Bound in Stitches: A Brief Guide to Common Bookbinding Stitches

Bookbinding is the process of attaching individual paper leaves or folded sheets into one secure volume with the purpose to protect and embellish handwritten or printed documents. Bookbinding incorporates many diverse techniques that improve the functionality, durability, and beauty of a book. Hobbyists and crafters often favor sewn binding techniques for a personal handmade touch when they create scrapbook journals, photo albums, notebooks, and other gifts. Sewn or Smyth sewn binding is durable, secure, and decorative. This article describes some effective sewn binding stitches and their origins. It also includes links and references to illustrated tutorials that demonstrate each sewn binding solution.

  • Coptic stitch

Also known as chain stitch, Coptic stitch is a bookbinding technique that creates a flexible book, because the pages open flat, making it easy to write or draw. In this technique, one or more signatures[1] are sewn together with chain-like stitches which are exposed across the book spine. A variation of the Coptic stitch is the kettle stitch which holds the ends of the book signatures together and keeps them tight and stable. 

Coptic bindings were the first true codices used by the early Christians in Egypt, the Copts, around 200 –1000 A.D. Early writing was done on wax tablets, wood, parchment, papyrus, vellum (animal skin), scrolls, and other materials until the Romans invented the codex, a process that bound ancient manuscripts. The earliest codices were discovered in 1945 by two peasants near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi. These were 13 papyrus codices of Gnostic[2] texts written in Greek and translated into Coptic. Their quires[3] were either fastened together with leather ties or stitched at the spine with a chain stitch and covered by leather covers. Today, Coptic stitch is very popular among book artists and hobbyists who create handmade journals, albums, sketchbooks, and other one-of-a-kind gift books filled with memorabilia.

For instructions on how to bind a book using Coptic stitch, check out The Coptic Stitch: Instructions and Illustrations by Sharilyn Miller.

Coptic stitch sketchbooks.
Ancient codices found in Nag Hammadi.
Kettle stitch diagram.
  • French stitch

French stitch is a decorative binding technique on handmade books with an exposed spine. It uses an even number of sewing stations and the stitches form an X pattern. Because the linking stitches by themselves are loose, bookbinders add kettle stitches at each end of the spine to secure the text block.

French bookbinders have produced bindings of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship since the 1500s. Their bookbinding techniques had dominated Europe in the 17th century with two elaborate styles of gold tooling[4]: fanfare and pointillé. The fanfare style consisted of geometrical patterns with leaves, flowers, spirals and other designs, while the pointillé style consisted of dotted lines and curves impressed on the leather book cover. The designs came from embroidery patterns or Oriental metalwork.

For a detailed illustrated tutorial on how to tape-bind a book with an exposed French link stitch, check out The Exposed Tape Binding in 140 (ish) Easy Steps by Molly Brooks.

French link stitch binding.
Fanfare style binding on red goatskin.
  • Japanese stab binding

Asian countries such as China and Japan have been using the stab binding since some 2,000 years ago when the codex was invented because of its simplicity, effectiveness, and low cost. It is similar to blanket stitch in sewing. This method binds a collection of single sheets (not folded sheets) on soft or hardcovers by stabbing holes on the left side of the sheets. The result is a book that does not open flat. This is the perfect binding method for one-sided drawings or photo albums or books with the contents already written.  

Japanese stab binding is called Yotsume Toji (four holes) and it was practiced during the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. A variant stitch called Koki Toji (Noble binding) uses two extra holes near the corners for extra strength. An additional more decorative stitch variation is Kikko Toji (Tortoise Shell binding) with no extra stitches near the corners.

For instructions on Japanese stab binding, check out Bookbinding 101: Japanese Four-Hole Binding by Grace Bonney.

A variety of Japanese stab stitches.
  • Long stitch

The long stitch is a simple and versatile bookbinding technique that involves sewing several signatures directly through the cover with long stitches which are visible on the book spine. Its limp[5] structure allows a book to lay flat when it’s open. It is often used in combination with Coptic style chain stitches for a more decorative finish.

The long stitch or tacketed binding had been used in the middle ages in Europe. For example, Italy used it for printed books and stationery; Germany for textbooks at schools and universities; and the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg) favored it for binding almanacs. Today, the long stitch is popular among contemporary binders and book artists that use it to create handmade journals, notebooks, scrapbooks, and albums.

