Tag Archives: sewing frame

Nokey Travel Size Sewing Frame


Nokey travel size sewing frame, open.


Nokey travel size sewing frame, closed.

This smaller, and less expensive, travel size Nokey sewing frame is ideal for teachers or students who often travel to workshops. Or if your bindery is the kitchen table. The size of the base is 12 x 9 inches, overall weight 4 lbs. Folded it is 13.25 x 9.25 x 2 inches. Same features as the larger models, includes 5 buttons for attaching supports and an an adjustable 90 degree stop that can compensate for wear. 13-ply birch plywood and 6061 Aluminum. Lightweight ball-point hex driver included. Information on how to purchase above, in the store tab.

Nokey Travel:  $350.00



Rare Book School’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection and Leo Sewing Support Clamps

If all printed information the world were somehow destroyed, but Rare Book School’s (RBS) collection of books, illustrations, material samples, ephemera, tools and equipment somehow spared, could our bibliographic heritage be reconstructed? Would it matter? Without any artifacts to study, would these obsolete technologies have any bearing in future organization and dissemination of information? What could they tell us about the past? I found myself wondering questions such as these as I was given a tour through the collections of RBS, which seemed like a kind of seed bank that could repopulate the world of books after an apocalypse.

I should have spent the afternoon examining eighteenth century bindings.  Instead, part of the collection, some bookbinding tools, caught my eye. Quite likely bibliographers may dismiss the tools of bookbinding as unimportant, or even unrelated to books. But what is the physical book other than an assemblage of materials, organized by structure and technique, formed by tools?

Barbara Heritage, Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, provides some background on this collection. “Thanks to the good offices of Dan Dwyer (Johnnycake Books, Inc of Salisbury, CT), RBS was able to acquire the bindery of Jacques Ploschek (1919–2009) through his executrix and step-daughter, Tania Poliakoff.  The gift, appraised at $25,000, includes a large collection of finishing tools in excellent condition, including c.450 decorative hand stamps, pallets, gouges and seven decorative rolls and fillets, as well as a sewing frame, backing press, plough, and group of lying and finishing presses.  Ploschek studied under the binder Charlotte Ullman, whose tools can be found among this wonderful addition to our teaching collections.”

In particular were an unusual form of sewing hooks and keys, so remote from their historical origins that they seem to deserve a new name— sewing support clamps?

Fig. 1. A Pair of Leo Sewing Support Clamps. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These sewing support clamps are designed to fit into German style sewing frames, which have a slotted upper crossbar (cantilevered or not) which usually contains hooks which can slide horizontally into position, and lowered or raised vertically by a wing nut, similar to the one on the far right.  The flat area, stamped “LEO”, serves to prevent the entire hook or clamp from twisting as the wing nut is adjusted. Although the sewing frame they are associated with had a gated front, I imagine they could fit into and function in a standard slotted version. Another possibility may be that the clamp on the right  (and in Fig. 3) is made to fit into the upper position of an English style sewing frame, which typically has a round upper crossbar.

Fig. 2. The Leo clamp in the frame. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.


Fig. 3. Lovely file work on the lower (?) clamp. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These clamps are designed for tapes or vellum, quite possibly for account or blank book work given their width.  They are presumably German, given their design based on a hook, and seem likely to have been invented by the Stuttgart bookbinder Wilhelm Leo, who in the late nineteenth century invented an unknown number of bookbinding tools and machines.

Four of Leo’s innovations, with woodcuts, are featured in Zaehnsdorf’s 6th ed., Art of Bookbinding, 1903: two types of mechanical  marbling machines, a set of marbling supplies for bookbinders, and perhaps the most well known, his finishing press. Zaehnsdorf notes the complete set of marbling supplies is particularly invaluable to the small, country bookbinder. None of these illustrations, or textual descriptions, are in the the first (1880) edition of Zaehnsdorf. I haven’t been able to check the other editions. No other manufacturer receives four separate mentions; endorsement by Zaehnsdorf is high praise indeed.

