An Unusual Sewing Frame from the Roycroft Bindery

A very unusual sewing frame. Roycroft Campus, East Arora, New York.

I was excited to find a small display of bindery tools at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York.  Elbert Hubbard started Roycroft, was inspired by William Morris, and promoted the Arts and Crafts ethos in America during the first part of the 20th century. His press produced many books that today look aggressively “hand-made”.

The sewing frame from his bindery, however, is strikingly innovative and elegant.  The support attachments are similar to the Hickock blank book sewing frame, which I think was designed and produced at least by the 1920’s. I’m uncertain which came first. I use a similar idea for clamping supports in my Nokey Sewing Frame. The curved and cantilevered uprights allow for arm clearance and stability. The late 20th century Clarkson sewing frame uses a similar design.

The rod in the front might be to wrap tapes on, so they can be continually fed upwards.  It also looks like the rod itself can slide a bit in a recess, to the weight helps apply tension?  There are two hinged areas, the front one may also trap the supports, and the one towards the back may contain a storage area? There is some residue on the rod, suggesting something was adhered at some point. But what and why?

The uprights can be removed, and the frame stored in the wooden box it rests on, like the Clarkson design. Given the aesthetics and the use of oak which is common in arts and crafts furniture, but uncommon for bookbinding tools, I would guess  it was made at Roycroft.  But the bindery display contained many other pieces of equipment from other sources, including a very nice Leo Finishing Press, so it may come from another source. It is a clever and compact design.

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?

Unbelievable Book Sewing. The American Bookbinders Museum. Petition Against the Closure of the Greek Conservation Department.

sewing in the air

Chase, A. and Clow, Stories of Industry, Vol. II. (Educational Publishing Co.: Boston, New York, Chicago, 1891), 174. Author’s collection.

I can’t quite believe the above image reflects an actual practice. Sliding the books up after they are sewn? This would seem to cause extreme abrasion to the cords, thread and signatures. Cords from this time are often very weak, though. There are other suspect elements; the title is wrong and the sewing frame uprights are incredibly tall. The whole frame would likely be very unstable and the tension on the cords would be extreme; could three weak, thin, late nineteenth century cords support this weight?

Generally this image is believable, though. The body and hand positions of the women are accurate. Women from around this time could sew very fast, 2-3 thousand signatures a day. Being able to sew a large number of books without having to restring the frame would likely be a time savings. Is this image the result of artistic imagination, ignorance or possibly an accurate description of an unusual trade practice?

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have found this intriguing image if it were not for the wonderful online bibliography of bookbinding manuals from The American Bookbinders Museum. It is annotated, so can save anyone a lot of time searching through less useful sources. The American Bookbinders Museum was also incredibly gracious host when I taught my 18th century French class in San Francisco, letting us closely examine a first edition of Dudin’s 1772 L’Art du Reliure, followed by a reception. Their collection of books, tools and machines is unique and irreplaaceable.

But The American Bookbinders Museum is currently in crisis, due to two water leaks in recent months. They need to raise a lot of money to relocate their collection.  I chipped in. How could you not contribute to a Museum that contains possibly the coolest bookbinders ticket ever?

bookbinder and taxidermist

Collection of The American Bookbinders Museum

If you would like to send a check please  make the check out to “The American Bookbinders Museum” and send it to the following address:

Bookbinders Museum Relief
c/o Taurus Bookbindery
2736 16 th street
San Francisco, CA. 94110

The Museum is a 501-(c)3  organization and all donations will be tax deductible.

For further questions contact Tim James anytime  9:00 AM-9:00 PM PST at 415-710-9369  (Tim James)   or email: Tim [at]

If you are interested in helping to find a permanent home for the Museum and insuring its future please leave your contact information at: info [at]


And since you are doing one good deed, how about signing this petition to help save the Greek Conservation Department as well?

Dear friends and colleagues,

The Department for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in Zakynthos, Greece of the Technological Educational Institute of the Ionian Islands is threatened with unjust and unreasoned closure by the Greek Ministry of Education.

The profession of conservation is suffering a blow yet again, following the closure of several courses throughout Europe over the last few years and job cuts in museums, libraries and institutions, putting our cultural heritage at greater risk.

Please read our petition and if you support our cause sign it and forward it anywhere you can.

[NOTE: The appeal for money after you sign the petitions is for ipetitions, not Greek Conservation]

Thank you for your help,

Nikolas Sarris

Nikolas Sarris, PhD
Book Conservation, Assistant Professor
TEI of the Ionian Islands
Dep. for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage
Zakynthos 29100 – Greece

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