Smyth sewing (note no “e”) is now quite rare, but when I started working in the industry probably about 90% of books were bound this way. Now only de luxe books and books from smaller university presses are being sewn.

Sewing is done after the signatures have been gathered (and if it’s a hardback, after the endpapers have been tipped to the 1st and last sigs). The operator picks up each sig in sequence and places it over a saddle-like structure with holes in the middle to allow a series of needles to come up and penetrate the back fold of the sig. Immediately the next sig is placed over the saddle and sewed to the previous one. This continues until you have a complete book block joined by threads. Indeed it continues immediately after too, as the next book is lightly joined to the previous one in a continuous process. In hand binding sewing is done with a needle and thread. Smyth machines automate this process, but sewing is still a labor-intensive process. Because of this, it became an early target for those attempting to bring greater efficiencies into the bindery. One by one the big book manufacturers closed their sewing departments in an attempt to cut cost out of the process to respond to the demands of their customers.

Smyth sewing has the reputation of being the strongest form of binding, but this is a bit of a sentimental myth, I believe. Sewing will eventually loosen up, but it does tend to stay good and tight for a long time. It’s not that it is un-strong, it’s just a matter of how you define strength. The strength of a chain is its weakest link, and in a sewn book the “weakest link” is the center four pages of the sig, where you can see the threads when you open the book. Page pull and flex testing (they have little machines that do this in a controlled manner) will cause the thread to tear through the paper quite quickly, so that the center four pages come away from the book. Other forms of binding, e.g. notch binding and even perfect binding will out-perform a sewn book in this test. It can be argued that page pull and flex testing doesn’t represent real-life wear and tear on a book. It also test books just off the binding line, and the adhesives are fresh. Obviously the outer leaves of the sewn signature are much stronger than any page in a perfect bound book, and the average strength of all the pages must be much higher in a sewn book. It’s just that in the perfect bound book no pair of pages will be weaker than the weakest foursome in the sewn book: but no leaf in the perfect bound book will be stronger than any other.

Anyway Smyth sewing isn’t the strongest way to bind a book, however you measure. I don’t know what really is, but side sewing must have a good claim to that title. Smyth sewing is the way we’d ideally like to see our books bound: we all regret its passing, while eagerly participating in killing it off by demanding ever cheaper prices.

Jarrolds bindery c. 1960

Jarrolds bindery c. 1960