hand, sewing the pages together. This process was very time consuming. So not many books were made, and those that were could only be afforded by the wealthy.

Another method for reproducing books was by using carved wooden blocks. A drawing or page of words was carved into a block of wood—backward of course—inked up then printed onto paper of some sort. The same group of pages could be printed over and over, relatively quickly. As compared to hand copying each page. Carving the blocks took a long time. One slip and the whole block would need to be started over. The larger sheet of paper was cut into pairs of pages and groups of pages were folded together to form a signature.

This is a picture of a small journal, but the signatures are very defined.

This is sewn together with a pamphlet stitch that goes right through the cover spine.

Most often these are straight on the outside, but this one is a little fancier with the outside stitches crossing.

A regular book is sewn differently with a kettle stitch. The signatures are stacked and held together in a long wooden vise. Several grooves are cut into the folded edges of the collection of signatures. These grooves allow a thin cord to sit recessed there from one signature to the next. Then the signatures are sewn to the cord and each other.

Image by Tomas Astobiza from Pixabay
The middle of each signature looks like this.

Here you can see the threads that go between the signatures, linking them together.

Here is the spine edge of the signatures in a regularly bound book.

See how the spine curves.

This is not by accident. The folded edge of a signature is always thicker than the cut edges. Once all the signatures are sewn together, the whole bundle is put into a long vice with only the folded edges sticking out a ¼” or so. Then a mallet is used to beat the folded edges into this kind of curve. Where the first and last signatures fan out beyond the flat part of the pages is nestled into the gap between the thickness of the cover board and spine board. You can see this in the picture above.

Once the spine is sewn and pounded into shape, glue is applied and various layers of fabric and paper are added. Some of the paper, as well as the ends of the thin cords, extends beyond the spine to allow it to be glued to the cover-boards.

Here you can see the fabric and some layers of paper.

At the top of the spine, a cording is created with two or three colors of thread. This helps protect the spine.

On the above book, white and golden colors were used. The one below has green and gold. The layers of paper and fabric that had been glued to this spine are also visible.

With the advent of the printing press in 1439, books could be more quickly produced, so the demand for binding books rose dramatically.

Before the 1820s, most books were sold unbound by the publisher. Instead, they were sold to customers in paper wrappers or to booksellers with a simple binding. Seriously, you would order Romeo and Juliet and a stack of papers would arrive. Then, if you wanted your book bound, you would take it to your local bookbinder to have it stitched together and a cover of your choice put on it. So one person could choose a green leather cover with one kind of ornamentation and their neighbor down the street could have a blue cover with different decorations on it. Same book, different covers. No uniformity.

This video shows the process of bookbinding.

As modernization improved, some of the steps in binding a book that were done completely by hand became semi-automated. Where once the front, top, and bottom edges were shaved down even with a hand tool could now be cut by a machine more quickly. Machines were invented to assist in the sewing and other aspects of the process, making bookmaking faster and cheaper.

This video shows the differences between earlier bookbinding with hand tools and later with some modernization.

As flexible glues improved, book pages could be cut as single sheet, not needing to be folded, and the spine edge be completely glued together with no sewing. With gluing, there wasn’t a need for the spine to be rounded to accommodate the folds that were now eliminated.

Today, most all paperbacks are glued as single sheets, those that don’t have some sort of a ring or coil binding. Hardbacks can be glued or sewn.

Go to your bookshelves and see what you have. Looking at the end of the spine at the top or bottom should allow you to see if the book has signatures or single sheets.

THIMBLES AND THREADS: 4 Love Stories Are Quilted Into Broken Lives
When four women put needle and thread to fabric, will their talents lead to love? 
Click HERE to order yours today.
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“Bygones” Texas, 1884
Drawn to the new orphan boy in town, Tilly Rockford soon became the unfortunate victim of a lot of Orion Dunbar’s mischievous deeds in school. Can Tilly figure out how to truly forgive the one who made her childhood unbearable? Can this deviant orphan-train boy turned man make up for the misdeeds of his youth and win Tilly’s heart before another man steals her away?

MARY DAVIS is a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over three dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her recent titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides CollectionThe PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS SeriesThe Widow’s Plight, “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides CollectionThe Daughter's Predicament, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. Shes an ACFW member and critique groups. Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-four years and two cats. She has three adult children and two adorable grandchildren. Find her online:


  1. This was very interesting! Thanks for the post.

    1. I found it interesting to research. Makes me want to bind a book. LOL!

  2. Super interesting, Mary! I saw an old book-binding machines in a museum once.

    1. I would love to see one of those old machines in action.

  3. Incredibly interesting. Sometimes we don’t realize how much can go into binding a book!

    1. I know, and not just the binding. The old covers are a multi-step process too. And there is the whole upfront stuff of research, writing, editing, formatting, and printing before a book ever gets to be bound.

  4. Oh, I loved this. I have a number of old books and have one that came apart and exposed the fabric much like in your picture. My Bible from the 1960's fell apart and we had to have it rebound. The new isn't nearly as soft as the old. Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. Wow! I wouldn't know where to begin to find a bookbinder. I'm glad you got your Bible all put back together again.

  5. Informative and interesting post. I've seen some of these older type bindings in family heirloom Bibles and books.

  6. It's interesting to look at these old binding and know all the work that went into creating them.