Learning How to Make Japanese Stab Stitch Books

by Susan Green October 10, 2018

Japanese Stab Stitch book with Chiyogami paper, Tortoiseshell pattern

Learning How to Make Japanese Stab Stitch Books

On Sunday afternoons during 2018 you would have found me sharing the joys of making Japanese Stab Stitch books with a small group of craft lovers at Artisan Community Art Studio in Dorset. Written during the last of my bookbinding courses that year, this blog post hopes to inspire and help people interested in making these types of books, even if they can't come to my bookbinding courses.

You'll find top tips for making these Stab Stitch books, details about the best materials and tools to use, and get an overview of traditional Japanese papers and decorative designs. You'll also get an idea of what it's like to come to my courses, in case you were thinking of making bookbinding your next creative adventure!

With plenty of tea (and sometimes cake) to hand, I've shown my group of budding bookbinders how to make the 4-hole, Noble and Hemp Leaf bindings, so far. 

Left to Right: Tortoiseshell, Noble, Simple Sketchbooks stitched with recycled, handmade cotton rag paper.

The 4-Hole is the simplest style and forms the basis of all the Stab Stitch bindings. It's not difficult to make and is the perfect place for you to start. Follow that with the Noble, which adds details to the head (top) and tail (bottom) of the spine.  

And then there's the Tortoiseshell. It looks like a one-of-a-kind style, but is in fact the 4-Hole binding with the addition of some extra stitches either side of the original four sewing stations.

After that you're ready to try the Hemp Leaf. This looks complicated, but you start off simply by making the Noble binding, and then adding extra stitches, which evoke the leaves of the Hemp plant.

Hemp Leaf BindingHemp Leaf binding for a sketchbook with flower petals in the cotton rag covers.

The unique qualities of Japanese papers

In our next session, I'll be introducing my group to the Tortoiseshell Japanese Stab Stitch pattern. I'll also be demonstrating how to make and attach decorative spine corners and traditional folded covers for the Stab Stitch books using very special Japanese papers. 

Traditional Japanese papers are renowned for being lightweight yet incredibly strong. These qualities - the holy grail of paper - make them ideal for many aspects of bookbinding, from covering books in decorative Chiyogami and Katazome-Shi papers, to doing conservation and repair work with Kozo and Gampi, interleaving albums with various lightweight tissues and making text blocks and title strips with machine-made Satogami.   

Learn to make Hemp Leaf and Noble Stab Stitch Bindings with Susan GreenHemp Leaf with plant fibre and Satogami papers; Noble with Chiyogami.

I used plant-fibre paper for this small Hemp Leaf notebook; whilst I love its colour and texture, I was less keen on its tendency to tear a little around the sewing stations. The title strip is Satogami paper that I tore by hand to augment the tactile feel of the book. Traditionally, the title strip in this position is placed no more than 3mm from the book's head and foredge. I used Chiyogami paper for the Noble binding on the right; it responded much better than the plant-fibre paper.

Traditional Japanese surface pattern designs

Below are some images of the exquisitely beautiful Chiyogami papers my bookbinding group will be using in our next session. I selected these patterns to give an overview of traditional Japanese designs. Floral designs, especially cherry blossoms, are quintessentially Japanese.

Japanese Chiyogami Paper Hester GreenBlue Hester Chiyogami Japanese paper for bookbindingPaper for making Japanese booksChiyogami Paper with Red Crowned Crane Pattern

Cranes are a traditional motif frequently found in Japan; on textiles, decorative papers, bank notes and company brand marks. The Red-Crowned Crane pictured in the Chiyogami paper above symbolises luck and longevity throughout East Asia. In Japan, they are known as 'tanchōzuru' and are said to live for one thousand years, granting favours in return for sacrifices. 

Japanese Chiyogami Paper for BookbindingKatazome Shi birdsong paper for bookbinding

Geometric shapes are also found in traditional Japanese decorative designs. They provide more complex patterns, suggesting movement - perhaps the waves of a choppy ocean, reminiscent of Hokusai's paintings.  And for a bit of fun, I've chosen a sheet of Katazome-Shi paper for its cheerful bird-song design.

Is it worth using traditional Japanese papers?

It's true that Japanese papers are more expensive than others - just under £8 for a sheet of Chiyogami - but their beauty and practical qualities make the spend worth it. Firstly, your books will look attractive and authentic. Secondly, the paper responds well to folding and is durable enough for regular handling. But if you're just learning to make Stab Stitch books, why not practice with whatever paper you already have to hand or can obtain cheaply, then treat yourself to some Chiyogami or Katazome-Shi when you're confident you know what you're doing? 

Top Tip! It's an old adage, but a good one: measure twice, cut once!

