A Sin of Omission

~ The two identical bindings side by side

At the very end of 2019 I was asked by a client to bind two copies of the same novel, “A Sin of Omission”, which had been written by the author Marguerite Poland, a good friend of his in South Africa. One copy was to be gifted to her and the other was for him to keep and both were to be identical. We met in person to discuss the novel and ideas for the binding, he explained that he had helped to undertake some of the UK research for the novel set in Canterbury.

A Sin Of Omission
By Marguerite Poland
Penguin Random House, South Africa, 2019
Bound in 2019

~ The original text block and cover

In the Eastern Cape, Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, must journey to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death.

First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return to South Africa, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.

Conflicted between his loyalties to the amaNgqika people, for whom his brother fought, and the colonial cause he as Reverend Mzamane is expected to uphold, Stephen makes a journey that proves decisive in resolving the contradictions that tear at his heart.”

I read in an article on The Reading List how a group of Eastern Cape women found the novel so moving that they were inspired to make a series of embroidered works relating to the book. In 2000 The Keiskamma Art Project was set up and includes a group of about 130 South African artists and craftspeople who initially specialised in hand embroidery and tapestry weaving, but who have now expanded to include other media. It is based in and around rural Hamburg in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The initial aim of the project was to provide employment, especially for women, to help fight extreme poverty and to support the high percentage of HIV/AIDS affected families in the area. Many of the items created under the Keiskamma Art Project are hand embroidered with scenes depicting the daily life and cultural heritage of the region’s Xhosa people

Four tapestries were done by the trust to depict key events in the life of Reverend Stephen Mzamane, the main character in the novel, which is based on a true story. A young Xhosa man, Stephen was trained at the Missionary College in Canterbury, England, before returning to South Africa, where he struggled to find acceptance among his own people and encountered discrimination from within the Church.

The artists who worked on the series inspired by A Sin of Omission chose scenes for their tapestries which seemed central to Stephen’s life, the book was actually based on a true story. They visited Nondyola, the missionary station to which Stephen was sent on his return from Canterbury, and the site of the Anglican Institution in Grahamstown, in order to understand more fully who Stephen was. They were extremely moved by the story as they related to Stephen’s isolation and the conflict and pain he had experienced.

~ 1. ‘Finding Stephen’ depicts the devastation of the Cattle Killing of 1856 and 1857, and shows a missionary finding the starving nine-year-old Stephen. ‘The boy was grey-tinged, a husk-child, motionless in the shadow of a bush.’
~ 2. ‘Canterbury’ shows the Missionary College in Canterbury where Stephen was later sent to prepare for the priesthood and where he forged a close friendship with an English student.
~ 3. In ‘Stephen arriving at Nondyola’, Stephen sees for the first time the isolated little church that is to become his parish.

The fourth tapestry in the series is a record of the women’s visit to Nondyola in August 2019, and shows them dancing around the maypole in front of the church with the Nondyola Women’s Union. A testament to Stephen’s work, the small church in which he preached is still active.

~ 4. The Maypole Dance’ shows the church as the Keiskamma artists saw it when they visited in 2019 and were taught a maypole dance by Lindi Petros, chairperson of the Women’s Union.

Naturally these tapestries were a great inspiration for me due to my love of embroidery and it seemed a natural pairing to use similar imagery on the covers of the bindings. The book covers were to be covered in bookcloth, so I took elements from the tapestries: the birds, trees and little huts, and brought them all together into a design. 

I created a sample board to test out the colours and look of the stitching I wanted to use on the cover designs. To try and mimic the look of the tapestries I used a thicker profile of thread than normal to add more texture to the lines of the design.

~ The sample board measuring 125mm x 75mm

The two books that I was to bind were perfect bound. “Perfect Binding is a widely used soft cover bookbinding method where the individual pages and cover are glued together at the spine with a strong yet flexible thermal glue. The great thing about this method is that the glue is strong so of course helps to keep all the pages intact, but potentially poses problems when it comes to rebinding them. I saw absolutely no need to disbind this book into separate pages before then rebinding the book, so chose another method where I could keep them as they were.

I wanted to retain the strong thermal glue that was on the original bindings, but also add more strength to the spines. In order to do this I first stripped the paper covers off the book and placed the text block between boards in my laying press. I then used a fine Japanese wood saw to cut “grooves” into the spine at four points along the length, at 45 degree angles. Into these grooves I glued in some cords with PVA, leaving them overlong.