Fig. 4. The Leo Mechanical Marbler. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 75.

Zaehensdorf describes the function: the top roller (or rollers, one version has more) is inked, and the spring pressure transfers it to the lower roller which contains an embossed pattern. This is then transferred onto the book edges. Currently, I am unaware of specific examples produced by this machine, but the ‘cobweb’ style pattern on the roller is seen on German books from around this time.

Fig. 5. The Leo Finishing Press. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 122.

The Leo finishing press is more well known, with an updated version manufactured in the US in the 1990’s, known as the Jordan-Dehoff finishing press. This version swings out of the way, under a workbench when not in use. Several binders I know who have them swear by them. When looking at the above illustration under magnification, it appears the Leo press has a fore edge shelf, which Jordan-Dehoff version lacks.  There are also some striking visual resemblances between this fixture and dictionary holders of the time.  These sewing support clamps and the finishing press do reveal several commonalities: a single screw, easy adjustability, intelligent design, and are well made. Additionally, the ball head on Leo’s press is a very early precursor to the ball head now standard on tripods for photography. Book as camera— fodder for the book artist or poet, I suppose….

Sewing in the Round

One of the advantages of the Nokey sewing frame is that it is easy to loosen, then retighten the supports to sew a book in the round.  Sewing in the round is less invasive than flattening the original backing, then rebacking, and incidenally is quicker. However, thick books such as the one pictured take me a while to sew: I am no where near as quick as an experienced sewer in the mid-nineteenth century who could sew between two and three thousand signatures a day, according to “A Day at the Bookbinder’s” from The Penny Magazine Supplement Vol. XI, December 24, 1842, p. 380.

Three sizes of the Nokey are available here for purchase.

Sewing a Book: 1902 and 1946

Above: Douglas Cockerell,  Bookbinding, and the Care of Books

(New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902), 104.


Above: Edith Diehl, Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique

(New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1946), 123.


It is interesting how much bookbinding has changed in the 50 odd years from 1900 to 1950. The skirts and hairstyles are much shorter. The stool you sit on also looks to be metal, rather than wood. Thanks to the sharp eyes of the John Townsend (aka. Anonymous Bookbinder) for bringing this to my attention and supplying these images. John has noticed that 23 illustrations originally done by Noel Rooke (Cockerell’s illustrator)  are highly likely to be redrawn by Mrs. Edna Kaula (Diehl’s illustrator).

The Nokey Sewing Frame

“In European bookbinding the sewing frame or sewing press is an essential piece of equipment. The primary sewing–that which connects the quires of sections of a text-block– is the very foundation of binding, and I believe a well-consolidated, multi-quire text-block sewn onto bands can only be achieved by using a sewing frame.” Christopher Clarkson, ‘Thoughts on Sewing Frame Design for the Book Conservator’ in The Paper Conservator 19, 1995. (p. 41)

The earliest known representation of a sewing frame is found in the well known Bamberg Miniature, from around 1250.  During the past 750 years there have been few changes to its basic structure.  Essentially, a sewing frame consists of a base, two uprights and a crossbar which can hold the sewing supports at 90 degrees to the signatures while sewing. This allows the supports to be properly tensioned and keeps the entire text-block in precise alignment.  I find it is faster to sew a book on a frame and the sewing is more accurate for all types of supports– even if you are pre-piercing and using tapes.  Additionally, there is an ineffable satisfaction in using a piece craft equipment with such a long history, it makes bookbinding easier and more enjoyable. Many shortcuts in current bookbinding technique– one of them not sewing on a frame– tend to produce a book that can look and feel homemade, rather than handmade.

Despite the essential stability of the sewing frame as standard bookbinding equipment, there have been minor changes: the shift from the base being a table to portable, the Northern European addition of adjustable hooks, gated fronts, and cantilevered uprights,  the (French?) addition of a ‘tenter’, changes in the size and shape of the sewing keys, the use of manufactured woods and other materials for dimensional stability,  etc….  A candle holder, pictured in C. E Prediger’s Der Buchbinder und Futteralmacher, 1745, (reproduced in Mirjam Foot’s Bookbinders at Work) has to rank as one of the more creative improvements. It is only recently that sewing frames have changed significantly.

