I have never liked the criss-cross binding (also known as secret Belgian binding) much. Such a great statement to begin with! Even at its best it has always been a bit awkward to make, and throughout sewing it feels like you’re doing something wrong, just a bit wrong - not necessarily technically, more on a moral level. How come?
This binding indeed raises many questions. What is the purpose of this structure? Doesn’t the sewing eventually begin to suffer from abrasion? Is the excessive loose movement of the signatures and the cover pieces something that was intended or just a byproduct? Does it have enough structural fluency? Is it visually pleasing enough? What on earth is all this “secret Belgian binding” nonsense about, anyway? How’s it Belgian, or secret?
During the past twenty years or so, the criss-cross binding has been surrounded by amazing amount of misinformation. There are odd stories referring to its historical origins and various other vague explanations floating around the Internet. Most of it is simply bogus. The bookbinder Hedi Kyle apparently first learnt about this non-adhesive technique when seeing Belgian examples of the binding, and brought it to the US. For a good while it was thought that the binding was some mystical historical structure which Kyle was said to have rediscovered. However, the technique seems to have been invented by a Belgian book artist Anne Goy in 1986 as a flexible alternative to Japanese stab bindings. Goy herself calls this technique of hers the criss-cross binding.
To complicate things further, some tutorials online have indicated that the sections are sewn in using the thicker criss-cross threads as supports, but the original version actually utilises primary and secondary sewing, in which the text block is first sewn on tapes and then attached to the cover pieces with secondary sewing. This version makes much more sense, and produces a stronger product.
Taking all this in consideration, it is truly mind-boggling that despite all the vague unease surrounding the technique, these bindings can look and feel really nice. The nicety of this binding depends a lot on the materials used. It is a good technique for utilising thick leather pieces and other rigid materials that are often difficult to manipulate into a regular handbound book. In my opinion it’s at its best when made with laminated leathers or somewhat kooky ingredients such as rubber mat or pieces of dense, pressed felt. It’s a great way to utilise reycled material. Unlike in other bookbinding, the thicker and bolder the materials are the better the resulting book feels. I also think it is about the time to shed the misinformed name of this binding and to attribute it to Anne Goy.