Ch. 22 – The Joy of Sewing

My friend Karin has a book coming out shortly called Bertram Likes to Sew. It’s about a water vole who finds that he prefers sewing to more traditional water vole pursuits, like swimming:

Screenshot 2018-03-14 10.18.00

Bertram © 2018 courtesy of Celestine & the Hare

I’m with Bertram, though aside from buttons, I have only ever sewn two kinds of thing – bow-ties and books. There was a time in my life when I affected a bow-tie, and I thought I might as well do it properly, so I made my own from silk and learned how to tie them, too (it’s exactly like shoelaces, as it happens). I recall a happy evening about quarter of a century ago listening to Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the wireless (another first) while making bow-ties (I have them still).

2018-03-14 10.41.13

The sewing of books is a satisfying occupation: I would recommend it. It is the first real transformation in the whole process. Even though there has been a great deal of work already – typesetting, printing, collating, folding, pressing, sawing – all that is but preparation for the main creative act, which literally pulls it all together. The final preparation is sorting the thread for ready use, as detailed in the previous chapter.

Now boxes of folded signatures piled on one another with weights on top – an economical method of pressing that requires no specialised equipment – stand in readiness for the great transmutation.

weighted book boxes

actually sewn signatures, as the scrawl on the side indicates, but demonstrates the principle of cheapskate pressing: weights and a ream of paper press the top box, which in turn presses that below, and so on. There are 40 books here, all told, each box having two columns of ten.

Take out five complete books and have them ready to hand. Likewise your box of thread:

First, you set up the frame, which consists of getting the bar level (simple) and then stretching the tapes

Fixing the tapes at the bar. They are then passed through the slot in the base and secured using the keys, one of which can be seen lying on the baseboard, to the right of the tape

This process is a great deal more fiddly than it is made to look in this admirable explanatory video from Bookbinders Chronicle:

The principle of fitting the tapes to the keys – H-shaped bits of metal, but with a double crossbar – is simple enough – the same as those belt buckles that use a pair of rings – but in practice it’s remarkable how many ways you can find to do it wrong. However, once you have it done and the tapes are in place and taut, it’s time to begin.

one book sewn, four more of this batch to go; meanwhile, the cases stand drying on the right.

The position can seem awkward at first, since the signatures face away from you, with the spine towards you, so that all the sewing on the inside of the signature is effectively done blind; I did find that a well placed mirror was a help (the problem is not just that you can’t see the holes, but that you can’t see your hand, either – though seeing it in mirror image can cause its own confusions)

You start with a book’s worth of  loose signatures to your right hand, facing up, as it were, then take the first and flip it over on the frame, so that it is now face down, spine towards you, with the top edge to the right. The errors you wish to obviate in sewing are two: getting the signatures the wrong way round or in the wrong order. It obviously helps to start with them in order, but having them numbered at one end of the spine, as I did, is a simple and effective check, since it ensures both that they are the right way round and in the right order.

You have your needle threaded with two metres of thread and start by entering the hole farthest to the right, drawing the thread through till only a tail of a few centimetres is left. You come back out through the next hole,  go over the tape, then in the next and so on, drawing the thread tight by holding both ends when you come out the last hole, the farthest to the left. You then add the next signature and proceed to sew it in the opposite direction, left to right, tying the emerging thread to the tail when you reach the end before proceeding to the next (all this is shown in more detail in the video above).

One batch of five complete. The tapes are released and drawn down till you have about 3cm on the top side and 6cm between the top book and the next before you cut, and so on till you’re done and you have five books ready for next stage

With the radio on in the background and the pile of sewn books accumulating steadily in front of you, it is one of the pleasanter ways of passing the day indoors.


[click here for full List of Contents]

Ch. 21 – Helping hands


Bookbinding is a mainly solitary occupation in which one person can become happily absorbed for long periods of time with any one of its multifarious tasks, but there is one thing for which assistance is required, or at any rate very helpful to have, and that is sorting the skein of thread into manageable portions.

The advice on Hewit’s site on how to do this is by no means clear,  the only fault I have to find with them: it does instil the dread of ending up with a tangled mass but does little to relieve it. Fortunately my wife is long used to working with wool, and indeed I myself remember as a child lending my hands (literally) so that my mother could wind wool into balls for knitting.

The skein is secured at several points by a piece of thread tied round it, and these should be cut, so that the skein becomes a single loop made up of myriad strands. If you are working alone, then hang it up on something that allows it to fall free for its full length; but if your daughter is around, then have her extend her hands a metre or so apart and wrap the skein round them. Then try to see if you can find the right end first time (there are only two, but a bit like inserting a USB, it seems inevitable that you will have to try it twice) – it will be the one that allows the thread to be easily unwound.

