The Overcast Stitch

Usually, I work with laced-on bindings, using french link stitching over linen tapes. However, on a rare occasion, I find a book that looks like a signature binding, but in the de-binding find out it is a variation such as notch-perfect binding. Mass produced trade books, magazines, and paperbacks machine-assembled, use the perfect binding method. Traditional perfect binding have signature folds trimmed at the spine. Pages align squarely with each other at the binding spine edge. Typically the perfect binding uses a hot-melt, gelatinous glue over the cut edge of the spine. The notch perfect binding variation uses folded signature gatherings with slits along the folds. Glue applied to the signature folds fills the notches and creates a strong, flexible bond. Both types of perfect binding have the advantage of being economical to produce.

01signaturesThe Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. So as a learning opportunity, I try a new binding method. I am not a fan of the traditional perfect binding, because over time and use it usually breaks at the spine, resulting in loose signatures or pages. I decide on using the overcast stitch. The overcast stitch creates a durable binding and loses the least amount of spine margin since the spine folds are not cut off. The overcast stitch, I find, requires more time and effort than I have experienced in other stitching techniques.

I gather signatures in units of 4 pages which is the result of a single folio folded in half using the front and back of the paper. A book may have signature pages in units of 4, such as  4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, etc. The more pages added to the gatherings, the thicker the signature. I elect to keep the original signature format of 24 pages on this book. 02punchtemplate

Start by creating a template for the stitching stations from scrap millboard or heavy cardboard. Cut the board to the height of the book’s text block. Mark a 1/8″ inset from the edge of the board. The 1/8″ inset translates to the sewing stations being set 1/8″ from the signature’s folds. Mark the template orientation to the book with H for the head (top) and T for the tail (bottom). Using a metal hole punch, space the holes 3/8″ apart along the inset pencil line. Notation: The holes can be up to 1/2″ apart. After going through this process, I wish I had used the 1/2″ spaced sewing stations. My fingers were very sore after the sewing session. 03punchsignature

Place each signature on a scrap piece of millboard for traction and padding when punching. Align the millboard edge to signature spine fold and the side marked H to the top of the book signature. Keep this alignment throughout the punching of all the signatures and endsheets.  If the top of the template is accidentally rotated, the holes will not vertically align from signature to signature. The misalignment of the holes will cause issues in sewing. I use a small cloth weight to prevent the signature from moving during the punching.04sigpunch

Using an awl, punch sewing station holes through the template into each signature. This provides a consistent alignment of the holes on every signature in the sewing process.

When finished punching the sewing stations, stack the signatures with incorporated plain end sheets. Use an L-square to square the stack at the head and spine. Divide the height of the book into five, equidistant spaces along the spine.  In this case, I use the center of the book as the measuring start place. Mark lines along the spine to show the divisions. Cut linen tapes about 1.5″ to 2″ beyond the width of the spine. Align the linen tapes to the penciled lines and tape into place. 05spineguides

Mark the tape positions on the spine


As a personal preference, I use an elevated book stand on the workbench since I stand while working. The book stand is covered with a drawer liner to keep pages clean. For workflow efficiency, I position loose-stacked signatures with fore-edges facing me behind the tapes setup. Flip one signature over to center align pencil marks on the fold with the linen tapes. A cloth weight on the signature prevents accidental movement of the signature. Using linen thread, tie-off the first row of the overcast stitch (in this case starting on the right and working to the left). Begin the over-under stitch, incorporating the tapes. The stitch is overcast along the fold to the left end of the spine.07sewbegin

Flip the second signature from stack to align with tapes. On the last hole of the signature, sew through the first & second signature sewing station and loop around both signatures. The sewing now moves back to the right. Include the tape in the loop over of the overcast stitch.08sew2ndsig


The stitch over laps the spine folds of both the first and second signature and sews through both signatures sewing stations. When you reach the last sewing station on the right side, flip the third signature and place on top of the front stack. Sew through the three signatures. Notice the stitching along the spine looks like a lacing (similar to a tennis shoe lace-up).10sew2ndend

After passing through the third signature on the right, move from right to left passing the needle through the second and third signature sewing holes (do not include the first signature in this pass). Be mindful of the sewing tension and set up a rhythm – not too loose or too tight. There should be enough give in the stitching to pass the needle between the first and second signatures.


Add third signature and pass the needle through all signatures


Thread loop over the top and previous signature


Push needle through top and second signature.


Thread loop over the top and previous signature


Bone fold each stitched signature to consolidate the spine.16bonefolder

When you reach the left end, add the fourth signature and the continue sewing from left to right passing through the third & fourth signature holes. Continue to add the other signatures. Attach the new signature in the same way passing the linen thread through the previous signature sewing holes to interlock the signatures together. As you progress the lacing pattern becomes more dominant.17sewlastsigbegin

On the last signature, tie off the last stitch by sewing through the loop. Do this twice.18sewlasttie1






After the last tie-off, sew the last stitching row to finish.



While, durable the overcast stitch creates a tightness in the book opening. The book’s spine will be stiff and not as flexible in laying flat when open. Also this method cannot tolerate a rounded spine. A flat is the typical outcome. Or, a slightly curved spine if the stitching has enough give.26spinesquare

When finished with the sewing, gently manipulate the spine into a curvature. I don’t use a backing hammer. The goal is to use the slight give in the stitching to manually coach the signatures into a curve starting from the center of the spine to the hinge shoulder. Flip to both sides during the manipulations.

After loosening the spine, square the text block at the head and spine.  Align the book spine along the edge of the work bench. Paste the spine between the tapes using a combination of PVA mixed with methyl cellulose. Be sure to smooth the glue into the signature spaces. Once applied let the paste dry until tacky to the touch. Takes about 5-10 minutes depending on the moisture in the air. Again, gently mold the spine into the slight curve. Let the paste dry completely and cure over night.


Line the spine between the tapes with paper to preserve and support the spine shape. I also add a thinned, folded scrap leather encapsulated in thin mulberry tissue as base for the hand-sewn silk headbands.

The overcast method took 11 hours to complete. It is important to note, when you start the sewing process do not stop. The stitching tension may change if too much time passes between sewing sessions. This technique has it’s place, but I confess it is not my favorite. I much prefer the lace-on or french link stitching to the overcast method. Though I am curious about how an on-cord version of the overcast stitch would behave. Lesson learned: Thinner signature gatherings would be easier and quicker to sew through.


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