Sewing is one of those domestic skills that has waned in popularity. Bravo TV’s reality show Project Runway aside, I rarely if ever hear my peers talking about or engaging in the activity. During my formative years, however, sewing definitely played a role in our household. My mom made my clothes until I was in the 2nd grade. I have vivid memories of going with her to the fabric store, looking at patterns by Butterick and Simplicity, and watching her lay the very delicate tissue-like paper patterns on top of the fabric we picked out and cutting very, very slowly and carefully.
When I grew older, my mom sent me to a sewing class where I learned the basics of the craft; however, I never mastered it like my mother or my grandmother (who was a seamstress for Catalina swimwear). Still, I am relatively comfortable around a sewing machine and can sew a button on or hem a pair of pants.
When it became evident that the Sutro Library needed heavier book weights (or snakes as they are called) for our large, folio books, I thought, “Hey, I can make those!” For readers not familiar with the handy reading room tool known as the book snake, they are “…designed to help hold open books, freeing up a researcher’s hands to take notes, take a picture, or hold a magnifying glass.” (Readers of this article are encouraged to learn more about how snakes are used with rare materials by reading the Folger Library’s excellent post on the matter found here: https://collation.folger.edu/2019/05/snakes-on-a-book/ ).
What I didn’t know is if I could find the specialized supplies needed to make them at a cheaper cost than what the traditional library vendors offered. We asked a few of our colleagues in the rare book and conservation professions for some advice and learned where to acquire the specialized lint-free cotton tubing needed for the outside of the snake. Next, we needed to find a “filler” that was not cost prohibitive for us. Our colleagues’ advice ranged from lead shot, to beans, to aquarium rocks. Lead is common in book snakes, but it poses a serious challenge to cleaning the snakes in the future. Dried beans are cheap and easy to find, but I was not comfortable with introducing organic matter that could break down over time around our books.
We settled on aquarium rock as our snake filler. It is a natural product, easy to clean, affordable, doesn’t off-gas or break down, and has enough “give” to gently curve over the book’s boards without being too stiff and unyielding.
The next step was to fire up my sewing machine, measure and cut the stockings into uniform lengths, and then sew up one side of the snake.
Next, I used a small scale to evenly distribute the aquarium rock into plastic bags. This accuracy made sure that all the completed snakes weighed the same and would not be under or overstuffed.
Once the bags were assembled, I needed an easy way to get the rocks into my limp snakes which proved harder than one would think. I poured each bag into a measuring cup and then transferred the rocks into a funnel that I held inside the opening of the snake.
The rocks were not uniform in size so the funnel opening frequently got blocked slowing the process significantly. To clear the blockages, I used a wooden skewer to keep the rocks flowing into the snake. Once the snakes were filled, I sewed up the open end which made the snakes look like sausages.
The cotton lining became too thin after stretching to absorb the rocks and I worried they would burst open if they snagged on something sharp in the future. To solve this problem, I “double bagged” them by cutting another sock for the sausages to go into.
The tricky part at this stage was to make each end have a nice seam since, once filled, the snakes became too thick to put through my sewing machine. This last step had to be done by hand which also took some time to complete. Having never made snakes before, I notice that there are some slight variations in length but generally speaking, I believe the finished product turned out fairly well.
Now when readers come into our reading room and need a book snake for one of our large books, these handmade weights are available for their use. While I am confident that my mom did not have book snakes in mind when she sent me to that sewing class all those years ago, I’m grateful to her all the same.
Special thanks to our former student volunteer, Allie Mariotta, and our former Library Technical Assistant, Elise Hochhalter, for their research assistance.
For more information:
If you wish to buy commercially produced book snakes, the following vendors are worth investigating:
This post and all of the images (except image 1) are by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.