Making Bookcloth—Applying a Paper Backing to Fabric

October 19, 2009

Instructions for backing fabric with paper to create your own bookcloth.

Above: Diagram for backing fabric with paper to make your own bookcloth. The diagram is explained in the discussion below.

Last week in my bookbinding class the topic of using non-bookcloth fabrics for bookcloth came up. I thought that people reading my blog might also be interested in this technique.

The question is always asked: Why can't I just use regular fabric as is? Well, the glue is going to seep through the weave of the fabric, to varying degrees, depending on how loose or tight that weave is. The only fabric I use directly as bookcloth, without a paper backing is canvas duck. You can buy this from any art supply store. It's the fabric used to stretch out for canvases. It tends to be stiff and tight and even then you have to be careful to not apply too much glue. (I also don't use it very much, and frankly if I used it more I would take the time to back it with paper too!)

Another reason to paper back your fabric first before using it as bookcloth is that the paper gives some stability to the cloth. Unbacked cloth can be stretched on the bias and moves a little in all directions when asked. Back it with paper and it becomes more stable. A good thing when you are considering you don't want loose structures, especially around your hinges.

In the digital age, when anyone can insert treated fabric into his printer and print on fabric, paper-backing your own fabric, printed with your own artwork or design, is another way to personalize a handmade book. This provides incentive for learning how to prepare fabric in this way.

What You Need

1. Suitable fabric (fabric with loose, open weaves won't work as the glue seeps out and the paper backing will show). Cottons, silks (the thicker weaves), and synthetics usually work well. Test small pieces first.

2. Paper to back the fabric with. Use light weight, archival, acid-free Japanese papers. Their long fibers make them strong. Their light weight makes them supple.

3. An acrylic sheet like that used for framing paintings instead of glass. The size of this sheet depends on the size of bookcloth you're going to make. You need to have a piece of acrylic that is about 2 inches greater in height and width than the bookcloth you are making.

4. A foam roller for gluing. (You will work in a starburst pattern starting at the center of your paper and working outwards.)

5. PVA (polyvinyl acetate). Good brands can be purchased from Light Impressions and Talas, and other bookbinding supply stores. If you are in the Twin Cities the shop at Minnesota Center for Book Arts carries PVA. (Instead of PVA you can use methyl cellulose, or a mixture of methyl cellulose and PVA, but I only work with PVA. Methyl cellulose gives you a longer open time and other properties some people enjoy working with. I find making the paste and spoilage issues too much hassle.)

6. A hard rubber brayer, 6 inches or greater in width, for smoothing the "sandwich" you'll be making.

7. Waste paper that is larger than your fabric.

The Process

Arrange your materials and workspace so that you can work quickly and cleanly. Postion your fabric nearby, face up. I iron my fabric beforehand as it is easier to smooth. I also wash all fabrics the day I bring them home, before I store them. You might consider washing your fabric to remove any chemical sizing that you might react badly to when holding or touching the book you eventually make.

Read the section of this post "Using this Homemade Bookcloth," on grain direction of fabric and paper before you actually begin gluing.

Position a piece of your backing paper on waste paper that is larger than the backing paper. Your backing paper should be cut so that it is at least 2 inches wider and taller than the fabric you are backing. (Paper will extend one inch beyond your fabric on all sides.) Using the foam roller glue out the paper as described in item 4 above.) This is step A/B in the diagram. You want a thin and even coating of glue on the entire surface of your paper. It should not be sloppy wet.

Wait a moment for the glue to set up but not dry. If it dries you will not get the fabric to stick and there will be airholes! Temperature and humidity in your work area will be a factor in deciding the crucial time. Don't wait too long. It is typically a matter of less than 30 seconds in my conditions.

Move the fabric, FACE SIDE UP, over onto the glued paper, as indicated in step B of the above diagram. You should center the fabric on the glued out paper.

Put a waste sheet over the fabric (it should be the same size as the fabric) and smooth the fabric GENTLY down onto the glued paper. Do not apply too much force or you will cause glue to seep through and stain your fabric. This is very quickly done. Do not slide the waste sheet around or you will transfer glue from the edges of the glued paper onto the top of your fabric.