I had estimated that two metres would be enough for each book, so my wife wound off a two metre length and saved it as a small hank loosely tied in a bow. Be careful to get your measurements right at this point, and err on the generous side  – a bit of extra thread is no inconvenience, but finding yourself short with a signature to go is a (minor) pain, since you have to tie on an additional length and then cope with knots and all the rest.

The thread itself is coated with beeswax for ease of sewing and is quite stiff, so in small portions it is not prone to tangle and can be stored in quantities in a small box for ready use.20170819_124955

[click here for full List of Contents]

Ch. 20 – Wise saws and modern instances


Sawing is not something you readily associate with book-making – sewing, certainly, but taking a saw to a book has a suggestion of destructive violence about it; yet if you are dealing in volume production, sawing is an essential step before sewing can take place.

It is also, I have to confess, one of the elements I never mastered fully – unlike all the rest, it was always a chore, though I think it need not be.

The idea is simple enough – by clamping the unsewn signatures together, spine upward, and sawing across them at several points, you create the holes you will then use for sewing; and because you do them by making a cut across all the signatures at once, you guarantee that they will be aligned, which saves a deal of marking out and individual hole piercing with an awl.

As mentioned already, I had anticipated this stage by printing lines across the spine of each signature to indicate where the cuts should be made. Those worked well enough; the difficulty was all with the saw. I tried several, starting with a neat little model-maker’s tenon saw with a reinforcement to keep it rigid:

fine-toothed modelmaker's saw

model-maker’s saw – probably the most successful, though a coarser cut might have improved it.

As you can see, the saw is quite fine, and creates lateral slits rather than holes; it also takes longer than you think to penetrate all eight sheets of paper in the signature, so that even after what seems an inordinate amount of sawing, and the growing feeling that you might have inflicted permanent damage, you unclamp it nervously only to discover that you have not actually penetrated the inmost sheet.

round abrafile

round ‘abrafile’ blade that flattered to deceive – those cuts look deep enough, but mostly were not

I did switch to what was effectively a round file in a jigsaw frame, and this flattered to deceive – it cut satisfactory trenches across the spine, and seemed to have made rapid progress so that you felt sure this was the answer, only to find on unclamping that again you had not sawn deep enough.


coarse-toothed jig-saw blade


I tried both a standard jigsaw blade – quite coarse – and at the other extreme a fine piercing saw (which I used to cut a vee with two cuts, so doubling the labour) and even at one point a full-sized tenon saw, though this really called for a fixed vice (for the rest I simply held the clamp on my knee).


an experiment in mass production – here we see ten books, in two sets of five, clamped for sawing to ensure that the holes for sewing are aligned. The signature numbers, at the top end of the spine, can be seen towards each end of the clamp, indicating that one set of books is turned the opposite way from the other. The guide lines for sawing can be seen – from the left, for the first signature, the thread goes in at the top end; then come the numbers; then the thread emerges (line 2) and re-enters (line 3). The pecked line marks the centre and was a needless distraction, better omitted. The thread re-emerges at line 4, goes in at 5, to emerge finally at 6 and link to the next signature, where it follows the same path in reverse. The mass sawing was not as efficient as I hoped and it proved easier to saw fewer copies more often than set up ten to do all at once.

I hit on the idea of sawing several copies at once and made a suitable apparatus but setting it up proved too laborious (the thickness of several copies made it hard to exert an even pressure across all of them and those in the middle tended to sink a bit under the pressure of the saw).

The model-maker’s saw was probably the best overall, but I think I would want one with a thicker and perhaps coarser blade next time, and a better designed-clamp that ensured the signature protruded by precisely the amount you need to saw through. (On reflection, much of the tedium was caused by feeling sure, as you were sawing, that you had certainly gone far enough and possibly too far, only to discover (having undone all the clamping) that you had not gone far enough – so a more precise clamp or press would help)

In the event, I found that imperfectly-formed holes could be corrected fairly speedily at the sewing frame using the needle, though occasionally at the cost of stabbing your fingers, since you went in from the rear but had to take care to emerge at the right point in the middle sheet.

[click here for full List of Contents]

The (limited) meaning of existence

Never mind God – do I exist?

I don’t mean that feeling – familiar enough to some of us – that you have somehow become invisible to those around you, nor am I suggesting that I might be a figment of your imagination (a kind of reverse solipsism) – rather I am concerned with the scope and application of that often-used term ‘exist’.

