Let’s talk needles.

Needles. Most folks start out in binding just using whatever is handy – I did. Cheaper the better, whatever the weather, whatever the project – not a priority.

A retired binder mentioned early on that a lack of attention to my needles would change the way I work and develop poor habits and unflattering books that don’t handle well. Cheap needles not designed for binders can be hard on materials, hard on your hands, and just make sewing paper more irritating than it needs to be. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about good binding needles (spoiler alert…he was right):

  • They are sharp – to part the paper fibres, not crudely punch through
  • The shaft is straight, not tapered, so as to keep the hole size consistent
  • The short taper at the end makes the hole the correct size early on, to pull the rest of the needle through without further damage.
  • The eye (hole) is as wide as possible without broadening the shank (head), to avoid a larger paper hole
  • The needle is very very strong, as the forces involved can be great, particularly on the smaller size needles.
  • The eye is polished, to reduce wear on the often unsized threads used.
  • The size is slightly thicker than the thread you are using, which will also be proportional to the weight of paper being sewn

The larger size binders needle is ideal for heavier weight threads, papers and covering materials. Trying to pull thin thread through tough stuff can break weaker thread, but if the thread is also tough, it can slice through your paper. Your thread is also at it’s strongest whilst the ply is firm, so you don’t want to crush it to get it through the eye. Common situations you might need the large needle are:

  • 4ply waxed thread through thicker paper,
  • sewing through weighty covering materials,
  • 18/3 unwaxed linen through heavy paper in a physically large volume, like an album
  • light cord used in structural applications
  • decorative use of threads that need larger holes
  • longstitch, coptic and exposed stitch binding styles that rely on eased sewing rather than adhesive support

The smaller size binders needle is ideal for lighter weight threads, papers and covering materials. Using thin thread with a large needle makes holes too large, and the section sewing will become loose. Common situations you might need the smaller needle are:

  • regular sewing of text blocks
  • text weight paper with 25/3 linen thread or finer, for a spine with minimal swell
  • sewing through delicate covering materials
  • using thinner thread than original to create new cord extensions, resew guarded sections etc

And then there is the flat bodkin.  I know you don’t see these around much, but seriously I wouldn’t be without it.  The two eyes – one designed for cords and the other for tapes, give you scope to ease these through prepared holes, groves or between sections. It is strong, but flexible.  Situations you might employ it are:

  • lacing tapes and cords through cover board slots
  • manipulating registers and other ribbons
  • easing cords or thread between sections without the piercing action of a needle
  • rethreading/replacing/adding tapes underneath French sewing
  • … and seriously any number of creative solutions to many repair problems. Invaluable.

Other needle tools I use: I do have a curved needle, a rubber needle-grabber, a big-arse leatherworkers bodkin, and a needle-awl that clamps my two needle sizes to use for piercing sections. I’ll look to get a picture of the motley crew soon and post here.  These tools however, are highly personal and not ones I’d say are essential. You’ll get your own motley crew gathering in your tool box as time goes on 🙂

My favourite UK-made needle essentials are now available as a set through the Sago bindery online shop. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section for further advice on your needles in bookbinding.

Love your books, folks.

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5 thoughts on “Let’s talk needles.

  1. Good explanation on needles.
    Interestingly there are very similar issues with needles in the textile arts, especially embroidery.

    A question not related to needles, in the first group of four pictures below the big one of the needle pack, there is the lower left, a book block between boards in a press. It looks to me like you sewed that book on sunken cords, but used the same cord for all sewing stations. Neat idea, but how do you case/cover the book afterwards?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your question, Thomas. That text block is actually a fan glued binding of single sheets that was failing at the spine (which is expected with that weak binding method) so the customer requested it to be reinforced and bound new. I did a cleat sewing treatment, which entails sawing angled clefts into the glued back, passing thick thread into the angled clefts and then re-gluing – I used a larger needle to then pass the thread ends into the cover for extra strength. Covering options are never ideal with these bindings, but I settled for a cloth flat-backed casing, which seemed to do just nicely. Search ‘bill’s family journey’and check out the result 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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