Putting the spring-back: The conservation of a 19th-century textile sample book

Sarai Vardi

Two hundred years ago, Charles Swaisland began his textile printing business in Crayford in 1812. A plentiful supply of fresh water in the town, courtesy of the River Cray, led to the growth of industries such as tanning, silk-making, bleaching and textile printing. Leading British designers were trained at a free school in the print works, and by the 1850s it had become known as the ‘Mecca of Calico printing.’

To reflect his company’s achievement in design, Charles Swaisland had his fabric sample pattern books bound in bespoke green parchment bindings. A collection of these pattern books is held in the Royal College of Art Special Collections, providing an insight into the designs created and printed at the Swaisland factory between 1847 and 1858.

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The Fabric of Our Town project was set up last year to mark the two hundred year anniversary of Swaislands.  A key aim of the project was to make the pattern books more accessible to researchers through remedial conservation. This project coincided perfectly with the final year of my Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts, allowing me the opportunity to work on one of these iconic books for my final project.

All the Swaisland books were all bound in the ‘spring-back’ fashion, a type of stationery binding developed in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. The name refers to the tubular spine piece, which acts as a ‘spring’ and throws the pages up wherever the book is opened. This creates a flat surface across the gutter for ease of writing or, in the case of these books, to allow a flat display of the textile samples. Increased strain on the spine and joint are common consequences of the strong lever action created by the spring-back. This often results in a split joint or complete detachment of the spine piece. In the case of the volume chosen for this project, both boards had detached and the spine piece had been lost, along with the front board and front endpapers.

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The book had also been overfilled with fabric samples. There were too few compensation guards to account for the extra bulk, meaning that the foredge was wider than the spine. This, combined with the degradation of the original leather spine linings, had resulted in a concave spine. As a consequence, it was the most vulnerable of all the pattern books and inaccessible to readers.

Discussion of Treatment 

As the majority of the original binding was lost, the other volumes in the collection were used as a reference for the repair and re-bind. Since all Swaisland sample books are bound in a spring-back fashion, it was decided to re-bind the volume as such, with a covering of green parchment so that it would harmonise with the other books.

The textblock was taken down and surface cleaned. Many of the fabric samples had lifted from the paper and were crumpled and creased. Consultation with a textile conservator, followed by tests comparing moisture and heat, found low contact humidification using strips of moist blotter to be the most successful technique to relax the crumpled fabric. They were then pressed flat and any lifting areas were reattached using dry wheat starch paste.

Heavy usage over time had resulted in embrittlement of the textblock paper, particularly at the edges. Original intentions were to focus on the repair of the spine folds only, but it became evident that every page also required edge repair to prevent further disintegration and loss.

(See before and after photos of the edge repairs below)

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The opening action of a spring-back places excessive pull on the spine, so in addition to each section being guarded, the first and last three sections’ back folds were reinforced with strips of bias-cut Fraynot lined with Tengujo 11gsm. Fraynot strips were further pasted to the inner fold of the first and last section. Fortunately, controlling back swell was not an issue as more bulk was desirable to compensate for the foredge swell.

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Compared to the other volumes in the Swaisland collection, in which there were up to six guards per section, only one guard per section had been sewn in this book. Furthermore, most of the samples had been glued into the upper half of the book, resulting in additional uneven swell distribution between the head and tail. Handmade Akbar Natural 115gsm paper was chosen for the compensation guards due to its tone and archival quality. Strips of varying widths were needled out and folded to create staggered guards. Four to six folds of paper were used for each guard. These were sandwiched in between the full-length strips so they were not visible. The guards were sewn in between each section so they did not push out the original sections and alter the width of the text block. The staggered, needled paper strips created a gentle bulge rather than a solid bulk, and did not leave an impression in the pages or overlap the fabric samples.

New front endpapers were constructed using handmade marbled paper to match the back endpapers. Bias-cut aero linen lined with Kozo Shi 23gsm was used for the reinforced joint and strengthener. The back endpapers were repaired with the rest of the text block and the worn cloth joint was replaced with linen.

The text block was re-sewn all along on strong webbed tape with reinforced kettle stitches. The sewing in the endpapers, and first and last sections, was carried around each tape a second time to encircle it for extra strength, and a link stitch connected the first and last sections with the endpapers.

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Traditionally, endbands are uncommon in stationery bindings, however all of the Swaisland pattern books had sewn-on endbands, indicating the extra importance placed on the presentation bindings. Both endbands were missing from this volume, but infrequent tie downs of red and yellow silk thread showed they were once present. New endbands were sewn on to parchment and leather cores with a primary sewing of linen thread and a secondary sewing of yellow and red silk thread. The resulting endbands were secure, supported both ends of the spine and served an aesthetic function.

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“Levers act in conjunction with the spring-back to force open the leaves of an account book right up to the back folds” (Mason, 1946, p. 99).