‘Existence’ is generally coupled with ‘reality’ – what is real is what can be said to exist, and vice versa; the branch of philosophy that deals with these matters is called ontology. Before we go into philosophy, though, let us tarry a moment with commonsense. Dr Johnson may not have understood what Berkeley was talking about , but his memorable refutation is interesting  – ‘he struck his foot against a rock with such force that he rebounded from it and said, ‘I refute it thus”.

What interests me here is that the commonsense definition of reality – the conviction that something is real – is a feeling : specifically, the feeling we get when we encounter something solid, as when we strike our hand upon the table or our head against the wall, or as Dr Johnson did, our foot against a stone. Real is real for us – which, ironically, is just what Berkeley was arguing with his esse est percipi.

The aim of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as he states in his preface, is

‘to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts’.

Here is what he has to say on the matter of the subject (in the philosophical sense of what is denoted by the pronoun ‘I’– as opposed to ‘me’, which denotes my objective aspect: what I see in the mirror is not I, but me):


Here is the section that precedes it:


It is interesting to compare Wittgenstein on the Subject with Hume on the Self:

‘I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’
(A Treatise of Human Nature, sect VI, ‘of personal identity’)

Are Wittgenstein and Hume saying the same thing? It may be a matter of where you put the emphasis – is it ‘there is no such thing as the subject’ or ‘there is no such thing as the subject’? (the latter allowing that there may be subjects, but they are not things).

Of course we find that language is against us here: if what we are talking about is no thing, then it is nothing, surely? And if it is nothing – well, it is simply nothing, an absence, a non-entity.

Not necessarily: it may be that the coverage that language provides is not universal – it does not cover all there is  – and that calls to mind the final section of the Tractatus:

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’

It might be that there is a process of mutual reinforcement (or indeed validation) going on here – if language stands to the world as a picture does to what it pictures – which is what Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus* – then the content of the one is the content of the other; so that once we move to a general level, things (or reality, which means the same) are what exist, and what exist are things. Whatever falls outside the sphere defined by language is nothing: it does not exist.

However, it may be that Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it: you can find things by looking, but what if what you seek is not a thing?

This puzzle becomes clearer if we go back, via Descartes, to S. Augustine. Descartes, seeking for some certain foundation on which he could build, asserts cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – making it seem a logical deduction; Augustine, over a thousand years earlier, observed that ‘the man who says ‘I know that I am alive’ can neither be deceived nor lie.’ (meaning he could neither be mistaken about it, nor pretending) – which makes ‘being alive’ seem a matter of knowledge.

However, my being alive is not something I know; it is not something I discovered as the result of research, after a period of doubt, nor is it subject to any verification**; rather it is what I am. Indeed, my being alive is surely the ground of my knowing anything. Likewise, to take the Cartesian formulation, we do not deduce from reflection that we are – we simply are; and our being is a prerequisite for any deduction. Wittgenstein says ‘you do not see the eye’ but he might equally have said ‘you do not see the ‘I’ ‘

This relation, the subject-object interface, is a problem for philosophers; it does not trouble commonsense, as the Johnson story I began with illustrates. And like many philosophical problems, its root can be traced back to Plato, whose discrediting of the senses is equally a discrediting, marginalisation and suppression of the Subject, which henceforth is regarded by philosophers as an obstacle to be overcome, preferably by discounting it altogether, particularly when it comes to rational thought – consider the pejorative sense that ‘subjective’ has in any discussion in that field: to say that a viewpoint is ‘subjective’ is to brand it partial, biased, distorted by personal considerations and generally not worth heeding: it is involved, rather than detached (a telling distinction).

I think the time has come to rehabilitate the subject.

It is, as I said above, the ground of our knowing anything (and that resonates interestingly with a definition that some theologians – including Hans Kung, if I remember right – use of God: ‘the ground of our being’). I would suggest the model below to express the relationship between the subject and the world of  ‘independent objective reality’ (a treble redundancy, since ‘reality’ in its philosophical use carries with it the notion of being objective and independent, though it does not in its commonsense or Johnsonian one):
2018-03-01 09.51.04

I think the implications of this model are worth unfolding, and I will return to it in a later article. For the present I will say only that Language (in its philosophical sense) operates only in the red area; Art operates in the blue (which is the universal set, and contains the red).

*though he later abandoned the picture theory – where meaning is a correspondence between words and a state of affairs in the world – for the idea that meaning is the use of a word, a shift of the most profound significance.