During the past 60 years or so, sewing frames seem to have the allure of a better mousetrap,  with inventive bookbinders and conservators rethinking some traditional formulations.  Sidney Cockerell used the idea of cantilevered uprights, but improved the rigidity of them by making them solid.  Chris Clarkson refers to this as the ‘Mark I’ style sewing frame.  I believe John Corderoy, in the 1967 Bookbinding for Beginners was the first to mention a folding sewing frame on page 21.   Later Roger Powell created a unique key slot that permitted the supports to be strung at the front of the base, making starting the sewing much easier, and was possibly the inventor of cushioned sewing boards.   Chris Clarkson and Peter Clothier in 1992 contributed several more improvements with their Mark III  sewing frame.  Laurenson-Stuart also made a non-adjustable cantilevered frame modeled in the Cockerell design, which was sold by Hewit & Sons in the 1990’s. Phillip Smith created a single post frame,and a clamp-on version. Most recently,  Tim Ely  has invented the Dreadnaught and Scout,  a modern rethinking of the cantilevered design, made with modern materials, outfitted with a rear view mirror and ‘anubis’ clips to hold supports.  Some  who have caught the sewing frame bug– such as Tim Moore, Keith UramRobert Walp, and Frank Weisner— are not tempted to improve on the traditional design, but are making well crafted, high quality hardwood frames with a modern aesthetic.

Yet the siren song of the sewing frame inspires some truly bizarre ideas– for example, here is a sewing frame made from an old book— conceptually clever, yet I can’t imagine it is actually rigid enough to function, but the author claims it also works as a piercing jig. For some reason, there is also an odd tradition of using the legs of a chair, in this image the chair is placed flat on a table, and the book attached between the legs, from the front to the back, under the seat.  Halliday’s 1930 Bookbinding as a Handwork Subject contains two additional variants of this unfortunate approach; using the chair upside and using the bottom of the seat as the base, and using the chair upright and attaching the supports to the back of the chair.

Ruth Zechlin, Werkbuch für Mädchen und für alle die Freude am Werken haben, 1961 (first edition 1932)

The tradition seems to be not just confined to America and the United Kingdom, Peter Zillig sent me the above  German example, I presume from the 1932 edition, but am not sure.  It looks like the opposite side of the chair is also strung up, perhaps for a ‘dos-a-dos’ binding?  I’m surprised no one has claimed chair/sewing frame as a combination book press/ sewing frame– after sewing, one could simply sit on the book to press it.  Of course, a simple frame is relatively easy to construct, if you have a few hand tools– drill, saw, router, sandpaper– and some basic woodworking skills, like this one I made  with metal rod uprights.

Many book arts suppliers also offer inexpensive traditional looking wooden versions, though they should be carefully inspected for quality– at least make sure the center of the crossbar coincides with center of the slot on the base and the screws turn smoothly.  Older frames, due to poor storage, are sometimes too loose and warped, which can interfere with accurate sewing.  Also, when evaluating a frame, make sure the  uprights are at 90 degrees to the base and crossbar is rigid. If it deflects, each time you tension a support, it will change the tension on the others.  A few broken or chipped wood threads are common and will not interfere with the action of the nut.  If a wood nut is very tight, the threads need to be filed or sanded slightly larger.


I began to make and think seriously about sewing frames in 1997, during a week long Mellon Advanced Conservation Workshop held at the University of Iowa, co-taught by Joel Spector and Tom Conroy.  I made two wood frames– a full size German style cantilevered press, and a smaller, traditional English style.  I’ve also made a dozen of the portable frames, similar to the one  pictured above, for a class I taught at PBI.  My interest in frames was rekindled when I saw a Hickock Blank Book sewing frame, with its easy to use T-slot adjustment mechanism for attaching sewing supports.

