I would guess that few people outside of craft bookbinding know what a headband
is and where it is to be found. If one were to hold a book by its spine with the front edge of the bookbinding pointing towards you, and look along the top edge of the book, as far back as the spine, your eyes would fasten on the headband, if fitted.
Headbands have changed as bookbinding has undergone changes. Now there are two types of headband used commonly in European bookbinding. There are of course others if one were to include Islamic art and Coptic binding styles, as well as all the different historical styles.
One is sewn by hand around a vellum or leather core, and provides real strength at an important part of the bookbinding.
The other is a machine made headband, little more than a strip of cloth with a patterned edge, this type of headband is purely cosmetic, and it does nothing to improve the strength of the bookbinding.
A correctly sewn headband is both decorative and functional, decorative, as the headband is usually sewn with contrasting coloured threads, and functional, because as said, the headband provides strength at the point that a bookbinding is most often pulled from the shelf.
In sewing this type of headband properly one should sew the headband into the sections of the book at spacing's of a few millimetres. However during the 18th & 19th centuries it was common, for the sake of economy, to sew the headband into the book at only three stations, one at the beginning, one at the middle and one at the end. This type of headband commonly had a rolled paper core which rots over time, causing the headband to break apart.
If a book is to be bound simply in cloth, then a machine made headband may be considered appropriate. But if a leather bound book is contemplated, it really should have a correctly sewn headband fitted.
There are a huge variety of coloured polyester threads available; you can also sew the headband in silk thread.
Though not a headband in the strict sense, I should mention the 'string cap'. This method also provides strength where the book is pulled from the shelf. This involves inserting a small length of string wetted with paste into the area of the leather which forms around the headcap, the headcap being that part of the bookbinding where the leather forms around the headband at the top of the book
As the paste dries, the headcap is moulded into shape with a useful little tool called a bone folder, and allowed to dry completely.
There are several other methods of treating the headcap, perhaps in closing I should mention the 16th century German style of woven headcap, this style of headcap involved plaiting lengths of leather and running each end of the woven headcap into one of the board edges of the bookbinding, it gives great strength to a book bound in this way.
By Richard Norman
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