**this in fact is the theme of Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty



Ch.19 – Gargantua the Chinese guillotine

Gargantua ready for action. An early picture – the upper of the two volumes top left is a proof, as evidenced by the stepped lines across the spine. It has yet to be rounded, unlike the copy below it, which looks like one of the hundred. Neither has yet been mulled or endpapered.

Ream cutters, as their name suggests, are intended for cutting reams (500 sheets) of paper at a time. A powered electric guillotine will do the job but cost you thousands of pounds. The cheaper end of the manual cutters starts upwards of £500. It was not a cost I could see being absorbed into my hundred books and leaving much over.

But a heavy duty guillotine I had to have if I wanted my books to have that beautifully even fore-edge that you probably take for granted but would certainly notice if it was not there.

Then I came on this (on the site that shall be nameless) :

Screenshot 2018-03-11 19.33.51

(Though in fact the price at that time was £80) True, the spelling did not inspire confidence, and the YouTube demonstration that I found in the course of my research was not the most professional bit of filming I’d ever seen  –

but it did appear to demonstrate the capability I wanted, which was borne out by the online testimonials, at least one of whom had used it as I planned to, for trimming a number of books. Another offered the useful tip of wiping the blade before use, as it came with a protective film of oil. Only one seemed to find it a bit too much –
Screenshot 2018-03-11 20.17.38However, though several others commented on its weight, they saw it as an advantage, and having found my earlier guillotine purchase flimsy and prone to flex, I inclined to agree with them. Since I had two Am*z*n vouchers for £20 from my downstairs neighbour as a thank-you for feeding her cats when she was away on holiday, an outlay of £60 did not seem an excessive risk – if all else failed, it should at least have substantial scrap value.

It shipped from China, which made me think of the interesting reversals that a century or so makes. Time was when an article such as this – sturdy, solidly made, simple in operation – would have been ordered from one of the workshops of Empire (probably Birmingham) and shipped to destinations around the globe. Now China, in the last few decades, has undergone a rapid industrial expansion very reminiscent of Victorian Britain and supplies manufactured goods of a similar sort around the world.

And I can personally testify that this item, at least, is a credit to them and does exactly what it claims to do. It is both heavy and rigid, which are exactly what you want in a guillotine, but it is something less than the quarter ton that the testimonial above  might lead you to expect. No cranes were required, and though I am neither Mr nor still less Mrs Universe, I did manage to carry it up the stairs myself and set it on the table, where it performed admirably, being simple and straightforward in operation – there is a fixed ‘wall’ along one side, and at right angles to it a sliding bar sets the limit against which the paper abuts (there is a grid pattern on the surface to aid alignment) and a clamping bar is screwed down to hold it in place at the end to be cut. A safety catch prevents inadvertent operation of the long handled lever, which gives ample shearing force.

Simple soul that I am, I found the operation of the clamping bar afforded me much childish pleasure, since the handle works like the regulator on a steam locomotive. I may even have whistled while I worked.

All-in-all an excellent investment, and all at a cost of 60p per book!

[click here for full List of Contents]

Ch. 18 – Keeping in trim

There are certain things about a book that catch your eye; there are others you only really notice in their absence. Endpapers are an instance of the first kind: an attractive endpaper can lift a book out of the ordinary. The second kind are small details of finish: the curve of the spine, for example, that I discussed in chapter 16.

When I finished my first proofs, one such detail leapt out at me – the unevenness of the pages, chiefly on the fore-edge (i.e. the opposite side of the book from the spine). I had been aware of this from the outset, but it was only seeing it in the finished article that confirmed it as something that must be attended to.

The cause is simple: since every signature is made of a number sheets folded together – eight, in my case – it follows that the thickness of those sheets at the fold must be reflected in the fore-edge, which viewed from above will be shaped something like an arrow, > , with the middle pages as the tip and sloping back to the outermost. The difference is only that of a few sheets of paper, but once the signatures are bound together, the effect is multiplied – and in short, it gives the book an unfinished look.

The  solution that first came to mind was a guillotine, but the problem is capacity. Most guillotines will deal with only a few sheets of paper or a certain thickness of card, nowhere near a book, and generally not even the 16 sheets of my folded signatures. I had bought a guillotine, mainly with a view to cutting board for the covers (which in the event I got pre-cut) and possibly cutting endpapers, though I had some notion that I might trim each signature before sewing them together, even if that did add up to 900 separate signatures.

In the course of my researches I discovered  that a guillotine is one of those items on which you can spend  almost any amount of money – some can be had for under a tenner; others will cost you hundreds of pounds. However, one thing that did not greatly vary was their capacity, which tended to be a fairly low number of sheets at a time, certainly nothing approaching the thickness of a book.

