Happy Holidays! Here, put on this apron and stop drinking. We’ve got work to do. We’re making our own bookcloth today, so tell your family to get lost and let’s get started.
Bookcloth is a basic bookbinding material made of cloth backed with paper. The paper backing is what protects the cloth from the adhesives you use when you glue or paste the bookcloth to boards. Commercial bookcloth comes in many colors and textures, and I love digging through sample books to find just the right shade for one of my printed editions. But when I am making blank books and empty boxes, I like to make my own bookcloth out of patterned cloth. Why? Because it is fun. And when I’m finished I have something that looks like this:
I learned to make bookcloth at the University of Alabama. Similar instructions for backing cloth can be found in in Kojiro Ikegami’s excellent Japanese Bookbinding on pages 27-28. Do you have a copy? No? Get one. It is an amazing book.
So, first order of business, I went to my neighborhood sewing store the other day and picked out a couple of 100% cotton fat quarters. Fat quarters are a great size for book cloth making, and are readily available for cheap. If you are cutting cloth that you already have, I would start with something around 18″ square or a little bit larger. You can make larger sheets of bookcloth, but I advise starting with this size and moving up if you feel comfortable.
To back this cloth with paper, I am going to use paste, an adhesive made from starch that is easy to cook up in the kitchen. (I know, I know, I know, there is a quick and dirty iron-on thing. Please. We are trying to be serious today.) Wheat starch is easy to find in cheerful packaging at an Asian grocery store. Here is mine:
There are like a hundred and twelve paste recipes out there. This is the one I use, but there are lots of people out there making lots of paste and it’s all working out ok for everyone. So if you already make paste in your own way, just make some paste and skip this part.
I make my paste in a 1 part wheat starch, 5 parts water ratio. Today that shakes out to 100ml wheat starch (roughly a quarter cup) to 500 ml water.
Throw the starch and the water into your saucepan and let it sit and soak for half an hour or so. When half an hour has passed, start stirring over low-medium heat. If your hob runs hot, keep it to low. Do you like stirring? I hope so, because you are not going to stop for thirty or forty minutes.
Some people make paste in the microwave. They don’t have to stir, but then they don’t get forty minutes of guilt-free Battlestar Gallactica. (I know that computer looks pretty precarious, but it is on the verge of collapse and I am simply giving it the opportunity to go out on its own terms.)
Your paste will slowly start to thicken. It will stop looking like milk and start looking more translucent.
Soon it will start to look like gooey ooze.
Keep stirring until you start to see tiny little microbubbles. Like these:
When the microbubbles arrive, keep stirring for about five minutes, and then pour your paste into a container to cool.
After it has cooled down, you can pour some water over the top and store it in the fridge. If you are not going to use it right away, change the water every day. WARNING: if you do not use this paste within a week, it will start to smell like sewage. People will not want to come to your house for holiday parties, neighbors will start to complain about you to your landlord or the police, and you will embark on a surprisingly abrupt descent into lonely smelliness. If this happens to you, flush your paste down the toilet immediately. Don’t look back.
Once the paste has cooled, let’s get serious.
MATERIALS AND TOOLS YOU’LL NEED
I have washed my 100% cotton fat quarters in the washing machine to eliminate all those new-cloth chemicals.
I am using an unidentified roll of Japanese paper that I found on sale earlier this year at Falkiners. Japanese paper (or much of it) is made from the kozo plant. The long kozo fibers make it particularly strong. There are countless varieties of Japanese paper. I am not picky about what kind I use. I am looking for medium weight, around 50 gsm or a bit less. Maybe something in this neighborhood. I don’t want anything tissue thin because it is hard to work with. Thick paper yields thick book cloth. You can order sample books of Japanese paper, or visit an art supply store with a good paper section. This paper does NOT have to be of excruciatingly high quality.
You’ll need at least two boards a few inches larger than your cloth in all directions. I like to use plexi (that’s perspex to you, UK) but large sheets of MDF or high quality, smooth plywood will work as well. In the absence of these options (as I am today) I use a thick acetate or mylar taped to sheets of binders board. I am in between sheets of plexi since my move, but am hoping to upgrade again soon.