~ Cutting into the spine of the book for the cords

Once the glue had dried, I trimmed the ends of each of the cords so they were overhanging by about 7mm. these cords were then frayed out and glued down to the inner edge of the front and back pages of the binding.

~ Fraying out the ends of the cords

I made up leather-jointed endpapers, which I then tipped onto the front and back pages of the book, therefore concealing the ends of the frayed cords. The endpapers were a combination of bamboo paper (for the inner bi-folded sheet) with some blue Khadi paper stuck on for the endpaper. 

I glued a piece of linen, the length of the spine, onto the spine of the book and then secondary-sewed the endpaper to the linen using a fine linen thread to secure it all in place. The tails of the linen were also stuck onto the reverse of the leather joints.

~ Lining the spine with linen

I made up some end bands by taking some off-cuts of the Khadi paper and wrapping them around a square core of leather that was mounted to card. I added a bit of detail to each by sewing a row of coloured cotton threads in orange and turquoise.

~ Making up end bands

The tail ends of the threads were stuck down with PVA, and then the end bands were stuck to the spine of the book. The space on the spine between the endbands was built up to the same height with a layer of paper to make sure that the spine of the book was as flat as possible – crucial for when coming to casing in.

~ Sticking on the endbands

As it was not possible to round and back this book due to the fact that I retained the flat edge of the original binding, I decided to create a false round for the spine. I had done this once before for my binding of of La Prose du Transsbérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, which features in an earlier blog post. The text block for this binding was a long concertina so I wanted to make a case that this could fold into.

I started off with a half-round wooden dowel measuring 15mm across but I needed to build this up to 37mm across to allow for the thickness of the text block, endpapers and boards. I stuck the flat edge of the wooden dowel to the edge of a pressing board with double sided tape (so I could remove it again!) and put the board into a laying press. I cut a piece of 300gsm watercolour paper to size (slightly wider than the round of the dowel so it would overhang), dampened it with water so it was more flexible and then glued it up and then positioned it on the round of the wooden dowel. I held it in place by covering it in a layer of silicone release paper and holding this down using a series of bulldog clips. After each piece had dried, I trimmed the edges flush where they overhung the flat edge of the dowel.

~ Layering up watercolour paper on the half-round dowel

Looking back I should have started off with a larger piece of dowel as it took seventeen layers of watercolour paper to get it up to the correct width! Once all seventeen layers were on, I glued an additional piece of watercolour paper to the flat side of the dowel and sanded it to remove any lumps and bumps.

~ Sanding the back of the dowel flat

Finally, I cut the dowel to the length of the boards (worked out to allow for a 4mm border around the text block) and glued on a layer of linen that overhung the dowel to act as a hinge for the boards. The linen was attached to the boards using PVA, with a 4mm gap left for the joint to allow for the leather joints to go down at a later stage in the binding process. The last step was to glue on a layer of Zerkall on top of the linen to the width of the round of the false spine.

~ Attaching the boards to the false round spine piece

I capped the ends of the dowel with a small piece of Zerkall that was sanded after it was applied, and then checked the size of the text blocks in the cases. I would usually bevel the edges of the boards of my bindings, but given they were to be covered in bookcloth on this occasion I left them full thickness.

~ The cases

Next it was time to prepare the leather for the spine. I chose to use a turquoise bull skin as I felt this would accompany well the design I had come up with for the book covers. I pared the leather down with my Brockman paring machine to around 0.7mm in thickness. As the bull skin is stretchy I backed the area that was going to cover the spine section with some Japanese tissue to stabilise it.

~ Preparing the leather for embroidering the title

I wanted to embroider the title of the book onto the spine, so traced this onto some paper and pricked through this template with my needle pricker from the reverse.

~ Embroidering the title

The letters were embroidered in a mix of colours to match the cover design, using cotton thread. I first used a running stitch and then whipped around the lines with a thread of the same colour to strengthen the line.

~ Two embroidered leather book spines ready to be glued to the case
~ The front and back of the embroidered leather book spines ready to stick on to the case

Once the leather book spines were ready, it was time to prepare the cases so that they could be stuck on. I cut a length of 4mm thickness card, to the exact width of the inside of the false round. I placed this inside the case to act as a spacer for when the leather went on, ensuring the joint gap stayed in and the boards didn’t pull during the covering process.

~ Using a strip of board as a spacer before gluing the leather to the spine

As the text block was exactly the correct thickness, I also clamped this in place using a small grippy clamp to ensure the boards were level and square to each other during the covering process too.

