A Simple Fixture to Hold Leaves Upright on a Sewing Frame

Inside view. Note the extended bed on the frame.
Outside view.

Large books are a pain to sew.

It is often impossible to reach all way to the end when holding the needle, so it is necessary to switch hands mid-way and suspend a floppy half-gathering at the same time. This fixture alleviates the problem by holding the leaves up and out of the way. Some might want something similar for smaller books. It also speeds up two-on sewing, which is occasionally necessary.

I made the one above out of binders board, book cloth, and sewing cord. It needs to be large enough to support the leaves, and heavy enough so it doesn’t swing out of the way by itself. Plexiglass might be nice….

The idea came from Tim Ely’s sewing frame, which has a similar acting wire device to keep the upright part of the page out of the way.

Sewing frames are often quite shallow, so extending the bed, as pictured above, keeps the leaves flat and is a must for accurate sewing. Otherwise there are always weird tensions in the finished binding.  A loaded stick also helps to keep the sewing under control and the spine in good shape.

The next step is to coin a less prosaic name. A fixture to hold leaves upright on a sewing frame?!?!  Yuck! There are already a lot of piercing jigs for sewing, so it needs to be something other than a generic “sewing jig.” The Pageprop?

Standing at a Vice and Teaching Craft

Jules Amar, The Human Motor;or the Scientific Foundations of Labor and Industry, London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD., 1920 (p. 418)

Amar’s The Human Motor is extraordinarily precise in dictating how a worker should position themselves while working. After all, this was the era of Frederick Winslow Tayler and scientific management. Such dogmatic instruction now seems a little crazy — position your feet at exactly 68 degrees! — and it would certainly put a damper on worker motivation and engagement. However, there are corollaries in teaching and learning craft technique.

Most people hate to be told how to accomplish a task in such excruciating detail, yet several bookbinding teachers I’ve encountered have a dictatorial style which embodied this “one right way” approach. Is our musculature (and ability to manipulate it) so much the same that there is only one right technique to accomplish a specific task? Traditional craft does usually have a very specific end product ideal, so it makes sense to follow exact procedures to achieve exact results. Considered optimistically, traditional techniques have undergone a Darwinian type evolution, resulting in efficient production. The downside of this results in people unthinkingly replicating the techniques they were taught, irrespective of the results.

There is a difference between being told how to do something, and learning how to do something. Learning styles vary: some of us are experiential learners, some didactic learners, and sometimes it varies with the task to be learned. Trying and possibly failing with a variety of techniques can teach us a lot about craft, and often not just the project at hand.

Granted, there are easier and harder ways of doing most craft actions. This is possibly one of the most common reasons for taking a class or workshop: to learn easier ways of accomplishing a craft action. Learning one successful way, then branching out and experimenting with others, is often a good foundation. A constant challenge is balancing the workload in able to continue learning with the pecuniary pressures of working efficiently.


A Painting of Eighteenth Century French Trade Bindings and Paper Wrappers

Bookbinder Colin Urbina recently posted a number of great images of books in art he noticed at the Art Institute of Chicago on his low_mountain instagram feed. In particular, the painting of Madame Francois Buron by Jean Louis-David caught my eye. It may give us some insight into how books were used in the eighteenth century, though there is always the possibility the books depicted were props.

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. The Art Institute of Chicago.

If this is an actual depiction of reading, it adds to the mountain of evidence that full leather trade bindings and “temporary” marbled paper wrapper bindings were consumed simultaneously. This type of pictorial evidence, along with the evidence from bindings that book historians such as David Pearson have gathered, and the usual working method of bookbinders, are all closing the coffin lid on the longstanding idea that paper bindings were intended to be rebound into a proper leather binding before use. The wear on the paper bindings —deftly painted with a white line along the top edge of the book Mme. Buron is reading — suggests these books may have been read before. 

But it is a little strange to have four books so close at hand, since she doesn’t appear to be a scholar, and three of the books aren’t open to specific pages: evidence of cross-referencing. It could simply be her reading desk, though.

If the books are intended to be props, what can they tell us about the sitter, and how do they relate to the painting? Why has she interrupted her reading to look at us? And what could  she be reading?  Louis-David’s painting technique evokes the solidity of the leather bound books in contrast with the loose airiness of paper ones. The way the paper book is cradled in her hand is incredibly realistic. The brush work on the splayed page edges blend with the her blouse, and the triangular composition is anchored by the books. The books are a key aspect of the composition.

The details of the bindings are rendered exquisitely. The cat’s paw decoration on the full leather trade binding is instantly recognizable. The red over black title labels, full guilt spine, and single blind line on the boards is historically accurate. The paper bindings are covered in a common, or french snail marbled pattern. The pattern is rendered loosely, almost abstractly, in some areas. Or could it depict a spoiled sheet, not good enough for endsheets or other purposes?

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. Detail. The Art Institute of Chicago.

The book she is holding, with its thick flatish spine apparent at the head, appears to have multiple signatures. Intriguingly, the paper covered book lying flat appears to be a single signature, which would be very unlikely for a letterpress book; could it be a blank book, notebook, or journal? Is it possible she is reading something private, like a diary?

She is shielding her eyes from the light source (truth?), but at the same time the page she is reading is in the shadows. She looks out at us with a concern, and possibly a bit of weary annoyance. The Hasty Book List also noticed she seems a little caught off guard or shy. A full size image is here.