Options in Book Cloth Add Style and Durability
by Rob Mauritz
Bookbinders know that the interior pages of a book add a tactile element to the reading experience, but it’s the cover material and design that attracts attention on the shelf. The book cloth of today adds color and texture to everything from photo books and menu covers to the classics that will remain in libraries for centuries to come.
A brief history of book cloth
As book production increased near the close of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, bookbinders turned to fabric cover material rather than leather. It was cheaper, more colorful and easier to embellish. Book cloth, coated or impregnated with pigmented starch, readily accepted elaborate embossing and metallic stamping foils.
Although paper also was used for binding, it was not as durable as starch-filled fabric. The artistry of famous book designers, such as Margaret Armstrong and Frederic Remington, survives today because it was created for books bound in starch-coated cloth.
Innovative bookbinders continued to look for ways to increase the durability of covers and make them waterproof. At the same time, two other innovators – Orville and Wilber Wright – were searching for a better fabric to cover the wings of the Wright Flyer. They had tested almost every cloth they could to cover the wings of the world’s first successful flying machine.
Meanwhile in New England, a group of bookbinders gathered at a seaside inn. Conversation about cover cloth drifted out to the water and to the nearby sailing ships. According to legend, one of the binders commented, “If only we had a fabric as strong as cotton sail cloth.” All agreed that would be ideal.
At that time, DuPont was producing nitro-cellulose lacquer for use on the fabric wings of the emerging aviation industry... and the Wright brothers were interested. The conversation led to a solution for the bookbinders. They challenged textile manufacturers in New England to produce a heavy sail-like fabric and coat it with DuPont’s nitro-cellulose lacquer.
Within a few years, the industry was producing a new durable book cloth, produced in several grades and hundreds of colors. Even today, US passports are covered in a dark blue material that can trace its construction to the early days of book cloth coatings.
Book cloth produced today is much more durable and protective than the original standard established in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of fashionable colors are available in the popular grades, and book cloths are offered in natural cloth texture and embossed with attractive grains. Today’s weaving and coating techniques produce excellent, attractive and durable bookbinding and packaging fabrics.
Finding the right cover material
The old adage says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In the print industry, however, providers WANT customers’ books to be judged by their covers! Therefore, it’s important to work very closely with customers as they determine which material to use when covering their book.
One of the factors going into this decision is how the book will be used. For example, a book that is going to get heavy use will need a material that can withstand both constant handling and the potential for liquid spills or stains. This material typically is a coated cloth that offers both strength and stain resistance. Heavy books with pages printed on coated paper or extremely thick books with a high-page count also are candidates for a sturdy coated cloth to help withstand heavy use.
When elegance or beauty is the desired result, uncoated cloth often is the material of choice. Both uncoated cotton and rayon provide a rich appearance and offer a tactile feel that is pleasant to touch. The benefit of rayon is that it is more moisture-absorbent than cotton, which allows it to be dyed in more vibrant colors than cotton. Photo books, coffee table books and art books often use these materials for their covers.
For variety, nothing compares with vinyl-coated paper. This style of cover material is offered in most every color available and can be embossed in a wide variety of interesting designs. Journals, books, photo albums and menus are the typical end uses for this material.
All of the aforementioned materials can be decorated using foil stamping, blind embossing and screen printing. It often is wise to test a material when decorating to ensure it meets the needs of the project. For example, very intricate designs should be avoided when foil stamping on uncoated cloth. When printing, vinyl-coated paper or coated cloth will provide the sharpest image. All of these materials are excellent choices for luxury packaging. The design, function and decorating method of the package will dictate the material.