I actually used PVA to glue the spine pieces in place on this occasion. As I knew I just wanted to get the main face of the leather down over the curve of the false round and across the board joints without the necessity of fiddling around with turn-ins and leather head caps I felt this was the best method at this stage. I applied the PVA glue to the leather using a roller to ensure an even spread then stuck it down using lines I had drawn on the back of the leather as a guide for placement.

~ Gluing the leather to the spines

Once the main body of leather was dry, I trimmed the ends of the spine leather short and then worked them in around the false round. The extra bits of leather either side of the false round were also turned in at this point too.

~ Turning the leather in around the false round spine ends

I then filled in each end of the false round with an extra piece of leather to fill in the gap, and then stuck a piece of Zerkall slightly smaller than the round on top. This was sanded flush to remove any lumps and bumps.

~ The turn-in leather on the boards edges was chamfered slightly away from the board joint using a scalpel. I wanted to thin it at this point to take the thickness down in preparation for the book cloth going around the board edge at a later stage.

A pared piece of the turquoise bull skin was then stuck onto the ends of the false round, with a little “tail” of leather turned down onto the inside flat side of the false round, this is so that there would be leather showing behind the end bands of the text block once the book was cased in.

I was then at the stage where I could case in the book. I applied PVA glue to the spine, this was then stuck in place into the case and gripped with clamps whilst it dried. As the book spine and the inside of the false hollow were kept as flat as possible during the earlier binding stages this meant that there was good adhesion between the two.

~ The two text blocks glued into the cases

Once the leather was on the spine, I trimmed the leather that was glued onto the face of the boards square and added a layer of watercolour paper to the rest of the board to bring the thickness up level with that of the leather.

~ The cases with an extra watercolour paper layer stuck to the front and back boards to level them out against the spine leather

I was then able to stick down the leather joints (which also had a layer of linen on the back, as per an earlier stage in the binding process). These were stuck down with PVA glue and I made sure that they followed the profile of the gap I had left for the joints of the boards.

~ Detail of the leather joints

It was then time to work on the bookcloth for the bindings. I have a whole bucketful of bookcloth that I “won” at the Society of Bookbinders Conference a few years ago at the auction (I don’t think I realised my hand had shot up to bid for it!), and given I rarely use any as I generally make wooden boxes for my bindings it is always good to have an excuse for a rummage! I chose a two-tone pale green cloth, and experimented around with adding colour with pencils which I felt worked pretty well.

The design was built up using elements from the tapestries including various birds, trees and buildings against a hilly landscape and sky.

~ Adding detail to the bookcloth with coloured pencils

I used thinly pared leather for the onlays, but of course it wasn’t possible to back pare them on this occasion through the bookcloth. The tree was made up using numerous shades of green.

~ Cutting out the leather onlays

As well as using hand embroidery for the smaller stitches and elements on the cover I also used my machine for the longer lines. these machined stitches were then whipped over with some embroidery skeins to thicken them up and add extra colour and dimension to the cover.

~ Using my sewing machine for some of the stitching

I had a mix of solid lines and dashes to try and mimic the style of the stitching on the tapestries.

~ Embroidering the bookcloth

As you can see in the below image, the cut edge of the cloth was edge pared and turned over by about 5mm and glued at the spine edge, so as to avoid having cut edges of cloth exposed on the boards of the bindings.

~ Detail of the back of the embroidery

I always find it a challenge working on two identical pieces, having to remember to switch between them in order to keep the look of them both consistent. I finally ended up with four pieces of embroidered cloth ready for sticking onto the cases.

~ All four pieces of cloth embroidered and ready to be stuck to the cases

The cloth was stuck to the boards using PVA glue, making sure that they were pressed down well for even adhesion. The stitching adds bulk to the reverse of the cloth so I spent a long while making sure that it was stuck down as evenly as possible.

The final task was infilling the insides of the boards, then a layer of Zerkall was stuck on top and sanded. Finally a layer of the blur Khadi paper was adhered down for the paper doublure.

And so I leave you with a few final pictures of both bindings, one made its way over to South Africa to be gifted to the author, Marguerite Poland, and it’s twin lives in the UK!

~ Details of the finished embroidery
~ The full cover
~ The two book covers next to each other
~ The book opened very well using this method

One thought on “A Sin of Omission

  1. This was my commission of a very special book. Not the first you have done for me but definitely my favourite. It is a thing of great beauty and will be treasured for a lifetime. Thank you

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