Friday, 27 March 2009

New project: Simple exposed long-stitch leather notebook/journal

When I started learning bookbinding my grandmother not only gave me all her bookbinding tools, but also a couple of shopping bags full of leather and leather scraps. Much of it is clothing leather that isn’t suitable for fine leather bindings, as it is too thin and stretchy, or leather you can use to make belts and purses but that’s too thick or stiff to cover books with – unless you make the cover out of leather alone, which is what I have done in this project. I intend to do some research to see how best to stiffen the thin clothing leather for use as book covers, as I have a couple of small skins in a gorgeous red colour that would be perfect for notebooks or journals, and also some interestingly worn scraps that I suspect were once parts of leather jackets.

Here is the book I made:

This is the first book I make using this particular binding technique, and while it has a number of little imperfections, I am still happy with it as a first effort. Instead of first stitching and gluing together the signatures and then putting pasteboard covers on them, I sewed the signatures directly into a cover made of thick, unlined leather. It gives the book a rugged, old-fashioned look and since the cover is all leather it combines the flexibility of a soft cover with the durability of a hard cover.

I thought I had come across instructions on the web for exactly this kind of binding, but when I started looking for it I could only find variations on the technique, most of which either use different materials or are more complicated, so I wrote my own instructions. Since I didn’t plan to write instructions some of the images are (very bad) drawings while others are photos.

This is a glue-free type of binding, and you only need a handful of tools and basic supplies to make it.

  • Paper
  • Sewing thread or bookbinding thread
  • Leather piece big enough for the cover. The leather you choose should be fairly thick.
  • Leather scrap for the closure. This can be soft, thin clothing leather.

  • Cutting mat
  • Ruler
  • Craft knife
  • Folding bone
  • An awl or a thick, sharp needle
  • Sewing needle or bodkin (you can use a regular tapestry needle)
  • Pencil or tailor’s chalk

Good to have:
  • Scissors
  • Beeswax

For those not familiar with the metric system, cm stands for centimeter and mm for millimeter. Here is an online converter you can use to convert the measurements into inches.

First decide what size book you want. As the cover should be slightly larger than the pages, by 5 mm or so, the leather cover should be 1 cm higher than the pages of the book will be, and twice the width of the pages plus 1 cm plus the thickness of the pages (which includes the thickness of each signature plus a little extra space you need to put between the holes in the leather so they will not split open when you start sewing (this depends on how strong the leather is, but let’s say about 3 mm between holes). I am going to give a set of fixed measurements, but all you need to do to make your book bigger or smaller is to replace the variable numbers with your own measurements. The actual book I made was a bit bigger.

Let’s say you want a book that is 10 cm high and 7 cm wide. The cover should be about 5 mm larger on each side than the pages, so the signatures should be 9 cm high and 6 cm wide. Each signature is made up of several folded pieces of paper (I used 4, which gives me 16 pages), and there should be an even number of signatures in the book. In this case I used 4 signatures. You will then need a piece of leather that is 10 cm high and 14 cm wide.

The fastening strap should be at least three times the width of the closed book, to allow for wrapping around the book and tying a simple knot at the front like I have done.

Mark and trim the leather to the right dimensions. Then fold and, if necessary, trim the signatures.

Mark the centre of the leather piece in the centre where the top and bottom of the spine will be. Drawing a line between the two marks can help you with positioning, but you can also work with a ruler. Make 2 marks on each side, 2 mm and 5 mm from the centre.

Lay a ruler between the corresponding marks on the top and bottom and mark where the 2 external seams will enter and exit the spine, from the top: at 2.5 cm, 4 cm, 7 cm and 8.5 cm. Also put marks on each side of the spine 1 cm above and below each side of the centre of the spine (5 and 6 cm from the top) for where the slits for the leather strap will be (the strap is 1 cm wide), and mark where the strap will be fastened to the front of the cover, about 2-3 cm from the centre of the front edge of the book, in line with the where the spine slits will be. Like this:

Mark where the red dots are.

