British Wild Flowers Part One: Everything Pre-Leather Covering

The binding idea for British Wild Flowers was inspired by walks through the Somerset countryside during the Covid pandemic lockdown in 2020 and 2021. With the pace of life slowing right down, time was taken to observe the wildlife and flowers around me which in turn led to this binding being done as a personal project. Living in a hamlet on the outskirts of Shepton Mallet with the countryside right outside my door I throughly enjoyed working on this binding, looking closely at petals of flowers found in the reference book. With no constraints associated with it being a commissioned binding I worked on this book alongside other projects, largely doing the embroidery work in evenings.

The research began by looking at petals of wildflowers around me, taking specimens allowed me to study the shapes and colours of their petals first hand. The book itself contains over 200 different British wild flowers, with small illustrations of each (some colour, others just black and white line drawings). I identified flowers from within the reference book that I had found in the locality of my house and marked them in a second copy of the book I had found.

~ My duplicate copy of the book for reference

I narrowed the flowers I wished to illustrate down to the following: Buttercup (page 22), Welsh Poppy (page 31), Red Campion (page 55), Dog Rose (page 98), Daisy (page 129), Dandelion (page 151), Forget-me-not (page 178), Bluebell (page 215) and Snowdrop (page 216).

The book was pulled from its original green cloth cover and the sections were cleaned of old glue and sewing threads. The pages of the book had been printed in the wrong grain direction so this prompted my decision to sew the new binding onto stubs to allow better opening of the book once rebound.

~ The original binding covered in green cloth

I folded up a series of paper stubs, largely from green paper but with one pink one that would sit centrally in the text block. Each stub was made by folding the strip of paper three times along its length and folding the sides inwards, the thickness of each was measured at 0.4mm once folded and the width 10mm. The text block was made up of fourteen sections, so in addition to the fourteen stubs required to directly attach to these I included twenty extra stubs to make the thickness of the spine up to the same thickness of all the sections stacked together.

~ Diagram of the stubs required for the binding

These stubs were then sewn directly to each of the sections in turn. The next stage was to sew each of the stubs onto tapes, three in total due to the small size of the book. I don’t use a sewing frame, instead I cut short lengths of tapes and attach one end to a pressing board with masking tape in the correct position for the sewing.

The patterned endpapers were made by applying acrylic paints to smooth Zerkall paper with the help of acrylic crackle glaze. Crackle glaze is an acrylic medium designed to produce consistent cracking of water-based paints, creating dramatic two colour aged effects. The crackle glaze was applied over a thin pink acrylic base coat which was to be the colour of the cracks.

~ The first layer of paint in pink on the smooth Zerkall paper

Once dry I then applied a green acrylic top coat over the glaze. When left for about ten minutes the top coat cracked to reveal the base colour producing a sort of “aged” look to the paper surface – it was quite fun to watch this happen!

~ The second green layer of paint applied over the crackle glaze in the process of drying and crazing

The next stage in the forwarding process was to round and back the text block. The spine of the text block was glued up between the tapes with PVA glue and left to dry. It is important not to get PVA onto the tapes during the stage so as to allow movement in the sections during the rounding and backing process.

The spine of the book was first rounded using a backing hammer to form an initial curve in the spine. The text block was then put into my press between backing boards and was rounded by first manipulating the spine with my thumbs, then moving on to using a teflon folder to pull the sections further over each way. The shoulder joints and shape of the spine was then finished off using a backing hammer.

Once I was happy with the round of the spine and the shoulders had been formed nice and square to the text block it was time to line the spine with Aerolinen between the tapes. I applied PVA glue to the spine and cut pieces of Aerolinen to fit the gaps and rubbed them down with a teflon folder to ensure good adhesion.

Once the Aerolinen had dried and the spine was stable I put the text block into my laying press in between scrap boards. Using some sandpaper wrapped around a square sanding block I sanded the edges flat on both the top and bottom. The foredge of the book was also sanded, but with the sandpaper wrapped around some wooden dowel of the correct diameter for the round I wished to achieve here.

As I knew the binding design I had planned was quite intricate, I chose to add some subtle painted detail to the top edge of the text block. Using a fine paint brush I painted a series of pink petals to the sanded top edge of the book.

~ Painting the petals onto the top edge of the binding

I also added dashes of white paint to embellish the pink on the petals.

I had some off-cuts left from the patterned endpapers so I decided to make up some endbands with them. I glued strips of the paper around a cord core. I then used some hot pink pigskin and stuck this around a leather core and joined them together to create a double core endband. These were then stuck onto the spine at both ends before lining the spine with leather.