Lever stiffeners were made up of 1.5mm millboard, a third of the width of the textblock and cross grain from the rest of the book for increased rigidity. These were pasted onto the front and back waste sheets. A release layer of Japanese tissue was pasted to the spine, followed by the leather linings. 0.5mm dark brown goat skin leather was chosen for its strength and flexibility. Five strips were cut and edge pared to fit between the tapes on the spine, and extend over the lever.  Flanges were cut and all edges of the levers were pared.

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The spring-back ‘tube’ was made up of two thicknesses of millboard to imitate the thickness of the tubes on the other pattern books. These were glued together with animal glue and manipulated around a roller (made from a piece of piping the same diameter as the depth of the book) using the addition of heat. The tube was finished off by shaping the jaws around a knocking-down iron with a hammer. It was left to dry overnight on the book to mould it to the spine shape.

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Once dry, the tube was sawn down to the height of the boards, sanded smooth, back cornered slightly and lined with linen. It was attached to the textblock by pasting the linen flanges to the lever.

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The replacement front board was made up two months in advance and kept under weight to give it time to season. 2 mm and 3 mm millboards were pasted together up to 2/3 of the width, with the unpasted portion forming the split. The edges and corners of the back board were consolidated, and the board was pressed dry to address its distortion. The parchment losses were infilled with cartridge paper. Three layers of Kozo-shi were laminated together with paste to create a parchment-like paper. This was toned with acrylics and used over the infills on the back cover.

The boards were attached by inserting the levers in the board slits with an EVA/wheat starch paste mix. All of the front board edges were painted white in preparation for the parchment covering. Cord was pasted onto the tube ends to act as a strengthener and a mould to shape the headcaps over. This was also painted white so that it would not show through the parchment.

The decision to cover the binding in green parchment to match the rest of the Swaisland pattern books posed an ethical problem: what colour exactly to tone the new parchment to? The remaining original parchment on the back board of the book had suffered possible water damage and had faded to a distinctly different colour compared to the covers of the other Swaisland bindings. Toning to match to the verdigris-green of the rest of the volumes would keep the collection cohesive; toning to match the blue of the back board would keep the book cohesive.

(Below is an image comparing the faded colour of the back board (left ) to the green of all the other Swaisland volumes)

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The colour and covering material of the Swaisland pattern books are what makes them identifiable within the Royal College of Art Special Collections store. The College holds a collection of various textile sample books, all of which are stored on the same bay, horizontally. If the front and spine of the book was toned to match the blue of the back cover, the volume would no longer be recognisable as a Swaisland pattern book.  After much discussion with the RCA and other conservators, a compromise was made and the new parchment was toned to a green more towards the other volumes, with a blue undertone so it would still complement the back board.

For successful parchment dying, it is best to build up colour gradually. A mix of Newton and Windsor drawing inks (emerald and ultramarine) and Sellaset leather dyes (yellow and blue) were used for the first blue-green layer of tone. The dye took best when massaged into the skin by hand. It was then clipped out under tension and left to air dry. The following day, a second olive green layer (made up of Sellaset dyes only) was applied in the same fashion. The dye was then fixed.

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The flesh side of the parchment was sanded down in the areas around the grooves and caps, and lined with Esparto 80gsm paper. Pressing boards were made up with nylon rods taped to the edges. These helped to mould the parchment in the joints whilst the book was pressing. The parchment corners were cut with a tab and pared, and all edges were turned in. The book was tied up and the caps were formed by moistening the parchment very lightly with an IMS/water mix.

The front endpapers were pasted down, and the back endpaper linen joint was inserted under the pastedown. Finally, the back board infills were retouched to blend them in with the new parchment spine covering.

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By replacing the spring-back, constructing a new front board and covering in green parchment, the structural and aesthetic integrity of the binding was met and it now functions as it was originally intended, like the rest of the Swaisland volumes.

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sample book

After a brief career as an illustrator, Sarai Vardi re-trained on the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts, graduating in 2013. She has undertaken work placements at the College of Arms, Wellcome Trust, Book and Archive Conservation Services and The Book and Paper Studio, and most recently worked on a short-term project for the Scottish Conservation Studio. Sarai is currently the Icon HLF intern at the Leather Conservation Centre, specialising in books and archival material. 

8 thoughts on “Putting the spring-back: The conservation of a 19th-century textile sample book

  1. I’m curious why you chose parchment as the replacement cover material, rather than something like toned Moriki tissue or cloth. Was it a purely aesthetic choice to make the new binding more sympathetic to the remaining original materials, or do you think there a structural value in using parchment, such as reinforcing the strength of the spine tube? Parchment, if not kept in a very stable environment, can warp dramatically as a response to changes in humidity, possibly necessitating a future rebinding or conservation treatment. Hence, I’d like to know why you chose this particular material over something more physically stable.


  2. Parchment pasted or drummed to a thick board with stabilising lining on the inner board if necessary, once dried, is stable unless subjected to extreme RH and temp changes. The boards look thick. It also depends on the quality of the parchment making.


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