Then pierce the leather with the awl to make four sewing holes side by side where you put the markings for the thread.

When this is done, make 2 vertical slits between the central markings on each side of the spine and the 2 x 2 markings at the front, like this:
Cut where the red lines are.

Now make the sewing holes in the signatures: Pierce through the centre fold from the inside at 0.5 cm, 2 cm, 3.5 cm, 6.5 cm, 8 cm and 9.5 cm from the top.

If you want to increase the number of stitches, always make an even number of holes so that you begin and end the sewing of each signature on the outside.

Thread the needle with enough thread to use for the whole project, approximately 4 times the height of the book plus about 10 cm, or 50 cm altogether. If you are using sewing thread and have beeswax on hand, use it to wax the thread to protect and strengthen it. Bookbinding thread comes pre-waxed.

  1. Take what will become the last signature in the book and draw the thread into it through the bottom hole from the outside, and out through the next hole, leaving a tail of about 5 cm for tying.
  2. With the leather cover open in front of you, lay the closed signature down on it and draw the thread out through the first hole in the cover until the signature is flush with the cover (hold on to the tail so you don’t draw it all the way through).
  3. Poke the needle in through the second hole from the outside, and into the third hole in the signature, and then out of the fourth hole in the signature and out through the fourth hole in the cover, and back in the final hole in the cover and the fifth hole in the signature.
  4. Finally go out through the sixth and final hole in the signature. The thread is now inside the cover but outside the signature. Holding on to the tail, gently take up any slack in the thread.

Here is what the pattern should look like inside the signatures:

Take the next signature and repeat the above in reverse order, then repeat the whole process. Before you tie the tail ends together, again take up any slack in the thread, starting from the middle signatures and working outwards. Tie the ends together flush from the outside, making sure you don’t pull the signatures too close together. Trim the tails.

This is what the stitching should look like from the outside:

Now prepare the closing strap:
In this project the strap is 1 cm wide, to fit in the slits in the cover. First take the strap and make a small lengthwise slit near one end, like this:


With the closed book in front of you, right side up, take the strap and thread the end with the horizontal slit in it through the vertical slits in the front of the cover, from the left. Now draw the strap through the slit in the end and pull the loop tight. Here is what the loop-knot should look like:


Bring the strap over to the left and pull it through the slits in the spine, bring it all the way around the book to tie or tuck the book closed at the front. Your basic book is now finished.

Variations and embellishments:
  • Make the closing strap much longer and wrap it twice or even several times around the book.
  • The end of the strap can be left the same width as the rest, or it can be tapered off.
  • You might even want to decorate the strap, say with a small tassel on the end or some beads, or perhaps with writing.
  • Add beading to the exposed stitches. Just pick up as many beads as you want when you bring the thread out and proceed as usual.
  • You can also draw all the strands through the same bead or beads.
  • Add decorative stitching to the exposed stitches. You can, for example, take a thread of the same or different colour, draw it out through one of the sewing holes from the inside and then weave it between the stitches, then just take it back inside the cover and tie it off to finish. Or you can, when you sew in the second signature, wrap the second long stitch around the first one or more times, and repeat with the following stitches. You need to be very careful to keep the thread taut inside the signatures if you do this, because you will be unable to fix any slackness afterwards.
  • If you add a third exposed stitch in the middle of the spine, you can use that instead of the slits to secure the strap.
  • You can use a ribbon or a shoelace instead of the strap, but you will need to sew, glue or tie it to the cover instead of using the slit method, or if you insist, make a slit and prevent it from fraying with buttonhole stitching.
  • Add decorative stitching to the edges of the cover with contrasting sewing thread or a fine leather thong. Saddle-stitching and whip-stitching look good.
  • Make a number of slits in the front cover and weave the strap through them for decoration.

This blog has a number of examples you could use as a starting point for book embellishments or variations. I especially like the idea of making patterns on the spine by using variable stitch lengths.