An overlong strip of leather was stuck skin-side down onto the spine of the book using paste and left to dry whilst wrapped in a bandage to make sure that it was held in place under even pressure.

~ Securing the leather spine layer in place with a bandage wrap whist the paste was drying

Once dry, the leather was sanded to remove any lumps and bumps from the spine.

~ Sanding the spine leather flush

A one-on, two-off hollow was applied to the spine and left to dry before being cut to the length of the endbands at both ends. The boards were then laced onto the tapes and bevelled at the edges in order to make the sides of the boards appear more refined.

I next worked out a colour palette of threads for the petals I wished to illustrate on the cover of the binding.

~ The colour palette of threads

I worked on a sample board of a section of the cover design to test out my design idea, plus the colours of the onlays and embroidery threads selected. These boards measure 75mm wide by 125mm high and help me to visualise the final binding. The selected leather for this binding was not as supple as other goatskins I had used in the past and was tricker to pare so it was especially useful to have had a practice run.

I cut out a series of different shaped petals and stuck them randomly across the covering leather. The leather was back-pared on the reverse and then I started to embroider the petals using different coloured polyester threads. Below shows the front of the finished sample board on the left and the back on the right.

In addition to the scattered petals, I also added lots of little dashes of coloured threads and French knots.

~ Detail of sample board embroidery

The image below jumps to work being done on the leather for the cover. The leather was pared for the turn-ins the whole way round and it was also pared at the board joints to facilitate the covers of the book to open once covered.

The Dog Rose petals were made from very pale pink leather onlays. I firstly worked pale pink threads on top of the onlay as seen in the centre of the picture below.

~ Embroidering the Dog Rose petal

Threads of darker pink were then applied to the same petal to vary the colour built up on its surface. The final detail for these Dog Rose petals was to highlight the edges using a length of white thread. The thread was couched in a curve at the very top of the petals to tether it in place on top of the leather.

I was keen to title the book on the spine and initially wasn’t sure how I might do this. I photocopied the wording from the title page inside the book and used this as a template to get the lettering marked out on the back of the leather. I stuck a piece of lens tissue to the spine area on the reverse of the leather in order to consolidate the suede side and create a better surface for mark-making on. I pricked around the letters on the front of the leather and the pin pricks were visible enough on the reverse of the leather so I could then draw around their outlines onto the lens tissue layer with a fine pen.

~ Marking the lettering onto the reverse of the spine

At this point I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to apply the title. I considered piercing out the letters using a sharp scalpel and covering the underside with gold leaf so that it would appear a bit like the letters had been tooled in place. I decided against that in the end as the leather was still relatively thick (around 1.2mm) and I worried that the cut edges wouldn’t appear totally crisp (something to keep up my sleeve for a future binding though!).

~ Working out how to apply the spine lettering

In the end I decided to build up the title using an embroidery technique I used on another recent binding called, Patience. Using multiple small stitches in a variety of different coloured threads I worked my way around the outlines of the letters making sure none of the stitches fell across the space that the letters would occupy. This proved to be a bit difficult to start off with until the letters became clearer on the front of the leather. I did slip up a couple of times and had to snip the threads!

~ Building up the negative space embroidery threads to build up the spine title

What I omitted to do on this binding, which I had done so on the ‘Patience’ miniature, was to apply a wash of colour around the outline of the letters on the surface of the leather using acrylic paints before starting the embroidery. Instead I decided to sew around the outlines of the letters using a sage-green coloured thread just to help them to be more readable and clear whilst also being surrounded by the negative space embroidery.

I used a variety of green, yellow, cream and white threads in this area, swapping between colours regularly to get an even spread across the spine area.

I was incredibly pleased with the look of the spine once the sewing was complete which was a relief after all of the sewing hours I had put into it. It gave a wonderful textural feel and appearance to this area of the binding.

~ The completed spine embroidery

As well as concentrating the embroidery on the spine area, I wanted to graduate the same stitching onto the boards too. As the board joints section of a book cover experiences movement when the boards are opened and closed I made sure that any stitches placed in this area were additionally tethered down, as you can see in the below image.

~ Tethering down the stitches made on the boards joints area of the leather

French knots were finally added across the expanse of the cover in different coloured threads to match those used in the petals, using two strands of thread for each knot.

~ Tying French knots which were sewn in a scattered fashion over the cover

After many many hours of sewing, I was really pleased to say that the leather was fully decorated and ready to stick to the book block. The reverse of the leather was a rather satisfying mix of brightly coloured threads weaving their way all over the place!

~ The completed back of the embroidered leather

Part two of this blog post will follow how the leather was stuck to the text block and completed.

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