So my mind turned to other means: how did actual book-makers do it? The internet is a wonderful resource, and one of the side-pleasures of this enterprise has been the interesting places my research has taken me. I must pay tribute to the many generous souls (mostly American, it must be said) who have taken the trouble to put useful and informative stuff out there, mainly on YouTube. Some are better presenters than others, it must be said, but there is a generosity of spirit about them all, and many strike me as true craftsmen, who love what they do and just want to share it.

I learned that the standard instrument in the trade was the plough, which the ever-reliable Jim Poelstra over at affordable binding equipment has a useful take on; or there was this man, Jesse Aston at Sea Lemon,  who struck me as the genuine article; and finally there was this, ‘Byzantine bookbinding: foredge cutting’  which probably appealed to me most, because it was messy and untidy, both things I can manage.

If you don’t have time for the videos, the gist is that you clamp the book vertically between two boards, ensuring that the front board has a true edge to act as a guide and that the book is supported fully at the back. You then draw a sharp blade of some sort along the edge (towards rather than away from you) and aim to cut only a few pages at a time, being sure to clear away the off-cuts as you go (which you can save to make your own paper, if you wish, an idea that appealed to me).

With this in mind, I added a paring knife to my Hewit’s order. This beautiful but lethal-looking article is actually meant for trimming leather, but I reckoned it would serve my purpose too. And it worked, up to a point, but it was hard to do consistently well and easy to do badly and it took a long time, which when multiplied by a hundred, made me think that my solution must lie elsewhere.

coming next: Gargantua, The Chinese Guillotine.

[click here for full List of Contents]



Ch. 17 – The Friday the car blew up

small and sheep on the mantelpiece

a gratuitous picture of Small and Sheep to brighten up the chapter

One thing I will certainly do if – indeed, when – I repeat this exercise, is to keep better records. I did set out with the notion of doing a real-time blog, but in the event the large and varied amount of rapid learning I had to do in planning and making the books was quite enough to do; nor did I wish to put extra pressure on myself by chronicling publicly  what was still an uncertain enterprise (was I wise? there’s a whole debate in there about the fear of embarrassment and its role in success – President de Gaulle famously announced to his entire cabinet that he had given up smoking : ‘from now on, you will never see me with a cigarette in my hand’ – an interesting exercise in self-coercion).

Indeed, it was only by chance that I was reminded yesterday that part of my reason for decamping to Linlithgow, aside from the need for space, was its proximity to Livingston, where the wondrous emporium of J. Hewit & Sons is located, that Aladdin’s Cave of bookbinding materials and equipment. Scribbled in a notebook  I find on the left hand page page ‘some estimation of cost in terms of (a) consumables’ and on the right ‘Hewit’s Order 25/8/17’2018-03-07 09.24.57

The significant rise in consumable cost is toner (i.e. ink) where the equation ‘100 books as the total = 10 cartridges = £190’ is followed by the rueful observation

‘per book [originally reckoned 40p ho ho] –> 1.90

All the same, the consumable cost is still at a very acceptable £4.28 a book. I note that the reckoning for thread is apparently ‘200 m/book’ though that should be the estimate for all 100 books – based on a very rough calculation that each signature was 210mm along the spine, but the sewing did not run the full length, so call it 200, x9 = 1800 plus a bit for luck, 2m a book (a surprising amount of thread, but as it turned out, a good estimate)

The Hewit’s order shows that I had decided the quantity of bookcloth I needed – 10m – but not yet the colour, since that is queried, as indeed are the weight of thread, the amount of mull (I think that is what the sketch at the bottom is about – I seem to have reckoned 1.5m would do) and the quantity of tape (I reckoned 1m would do 5 books so 20m would cover it – in fact I bought a 33m roll). What strikes me is both the rough-and-ready nature of it, driven by necessity – I needed to order some quantity, but how much? Well, take a look at the size of a signature and do some calculations, then add a margin for error – and how well it all worked out: the only thing that ran out was glue.

Ηοwever, the best-laid schemes gang aft agley, as the poet observes – the trip to Livingston proved somewhat eventful, as detailed below, though it is worth noting that the catastrophic event occurred on the way to Livingston, and the Facebook entry was only made after I had collected my order (I think my mind was focused by the fact that they close early on a Friday, so I limped on determinedly):

Screenshot 2018-03-07 10.10.02

An economical bit of 21st century narrative, concluding with an impressive bit of long-range diagnosis by my son-in-law Mr Flaws up in Shetland.

[click here for full List of Contents]