Remove the waste sheet you just used. Take your fabric and paper piece (what is shown in step C of the diagram) and FLIP IT UPSIDE DOWN so that the unglued back of the paper is now rightside up and the right side of the fabric is facing down. (Don't set this down on the table as you have those glued edges to deal with!) Place it immediately onto the waiting sheet of acrylic as indicated in step D in the diagram where the dashed lines show where the fabric is hiding. (The brown outline is the acrylic sheet, and the unglued side of the paper is the dark tan rectangle.)

Place a piece of clean waste paper over the unglued back of the piece of paper now facing you and burnish the sandwich of paper and fabric down onto the acetate sheet with the rubber brayer or other burnishing tool. Work quickly and thoroughly as you don't want to leave any air pockets. Smooth all the way to the edges of the paper because those glued edges will adhere to the acrylic, and as the glue dries they will hold your fabric taut. As you burnish, peek at the paper backing now and then as you will be able to see if it is smoothing down or not and whether or not more work is needed.

Put the acrylic piece aside to dry. You can stand it on end. Do not weight it. When the glue is dry (depending on temperature and humidity in your work area) simply peel the paper edges off the acrylic. You will have an inch of paper extending past your fabric on all sides. You can trim this down.

Using This Homemade Bookcloth

Fabric has a grain direction. I always have to ask quilter friends as I don't do this a lot. I believe the grain direction runs parallel to the selvage. Ask at the fabric store if you aren't sure.

Paper has a grain direction.

When making your sandwich of paper and fabric you want the direction of the grain of both items to go in the same direction. Then when you use the bookcloth you've made you want to be sure that this grain direction runs parallel to the spine, as with the grain direction of your text paper and your bookboard.

My exception to this is when I use Jacquard's prepackaged 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of cotton which is backed to run through the printer. I don't recall if they note the grain direction of the fabric on the package. There is no selvage to go by and the paper is melded into the "freezer paper" carrier sheet for running through the printer. What I can say is that I pay attention to the grain direction of the paper I add to that fabric and my custom made bookcloth has always worked well for me. (Note: after you run the fabric through the printer you need to remove the carrier sheet BEFORE you back the fabric with your archival paper to turn it into bookcloth.)

Alternative Methods

In the class I just taught there was a young fabric artist who was making her own stunning bookcloth from her painted fabrics. She shared with the group that she used "stitch witchery" which is an iron-on product used in clothing construction as an adhesive. You place sheets of this product over the backside of your fabric and iron with the backing sheet in place. This transfers the adhesive to the fabric. You then place the fabric adhesive side down onto the Japanese paper you want to back the cloth with and iron again. A fairly instant result. I have used this method and my only problem with this method of adhesion is that it uses an adhesive that is not tested over time for archival properties in this application. I would like to know in 15 or 20 years if the bookartists who have adapted this adhesive have good wear, good adhesion, and no seepage or disintegration. Keep this in mind if you are making books to sell or making artist's books for display.

You can also use 3M's PMA (Positionable Mounting Adhesive) if you like the idea of a dry sheet of adhesive. I don't like the feel of fabrics I have paper-backed using PMA so I don't use it for this purpose. I do however use it to glue bookcloth to boards when I am making a sewn on the spine book that has to be sewn immediately (can't wait for the glue to dry so you can punch holes). The problem with this is that PMA has a bit of a chemical smell that I don't like so while I can finish the book in zero time I can't use the book until it aired out (for me that is at least 3 weeks).

Some crafters use Xyron adhesive (permanent, archival) to paper-back fabric. I don't recommend this as my tests yielded bookcloth that didn't have the right heft or feel to it and over a 2-year period, fabric paper-backed with this adhesive and stored gently rolled (i.e., in a large circumference roll) delaminated in various areas across the fabric (much like an air hole or gap, often the size of a finger). Theoretically this adhesive should be a fine alternative as it is permanent and archival if you use the correct cartridge in your Xyron. There are other issues too: you need a very large Xyron to back enough length and width of fabric for even a medium-sized book. Also sometimes the Xyron doesn't feed correctly and there are gaps and even creases in the stuff you feed through it. For those reasons I don't find it a useful approach, but other folks may trust its permanency and enjoy working with it.