A major,  inherent problem with all previous sewing frames is that they are awkward to store when not in use;  often they are placed on a high shelf, difficult to access and exposed to excessive heat and dust, or have to be disassembled, which is also a pain.  I suspect these inconveniences sometimes keep them from being used.  I often found sewing keys difficult.  I borrowed the t-slot idea from Hickock, supports that attach to the front of the base from Powell, added advantage of folding uprights solidly constructed out of aluminum, and The Nokey Sewing Frame was born.



Fig. I: The Nokey Sewing frame strung up with a tape, thin cord, thick cord, double cord and slit thong.

Fig. II: The Nokey folded.

Fig. III: Hex head adjustment driver.

Fig. IV: Close up of buttons with various supports.

Fig. V: Bottom of Nokey, folded,  with 12 inch ruler.

Fig. VI: Large Nokey open, small Nokey closed on top.



1. Nokey means easy to set up and quick adjustment of  spacing for all types of sewing supports- tapes, single and double cords, thongs, etc….

2. Folds flat for convenient dust free storage and transportation, only 2.25″ thick.

3. Solidly constructed of aluminum and plywood. Zero deflection, this is the strongest sewing frame ever made.

4. Uprights stop at exactly 90 degrees, and can be adjusted.

5. Sewing starts at the edge of the sewing board, making it easy to begin sewing and sew in the round.

6. Rubber feet keep even small size frame from sliding around on the bench.

7. Minimum distance between supports: 1 inch.

8. Buttons which attach supports tighten and loosen with a 5/32″ simple hex head driver, which is included.

9. Partially sewn books can be quickly removed and replaced, which make the Nokey ideal for  schools.

10. Custom sizes and additional buttons available, please inquire.

“Nearly 40 years ago I made my first sewing frame out of scrap wood.  It rocked back and forth like an old table but it taught me the value of the sewing frame as a tool and I’ve never been without one since.  I now have three in my shop.  The Nokey Sewing Frame is a real innovation, taking the best of a traditional design and adapting it to new materials and needs. It is actually fun to use.  The button screws make for very fast and easy setup.And it’s versatile enough to accommodate nearly all the variations on supported sewing I can think of for general bookbinding as well as conservation work. Well designed and well made with high quality materials, this is quite simply a great tool.”

-John Townsend, (aka Anonymous Bookbinder)


UPDATED 21 NOVEMBER 2015: I’ve changed the design slightly, see the “Tool Catalog” section of this blog for prices and how to order.


Blank Book Sewing Frame, Part Two

Earlier this year I wrote a post about the  Hickock Blank Book Sewing Frame.  I finally got to see one in person this past weekend, thanks to Karen Hanmer, bookbinder and book artist, who brought it to the Historic Cloth Case Class I was teaching at Columbia College, in Chicago last week.

It is a very cool sewing frame, beautifully made, and works for all types of sewing supports: cords, tapes or thongs.  The brass t-slots are stamped with the a Hickock logo in the middle (barely visible in this image) and I think the brass is the same thickness and size as the large pressboards that they also manufactured. A small screwdriver type tool tightens or loosens the buttons.  She mentioned that the only drawback is that because of the size of the buttons, supports cannot be spaced too closely together.  I suspect that the only reason the top bar is adjustable is that the uprights were  a standard Hickock product.  Also the front keeps the frame from sliding around, although the lighter colored wood in the bottom picture appears to be either a replacement or later addition.  Because the supports are at the front of the frame, it is much easier to start sewing, or sew in the round.  The buttons make tensioning the supports a breeze, with no complex knots or keys to deal with.  In the 1920’s, this frame cost $15.00, verses $4.50 for a standard frame about the same size, which may be why it didn’t became more popular.

I was so impressed by the frame, that I have started experimenting making a modern version, out of aluminum, with closer spacing for the supports, and with a little luck I should have a prototype by the end of the summer.   I plan to make the uprights on a hinge, so that the frame, when collapsed, will be less than two inches in thickness for easy, dust-free storage.

Images courtesy of Karen Hanmer.