I am the guy who works on stab-stitching in the early modern English book trade. For roughly two years, I was frankly obsessed with it, and my research into this material practice has shaped the way I approach questions about the meaning of material forms—especially bibliographical ones. It has also changed the way that I understand early modern drama and has provided the impetus for my entire dissertation, which is now a book project.
When printed, the vast majority of early modern plays took the form of quarto editions. They were squarish, around 6″ x 8″; they were slim, with around 36–40 leaves; and they tended not to have covers of the sort we have come to expect. Sometimes a simple paper wrapper was added, but the first and last leaves of the printed edition were often exposed, serving as de facto covers. And because they were slim, they could be held together, not by a traditional binding, but by what I and other bibliographers call stab-stitching. This was essentially the early modern equivalent of staples. Instead of sewing through the gutter folds onto binding supports, which is what “proper” binding required, you could use an awl to poke three or four holes through the thickness of the entire volume, from front to back. Once this was done, all you needed to do was stitch the stack of quires together with a length of thread. Violà, a book. You stabbed, and then you stitched.
For a few generations now, it has been common to use the fact that early modern playbooks were stab-stitched as evidence that early modern drama had yet to become significant as literature. An article of mine that is freshly out in The Library puts the assumptions that underlie this move under the microscope, asking us to reconsider one of the truisms that has shaped our literary histories. The title is “Stab-Stitching and the Status of Early English Playbooks as Literature,” and you can access it through libraries that subscribe to, well, The Library. It is in issue 16.3 of the 7th series (September 2015). If you do not have access to the journal via an institutional subscription, but are interested, please send me an email and I will see what I can do.
* The featured image is from a copy of The london prodigall (1605) at The Folger Shakespeare Library, shelfmark STC 22333 Copy 2. It is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.