A Guide to Swell

In bookbinding, the term “swell” describes the thicker area of a book block at the spine due to the addition of sewing thread. It depends on factors detailed below, but a binder or conservator generally does not have control over all these variables. Knowing how to estimate the amount of swell that will develop is one of the most important aspects when planning to sew a book, since it corrolates to the degree of round and the shape of the shoulders that a book will end up with.

Different binding styles need different amounts of swell. Too much swell creates a textblock that is unstable, squiggly, and difficult to back. Too little swell and there are insufficent shoulders which are necessary for some styles of binding. In all case binding structures, there is more leeway with amount of swell, and as long as it is not excessive it will be sucessful; with bound books the tolerances are much tighter. For example, if you are resewing an existing text block it is critical the new shoulders exactly fit the original boards.

Softer, multi-ply threads afford much more control of swell while sewing as compared to a hard modern thread. Currently, I primarily use threads sold by Colophon Book Arts, including the Colophon Best Blake Thread and the Londonderry Linen Lacing Cord #4. Both can be deplyed if desired to make them thinner. I also prefer to support smaller, specialist bookbinding supply companies. If you are using standard threads, 25/3  is a reasonable starting place. 

Many early binding structures—even up to the late 18th century—manipulate the shape of the boards to fit the spine, rather than the modern fine binding tendency to fit the boards to a 90 degree shoulder.  This makes it easier to fit a wider range of boards to a given swell. Obviously, this is not an option for many binding structures.

There is no formula, instead these ten aspects need to be considered:

1. THICKNESS OF THREAD. Thick thread (or more plys) = more swell. Thin thread (or fewer plys) = less swell. Although not ideal, the thickness of thread can be changed during sewing if too much or too little swell develops. 

2. HOW HARD OR SOFT THE THREAD IS. Hard thread does not flatten in the signatures = more swell. Soft thread flattens in the signatures = less swell. A compressible thread gives more control. It is often advisable to untwist hard modern threads a bit to make them softer by running them through your fingernail and thumb, and let them relax.  Waxing thread also makes it harder, so I generally avoid it if possible. Sometimes excessive kinking and twisting comes from using too small of a needle. Softer thread can fray more during sewing, though. 

3. THICKNESS OF THE TEXT PAPER. Thick paper absorbs more thread = less swell. Thin paper absorbs less thread = more swell.

4. HOW HARD OF SOFT THE PAPER IS. Soft paper absorbs more of the thread = less swell. Hard paper absorbs less thread = more swell. It is easier to control swell with softer paper. Guarding the spine will increase swell. Washing and resizing can also affect how much swell develops. Swell can also be adjusted before sewing by beating or otherwise compressing the sections.

5. HOW MANY LEAVES ARE IN EACH SIGNATURE. More leaves can absorb more thread = less swell. Fewer leaves = more swell.

6. HOW MANY SIGNATURES THERE ARE. More signatures = more swell. Fewer signatures = less swell. Some binders like to visualize this by wrapping the thread around a pencil the same number of times as there are signatures.

7. SEWING STYLE. All-along, two-on, three-on, etc. All-along produces the most swell, more “-on” sewing styles = less swell. Packed sewing produces more swell due to a small overlap of thread. This can be controlled, to produce naturally packed sewing, which has one length of thread on the cords for each signature.

8. SEWING SUPPORTS. Tapes, cords, thongs. Tapes produce the least swell, cords and thongs slightly more since the thread can overlap slightly inside the signature. Supports also differ in the amount of adjustment that can be done after sewing, ie. how much the thread can move on the supports during consolidation and backing. A professional sewing frame, such as the Nokey makes this easier.

9. HOW MUCH CONSOLIDATION IS PERFORMED DURING SEWING. More consolidation during sewing= less swell. I have often observed students sewing identical text blocks, with identical thread, end up with significantly different results. A loaded stick, or knocking down stick can help with compression, although some people prefer to use a bone folder or wedge shaped piece of wood.

10. TIGHTNESS OF SEWING. Tighter sewing makes a thinner book before pressing. Looser sewing can develop due to improper tensioning or too large of a needle. A book sewn too tightly can develop a “banana” shape, thinner at the kettle stitch. Even tension is crucial.

Best practice: sew with the thickest thread possible.