Introduction to Bookbinding

Bookbinding is the last step in the production of a manuscript. It is completed by a stationer – the person who received the order and facilitated the production of the manuscript by distributing gatherings to the town illuminators. The book is prepared for binding by reassembling the gatherings and erasing smudges caused by other stages of production.

The gatherings are sewing together and onto bands or cords, often made of leather or hemp. Variations can go around the band once, twice, or through the center. The bands are then threaded into the boards and then ends are hammered in with pegs. An example of sewing around the cords is seen on Statuta antiqua et nova ordinis Cartusiensis from the Cary Collection in the Rochester Institute of Technology library.

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Statuta antiqua et nova ordinis Cartusiensis

The Statuta antiqua et nova ordinis Cartusiensis is most likely German, and Germany is a point of interest because it was the origin of early published Western binding manuals. The leaves are made of parchment, and the book is probably an early copy or draft, as there are many corrections (cross-outs, erasing) and insertions. The visible sewing is done on four double bands and the endbands have survived. While there is no surviving original cover, it likely would have been made of beech, as that was the most popular type of wooden board used in the German region.

The book is from the Gothic period, which will be discussed in more detail in the Gothic Bindings section of this exhibit.

The link stitch is commonly used to hold together the gatherings. To create a link stitch, the thread begins at the center fold, exits through the sewing station, drops and loops around the previous link, rises and re-enters the station to span to the next sewing hole. This stitch generally appears as a braid and variations can involve multiple needles. The sewing is the most time-consuming element of the binding process.

Cover boards were usually wood, sometimes leather, and later pasteboard. Oak was most commonly used in England and France, whereas beech or pine was preferred in Italy. Italian books were often lighter than other northern books. In early books, the covers were cut flush with the ends of the pages. They became longer to help protect the pages in 1200, and sometimes were given beveled edges. Flyleaves also add an extra layer of protection to the book block and were often made of leaves from older manuscripts. The book can be finished after attaching the boards, but most are then decorated.

Einbandkunde is used as a term to mean the study or research of the embellished covers of books. Manuscripts were covered with leather, tanned, and sometimes dyed.  Sides were often decorated with repeated patterns of flora or fauna. Decorative cornerpieces made of metal could be used to protect the corners of the cover and clasps were used to hold the book shut. Precious metals and jewels could also be added to decorate the cover.

The first surviving bindings are from around the third and fourth centuries. The most well-known early books are the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts. Thirteen papyrus codices were found in a jar buried by the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi. Because they were well preserved and untouched, the books retained their original leather bindings.

Introduction to Bookbinding