Great Uses for Handmade Bookcloth

So now you've got a couple ways to proceed it's time to think about all the crazy fun fabrics you have, or the old clothing you want to to turn into bookcloth. It's time to get your artwork scanned, onto your computer, and printed out onto cloth so you can back it and make the ultimate of personal journals—personalized fabric, a great complement to your paste and other decorative papers. Or it's time to start painting fabric which you then back and use for bookcloth. Whether you want cloth to cover one journal or an editioned artist's book, making your own bookcloth is often the best option for your creative vision.

Good News Update (around Monday noon after this was already posted)

Alice Schlein, a weaver, just contacted me to let me know that she works with fusibles (products like "stitch witchery" I mentioned above) and she had just read about "Mistyfuse Ultraviolet," a new fusible. The manufacturers claim it is impervious to ultra-violet light. She provided this quote from their brochure:

In accelerated aging studies, exposure to UV rays have been shown to cause fusibles to tan (darken). Especially on light colors, sheers or other light weight fabrics, and surface use, tanning may read as a color shift or dark spots. But now there’s Mistyfuse Ultraviolet! Mistyfuse Ultraviolet is specially formulated with an effective retardant to protect against the tanning effect of UV rays – without sacrificing any of the inherent Mistyfuse qualities you expect and trust. Mistyfuse Ultraviolet is white and fuses clear.

I haven't used this produc. Alice likes to use fusibles when she makes books and likes its workability—but  we won't know about the lasting part of it for decades. It is probably a good idea if you are going to use a fusible adhesive in bookbinding that you seek one out that makes the claims Mistyfuse Ultraviolet does, because it would be sad in 10 years to have your lovely hand-painted silk bookcloth come out all over in dark spots!

    • karen
    • October 19, 2009

    Wow. Thanks, Roz!

  1. Reply

    I’ve used new or already-used tyvek envelopes instead of the types of materials you have mentioned for backing cloth. It is light, very strong, and makes a wonderful backing. After trying other things to back the cloth I use for my books, I pretty much stick to this now. And somehow it’s nice to be able to re-use something that might otherwise be thrown away. (If the tyvek has printing on it, then I make sure, if I’m using a light colored fabric, to not have the printing on the side that is adhered to the fabric, but rather on the side that ultimately faces the bookboard for the cover.)

    • Christina Trevino.
    • October 19, 2009

    I have bags of dresses, shirts and skirts saved for their colorful patterns, found in yard sales. I thought I’d use them to make book covers. This coming weekend seems promising, with your instructions. I’ll have to get PVA.
    Yesterday I painted a few backgrounds. And glued papers on them. Next step is a little vague at the moment.
    Roz, you are my guru!

    • Roz
    • October 19, 2009

    Consie, this is interesting. I have used Tyvek for bookcloth (see the back to hardcovered books in this image but the Tyvek I used to get isn’t available any longer and the samples they sent doesn’t respond the same way, so I won’t be doing this.

    I found it always a bit tricky to glue, slicker obviously. So it took more care. I wouldn’t have thought to back fabric with it, but I think it’s a cool idea. I have bookmaking friends who use Tyvek (lightweight) for the hinging areas and for backing the spines.

    And you’re even recyling!!!!

    I love it.

    • Roz
    • October 19, 2009

    Christina, I love it: a wardrobe of books! Have fun.

    As for vague next steps, well sometimes we just need to take a walk. And then something catches our attention. I’m going to post a little video of the weird journal later this week and it may give you an idea of how to proceed. The main thing with those backgrounds is don’t let your mind tell you you need to save them for something special, just have at them!

    • Roz
    • October 19, 2009

    For people who’ve already read this post and commented, perhaps you’re subscribed to the posts and so I wanted to give you a heads up I just updated the post (added a new section at the very end) about a new fusible Mistyfuse Ultraviolet, that evidently can withstand changing color over time. Something to look into if you are going to use a fusible, so check out the post again.

  2. Reply

    It has been so long since I’ve made my own bookcloth I forgot how. Yes, I have notes but this tutorial is better. And you just gave me an idea for a great Christmas present.

    • Roz
    • October 20, 2009

    Diane, that’s great! I can’t wait to see what you do.

  3. Reply

    My daughter wants me to join her in a craftfair at her church next year and I thought of handmade journals. I think I will play with this – I have sooo much fabric I don’t use anymore. I like the idea of adding Tyvek to the spine area since I will be sewing through it and want it strong but I worry about it sticking well enough. Time to practice!

