It’s so silly that many (mostly university) presses persist in describing a hardback edition as “cloth”. While many university presses do, it’s true, continue to spend money using cloth, most books nowadays have given up using cloth, opting instead for the much cheaper paper-based alternatives. I remember when Britain joined the Common Market, the regs of the market jeopardized our ice-cream market. Apparently EU trade description rules require that if it’s called ice cream, it actually has to have cream or at least milk in it. Walls ice cream faced to terrifying prospect of having to relabel its product as “edible vegetable-oil ice”. They opted wisely to add milk to the mix.

One of the silliest practices seems to me to be the use of paper for the spine of a three-piece binding. The whole point of a three-piece binding is to provide the strength of cloth on the spine without spending the money on the sides, where you can save money by using paper. Paying for the extra set-up cost for three-piece binding without getting the intended strength benefit just seems irresponsible. I am told we do it because “the market” expects a trade book to look like that. I would be interested to meet anyone who has refused to buy a book because it came in a conventional one-piece binding.

Holliston Mills’ new offering: Chimera

Book cloth, as its name implies is a woven material. Look closely and you’ll see the warp and the weft. This new book cloth, Chimera, incorporates a glittery yarn. Holliston is the one remaining large manufacturer of book cloth in the USA. They offer high-quality cloths, Arrestox, Roxite and buckrams as well as Kennet, a “natural” cloth. They used to make a cheaper cloth, Devon, but this has fallen by the wayside, no doubt because of the penny-pinching craze to use paper-based products instead. Natural cloths have a raised fiber finish, making them look a bit like the cloth of a pair of trousers. Arrestox and Roxite have a tighter weave and a smooth coating which protects them from wear and tear. The strongest book cloths, buckrams, are made with linen rather than cotton, and have a similar coating finish. Buckrams are much favored in library re-binding, one-off repair binding where the materials cost perhaps takes up a smaller proportion of the whole cost.

Is cloth making a little resurgence? We’ve lived through twenty or thirty years of product down-spec-ing, and now we are beginning to see the printed book as developing a sort of de-luxe aura. Imported cloths, like Brillianta and Iris came into the US market a few years back. Brillianta, from Germany where book production values are still valued, is a higher quality natural finish cloth. You’ll see it on the Library of America volumes. The remaining manufacturers of book cloths can perhaps look forward to a continuing market for their products, although it will be altogether smaller than it was say 50 years ago when the idea of binding a hardback in any material other than full cloth was just being thought of.