For instructions on long-stitch binding, check out Bookbinding Fundamentals: Long-Stitch Leather Journal by Erica Munoz.

Long stitch binding combined with chain stitches.
  • Pamphlet stitch

The simplest structure of binding a single signature of several folios[6] is with a basic pamphlet stitch, also known as butterfly stitch. This stitch is used for smaller books with a lower page count, and it can have three, five, or seven sewing stations[7] nested one within another. These stations can also be attached by staples through the fold. Pamphlets are a common structure for binding brochures, magazines, music, calendars, catalogs, and ephemera. Because of their economical materials and ease of assembly, pamphlets are a dominant form of disseminating information. 

The term “pamphlet” is derived from the protagonist of the twelfth-century Latin love poem Pamphilus seu de Amore. The poem was so widely read that it was copied and circulated on its own as a thin book. Thus, the word “pamphlet” came to be associated with a small booklet.

For instructions on how to bind a pamphlet, check out Bookbinding 101: Five-Hole Pamphlet Stitch by Grace Bonney.

Five-hole pamphlet stitch diagram.
Pamphlet-stitched notebooks.
  • Secret Belgian stitch

The secret Belgian bookbinding, also called crisscross binding, is an interesting bookbinding technique that involves binding the book covers separately from the signatures in a weave-like pattern. The spine is also separate from the covers, making the book flexible to open flat and the covers to fold back. This is a great advantage when writing or drawing. Each signature is sewn on the spine and joined with the next signature with kettle stitch at each end.

The Belgian bookbinding technique was devised by the Belgian bookbinder Anne Goy and it resembled the Japanese style binding, but with the book lying flat when open. One of Goy’s students learned this technique and taught it to Hedi Kyle, a German-American book artist and educator, who brought it to the U.S. and taught it to many.

For written instructions on how to work the secret Belgian stitch, check out the Secret Belgian Binding tutorial by Kristie.

Notebooks bound in secret Belgian stitches.
  • Caterpillar stitch

The Caterpillar stitch is a 2-needle binding or ornate stitch that looks like a centipede. It can be used either as a binding stitch on an exposed spine or purely as decoration on the book covers or both. If used as a binding stitch, it is recommended to combine it with Coptic or French link stitches to secure the book signatures because the caterpillar stitch by itself is unstable. When using this bookbinding technique, the leg stitches are done first and the core wrapping later. The backside of the caterpillar stitch results in a ladder effect, which can be either visible or hidden under the endpapers.

For instructions on how to bind a book using the caterpillar stitch, check out this Caterpillar Bookbinding Stitch illustrated tutorial by Kristi.

Caterpillar binding stitch.
  • Singer sewn binding

Singer sewn or thread stitched binding is a binding technique that uses thread and an industrial sewing machine to stitch the book cover and pages together. Matching or contrasting color threads can create an attractive and decorative finish. There are two types of Singer sewn binding: a) the center singer sewing stitches on collated pages at the center of the signatures, and b) the side singer sewing stitches on individual sheets of paper along the spine. The stitching threads can be left either hanging at each bookend or cut clean. The advantage of both types is that the book opens flat and that the pages are secure with 40 plus stitches.

Singer sewn binding is economical, functional, and simple. It is used to bind thin books with soft covers such as journals, notebooks, reports, and brochures.

Side sewn binding.
Center sewn binding.

Conclusion

Bookbinding has evolved in many ways since the time of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. After the codex was discovered, ancient peoples needed methods to organize their manuscripts. They did that by tying and sewing loose pages together. Over time, these binding methods were adapted or changed due to technological advancement. Today, high-speed machinery is used for mass book production. However, several hand-sewn binding methods are still favored today by some book manufacturers, hobbyists, crafters, conservationists, and book artists.

This guide highlighted some common sewn binding techniques for book enthusiasts. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the purpose and physical characteristics of the book such as thickness.

Illustrated Tutorials and Links on Bookbinding Techniques

References


[1] A compilation of two or more paper sheets folded together.

[2] Scriptures written by early Christians.

[3] In ancient manuscripts, a quire is four folded sheets of parchment or paper.

[4] The process of lettering or decorating the spine and covers of a book with gold leaf.

[5] Bookbinding style with a flexible cover, usually made of vellum, leather, cloth, parchment, or paper.

[6] A single sheet of paper folded in half.

[7] Punched holes on the text block and cover.