  4. This post is exactly what I was looking for! I just took a bookbinding class and was wondering about binding a book in a fabric I’ve embroidered. Thank you for such a thorough tutorial. I am wondering, though, where you get the paper to back it with. Is that something that can be easily found at a craft store, or is it more specialized than that?

    • Roz
    • November 12, 2009

    In general I don’t think a craft store would have the Japanese papers to back your cloth with. I think you would need to work with an art supply store like Wet Paint, or order through Talas On-line.

    I’m so glad the post was helpful.

    • Kimitsu
    • October 16, 2012

    Can I back fabric with sumi paper instead of mulberry paper? of is sumi paper too fragile?

    • Roz Stendahl
    • October 16, 2012

    Kimitsu, you theoretically can use any lightweight bendable paper you want, but you want something as strong as possible or it sort of defeats the purpose. I think sumi paper is more fragile than I would like to use, because it’s time intensive to do this and you could just be wasting your time, i.e., the glue can come through or the paper won’t hold up as well.

    I wouldn’t use it. I’d stick with a paper that has long fibers and is very sturdy.

    • Mitch
    • December 13, 2012

    Roz, thank you very much for these detailed instructions!

    I tried it for the first time last night…well, actually I confess to taking some shortcuts. I didn’t use an acrylic sheet at all. I cut the fabric and paper at approximately the same size. I glued out the thin Japanese paper paper, leaving a bit of “margin” around the edges so as to ensure no glue squishing out. After applying it to the fabric, I smoothed out any lumps with a bone folder, primarily from the fabric side.

    Afterward I applied additional glue around the edge if the “margin” was too big, then re-used the bone folder.

    It seemed to work well on a small trial piece (maybe 6″ by 8″), though I haven’t used it as bookcloth yet or tried with this a larger piece of cloth.

    I weighted it while drying, then cut off the “margin” area that was not glued (approx 1″ off all 4 sides).

    I’m working on a journal gift for my wife and it’s very liberating not being confined to traditional book cloth.

    Can you see any drawbacks to this approach?

    Thanks again,

  5. Reply

    Mitch, I’m glad you gave it a try. I’ve just been driving in rush hour traffic in melty-icy conditions so I’m not following all you’re describing, but you your variations worked for you go for it! The purpose of doing it as outlined in my explanations, with the over hang of the paper is that the glue-y overhang attaches (temporarily) to the acrylic piece and pulls the whole thing nice and taut while it is drying so the chance of airbubbles or the chance of pushing glue out through the weave of the fabric is eliminated.

    If you didn’t have either of those problems then you’re good to go. Have fun with your new book cloth! Thanks for reading.

    • Mitch
    • December 13, 2012

    Makes sense. Thanks!

  6. Reply

    Thanks, Roz, for these very clear instructions~Mary

  7. Sorry if this comments twice… not sure if my other comment went through or not…

    Thanks! Great instructions. I’ve been doing some printmaking/book arts tutorials on my blog, and your post will be a great help with my book making and post-writing.

    • Eleytwin1
    • May 22, 2015

    When you speak of Japanese paper, what exactly is it called so that I can order it?

    • Eleytwin1
    • May 22, 2015

    If you are using PVA to attach the backing paper to the cloth, do you also use PVA to attach the paper cloth to the book cover?

  8. Reply

    Eleytwin1, sorry you’re going to have to go to a store that sells paper and ask to look at some unprinted Japanese paper with strong mulberry fibers. I’ve used different examples of this paper over the years and I don’t have their Japanese names written down. I just go and find something suitable. The price varies a lot and that might also be a factor.

    Alternately you can go on line at one of the providers that sell Japanese paper and look at swatches digitally.

    The key thing is to get something that is very thin yet strong, and all if not most of the ones I’ve used have had mulberry fibers.

  9. Reply

    Yes. I use PVA for the entire process. Some people like to use methyl cellulose paste or a mix of m-c and PVA, but I don’t like to work with m-c so I don’t. The advantage to m-c paste is that it seems to be open longer and allow some adjustments, but I never enjoyed working with it so I stopped trying to use it for anything about 20 years ago.

    • Carla
    • February 1, 2022

    Dritz tape is acid free and equivalent of the Stich Witchery. Here is a link for this product.

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