Each sheet of Chiyogami is large enough to make covers for three A5 landscape Japanese Stab Stitch books, or one A5 landscape and one A4 portrait book. There will be some paper leftover, which you can use to make corner pieces. The paper is long grain, in case you were wondering - don't forget to keep the grain direction of your materials running parallel to the spine of you book.

All the Japanese papers mentioned in this post can be purchased from Shepherds. Scroll down for more advice on choosing text papers and binding thread, overcoming common problems and ideas for using the Stab Stitch books.

Choosing text paper and thread

Binding thread

I strongly recommend linen thread for your spine stitching. Strong yet flexible, it's the preferred thread of bookbinders, especially for exposed spine sewings like the Japanese Stab Stitch books. It's certainly good to get started with whatever you have to hand at home - why spend money when you don't have to? - but it's easy to get frustrated and blame yourself (lack of skills, doubtful craftsmanship) when things don't go well. In reality, an experienced professional bookbinder wouldn't fare much better than you, if they were using less-than-ideal materials.

Top Tip! Your linen thread must be waxed. 

Waxed Linen Bookbinding ThreadWaxed linen thread for binding Stab Stitch books - all the colours of the rainbow!

Wax helps the stitching grip to itself and also prevents undue tearing of the paper. You could get some unwaxed linen thread and a beeswax / vegan wax block and wax it yourself.

Text weight papers

For your bookblock (the pages inside the book), I'd recommend anything from lightweight 80, 90 or 100gsm regular printer paper for beginners (fold the lightest weight papers in half and bind along the open edge, to make a traditional 'pouch book'), to 120 or 130gsm cartridge paper for writing and drawing. You could also use pastel or watercolour paper, if those are your preferred mediums, or Satogami if you'd like a general-purpose Japanese lightweight paper.

The tricky bits

Even those of us well-seasoned in our craft find some aspects of it more challenging than others. If you're new to making Japanese Stab Stitch books, here are come common tricky bits, with ideas for overcoming them.

Sewing - it's actually about the piercing.

A common stumbling-block for beginners is getting up to five passes of thread through a single sewing station (as with the Hemp Leaf Stab Stitch). Needles are wiggled, frowns appear, a lot of force is applied and still the needle just won't pull through the sewing station.

Top Tip! Make sure you pierce your sewing station to the full thickness of your awl - and check that the sewing station is as wide at the back of the book as well as the front. This will help your needle pass smoothly through each sewing station. If you're struggling, try standing up to pierce - your bodyweight will help you get through the bookblock. If you're still struggling, your bookblock is too thick. Don't forget to use a suitable awl cushion such as a piece of cork, polystyrene, etc.

Which awl is best for making Japanese Stab Stitch books?English awl; Japanese awl

And which awl should you use? Japanese awls are beautifully forged, but English awls are much more comfortable to use thanks to the curved wooden handle that fits beautifully in the palm of your hand.


A lot of bookbinding activities involve maths, such as figuring out the placement of sewing stations (the holes through which you sew). If maths isn't your strong suit, don't be put off trying your hand at making books. I'm not brilliant with numbers, yet with practice I've become proficient at making the calculations required to make all sorts of books.

Top Tip! If you're making books at home and the maths ever starts to feel too much, follow the advice I give to my students - trust your eye. It's amazing how accurate the eye can be in determining the correct placement of a sewing station, usually to within a millimetre.

Achieving beautiful outcomes, even as a beginner 

By the end of the course, each person in my bookbinding group will have made each of the four traditional Japanese Stab Stitch books, culminating in a stunning Tortoiseshell binding with traditional decorative corners and covers, just like this:

Tortoiseshell Japanese Stab Stitch book with Chiyogami paper and Navy linen threadTortoiseshell with Chiyogami corners and covers

In our final session, I'll be encouraging my bookbinders to design their own Stab Stitch patterns (it can be done - just take a look on Pinterest) and make their own personal projects using these binding styles. 

What kind of books can I bind in a Japanese Stab Stitch style?

Blank books are fantastic as sketchbooks and journals, and a great place to start. But I want to inspire my workshop participants to think about content ideas and the kinds of projects that would be brilliantly showcased with a traditional Japanese book. So I bring along some 'real life' examples of Stab Stitch books, including an annual review, a community recipe book, a textile stitch sampler and a published book about Japanese craft and product design. 

Japanese Stab Stitch Annual ReviewHemp Leaf printed annual review

Here, pages with text, illustrations and photographs were compiled by a small team of people as a year-in-review. The pages were printed on an ordinary home office printer and then I bound them into book format using the Hemp Leaf pattern, with simple card covers. This is a low-cost way of producing community projects; the great advantage of stab stitch styles is that they do not require any complicated page layout or imposition.