You’ll also need a stipple brush (not critical, but very useful,) a large glue brush, a dishcloth or two, a strainer, a spray bottle of water, your paste, and a bowl. You might also want a dowel or long ruler, but this is not essential.
STRAINING YOUR PASTE
I begin by straining my paste. (And here you thought I was finished going on and on about paste.) Straining the paste eliminates the lumps that can cause trouble for you later. If you are lazy you can do this in a blender.
I scoop a good bit of paste into my strainer and start to work it through and into the bowl using my large brush. I am using about half of what I made.
smoosh smoosh smoosh.
When I am done, I need to add a small amount of water and work the paste with my brush.
I like to re-strain the paste to help me get rid of all of those little lumps and bumps.
I want to work my paste and add small splashes of water until it is nice and silky smooth and roughly the consistency of a loose hair conditioner. I am patient. (This smooth, strained paste will keep for a day, but not much longer. Take heed.)
BACKING THE CLOTH
We’re ready now to back the cloth. Your cloth should be stretchy in one direction and not stretchy in the other direction. This non-stretchy direction is the warp, and should be parallel with the grain of your paper. (The stretchy direction is called the weft and a recent google search told me that the weft is also called the woof, which is ridiculous.)
Lay your cloth on top of your paper so that the warp is aligned with the grain of the paper.
Cut a piece of paper that is larger in all directions by at least an inch.
Lay out your boards. I am doing this on my dining room table so that I’ve got space to move around.
Lay your cloth face down on one of the boards. Spritz it with water.
Use your hands to manipulate the dampened cloth so that it is lying flat and has no wrinkles.
If your cloth has a geometric pattern, beware stretching the cloth and warping the pattern.
Lay your Japanese paper on the other board. If there is a rough side and a smooth side to your paper, put the rough side up. Remember your grain direction here and lay the paper with the grain going the same way as the warp. Now paste out the paper with your large brush, starting in the middle and covering the entire sheet with large strokes to the outside. Make sure you get coverage everywhere. The entire surface should be slick.
Using a dowel, a long ruler, or a spare bit of wood, pick up the pasted out paper. You can also do this with your hands, which is what I usually do.
Look, I’ve abandoned the wood and put on an apron all of a sudden. Anyway, carefully drape the paper, paste-side down, onto the cloth. Paste is very slow drying, so you have time to reposition. This is much easier with two people, but if you are on your own, just be patient. Don’t be afraid to pick the paper up and try again. You want the paper to extend beyond the cloth without any big air bubbles or wrinkles.
If you have a large wide brush, you can use it to smooth the paper onto the cloth. I gently use the sides of my hands. I am not moving or repositioning at this stage, just smoothing everything out.
It’s dish towel time! A rolled up dishtowel may not be a traditional bookbinding tool, but it is the best thing for this job. Repeatedly bang that towel with a straight up and down motion all over that sheet, making good contact everywhere. If it looks like there are areas that need a bit more attention, I go back with my stipple brush and give it to them. Beware damaging the paper here, if you see fibers tearing away or wrinkling occurring, use less pressure and be careful of your angle.
With your paste brush, paste the edges where the paper extends beyond the cloth. Do NOT put paste on the cloth areas.
Clean off the surface of the board you used when you applied paste to your large sheet of paper.
Pick up your soggy sheet of bookcloth. . .
. . . and drape it down onto the clean board, this time with the cloth-side UP.
Use your fingers to smoosh the pasted edges onto the board.
Rip a small piece of scrap paper and insert it at a corner. This will help you take the cloth off tomorrow.
Stand the board up and let the bookcloth dry overnight.
Repeat! Once you’ve got your paste mixed up, you are ready to go, so I usually make four or five sheets at a time. It is helpful to have a number of boards so that you can keep on going.
The next morning, you may find that your cloth is falling off the board on its own, or you may have to coax it off with a tearing knife or letter opener.
Trim the edges off the cloth, and it is ready to use!
That was fun, right? Maybe you want to do it again and again and again like I do?
Or perhaps you want to drink mulled wine and start talking to your family again. Ok, me too. Happy Holidays from Big Jump Press!