Top Tip! All you have to remember with binding printed, handwritten or drawn pages is to leave adequate margins on the left of each page to allow for the binding, plus a little extra space to compensate for the area 'lost' by the curve that forms as you turn the pages. 

The Essence of Japanese DesignMenegazzo, R & Piotti, S: Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design, published by Phaidon, 2014

I wouldn't recommend making a Japanese Stab Stitch book quite as thick as the one above. This is a published work produced by a commercial printer, but it demonstrates that a Stab Stitch book will lie open on a desk, if its page size and weight provide sufficient drape. It's also wonderful reading if you're interested in Japanese design.

Stitch Sampler BookStitch Sampler - this fascinating book, made with a Noble binding, has a wide variety of creative embroidery samples attached to each page.

Top Tip! If your inclusions are quite thick, such as these embroidery samples, be sure to include spine spacers in your binding; these should be as thick as your inclusions to prevent swell. Use pieces of thick card the same colour as your pages, make sure they're the same height as your bookblock and wide enough to be caught by your spine stitching. 

Cyanotypes used as covers for Japanese Stab Stitch booksBind your own artwork . Artist and illustrator Donna Enticknap attended one of my previous courses, where she used her own cyanotype prints as covers for this 4-Hole book.

Make or buy your own Japanese Stab Stitch books

Stab Stitch bindings are a regular feature of my bookbinding workshops and courses, and I hope to be teaching again in 2020. In the meantime, I hope this blog post has given you some tips and encouragement to try making these gorgeous books.

If you've fallen in love with Japanese binding styles but don't quite feel up to making them yourself, you can purchase them here.

Stab Stitch Sketchbooks with cotton rag paperA variety of Stab Stitch Sketchbooks with recycled cotton rag paper.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Japanese Stab Stitch books and the types of materials you could use to make them, as well as finding ways to overcome common problems encountered when making this type of book. If you have any questions that I can help with, why not leave a comment below?

Susan Green
T: +44 (0) 7748 759 371
E: info@boundbyhand.co.uk

P.S. Here's another blog post about Japanese Stab Stitch books 

Susan Green
Susan Green


Also in News

SALE: Accordion / Sketchbook set of 3 artist's books in Bloom
January sale: save up to 50% on journals and sketchbooks

by Susan Green January 07, 2022

Save up to 50% on selected handmade leather, vegan cork and paperback journals and sketchbooks in the annual Bound by Hand sale during January only...

Continue Reading

Christmas last order dates for worldwide delivery - Bound by Hand
Christmas Last Order Dates, 2021

by Susan Green November 25, 2021

I ship worldwide from the UK with standard and express delivery options and also offer Click & Collect if you live near to Wimborne, Dorset. Please order from the Ready to Ship Collection by 4pm (GMT) on the dates listed here.

Continue Reading

Sustainable Packing Supplies for UK Makers
Sustainable Packaging Supplies (and what to do with them)

by Susan Green February 25, 2021

Someone asked where I get my sustainable packaging supplies from, so I thought I might as well share here in case the info is useful to my fellow makers. Please share with anyone who might find it helpful.

Continue Reading

Size Guide

Use this Size Guide to check the dimensions of the books you're considering purchasing (dimensions are external and refer to the closed book unless otherwise indicated). If you'd like some guidance with selecting the correct size, feel free to contact Susan the bookbinder: email info@boundbyhand.co.uk or call +44 (0)7748 759371

Leather Memory Books, Wedding Guest Books, Journals and Sketchbooks
A4 Large Portrait 12 inches or 305 mm 8.5 inches or 215 mm 1.5 inches or 38 mm
A4 Large Landscape 8.5 inches or 215 mm 12 inches or 305 mm 1.5 inches or 38 mm
A5 Medium Landscape 6 inches or 155 mm 8.5 inches or 215 mm 1.5 inches or 38 mm
A5 Medium Portrait 8.5 inches or 215 mm 6 inches or 155 mm 1.5 inches or 35 mm
A6 Small Landscape 4.5 inches or 114 mm 6 inches or 155 mm 1 inch or 25 mm
A6 Small Portrait 6 inches or 155 mm 4.5 inches or 114 mm 1 inch or 25 mm


Miniature Journals
 One Size 3 inches or 76 mm 2.25 inches or 60 mm 20 mm or 0.75 inches


Marbled Notebooks
 A4 Large 297 mm or 11.5 inches approx. 205 mm or 8 inches approx. 64 pages
A5 Medium 210 mm or 8.25 inches approx. 145 mm or 5.75 inches approx. 56 pages
A6 Small  150 mm or 6 inches approx. 100 mm or 4 inches approx. 48 pages
A7 Pocket 106 mm or 4.25 inches approx. 72 mm or 2.75 inches approx. 40 pages