Creative Corner

The History of Bookbinding | Books Are Fantastic Artefacts

The History of Bookbinding | Books Are Fantastic Artefacts

We engage with history all the time.

Whenever we talk about the lives of our parents and grandparents, walk through the streets of our cities or read the words of writers and artists no longer with us, the stories of days gone by are magical things, with something spellbinding in every retelling.

History is a portal into human memory, shrouded in reverence and nostalgia, and the symbol for this human expression is the humble book.

leather book binding

But why should the book be humble?

Books are fantastic artefacts, and those who devoted their lives to them have spent centuries perfecting the art of bookbinding, encasing the knowledge they hold into a protective, luxurious work of craftsmanship.

History of Bookbinding

We start to see writing bound in the codex style appearing in India and Rome around the switch between BC and AD.

Around 400 BC things get exciting when we find the earliest example of leather tooling on bookbinding.

history of bookbinding

From here on, there are constant evolutions in techniques and materials used, culminating in 1750 when Christoph Ernst Prediger wrote his exhaustive manual on book design principles. 

From here though, we moved into the industrial revolution, when in 1830, mechanical stamping came into practice, beginning the way of automating bookbinding for mass production. 

With the sheer number of volumes being published, traditional methods could never keep up, but that doesn’t mean they went away. 

Ever since, artisans in book design have strived to perfect the traditional craft, the best of them retaining insight into all aspects of how to design a book.

Types of Bookbinding Leathers

1. Vellum

A very fine parchment derived from a young calf, kid or lamb.

Vellum is exceedingly smooth-grained and can tend to shrink, allowing it to become a very finely fitted, tight covering when stretched over board covers.

2. Calfskin

Top grained leather from a calf.

This material is one of the most common book coverings, and one of the most widely disparate. Calfskin is smooth and a light brown, but it is frequently textured and dyed to create a very different final product.

3. Morocco

Goatskin typically characterized by a fine, pebble grain, and prized for the way it exhibits gilt when applied.

This form of leather comes from Morocco originally, hence the name.

4. Roan

Sheepskin dyed and textured to resemble Morocco as a cheaper substitute for that more desirable material.

5. Skiver

A relatively cheap form of outer grain sheep (or possibly goat) skin. Skiver is not typically valued as a bookbinding material, but it is frequently used for spine labels.

6. Bonded leather

This is only barely leather. Bonded leather is formed from leather fibres which are affixed to another material, such as polyurethane. Bonded leather is not a traditional method of bookbinding, but it has become a standard practice to create the appearance of a leather binding cheaply.

Different Types of Bookbinding Techniques

1. Limp binding

Leather is often stretched over hard boards (either cardboard or wooden), but leather can also be left flexible, covering the front, back, and spine of the book.

When extended over the fore-edge to protect the text block, it forms what’s called a Yapp style binding.

Limp bound leather originates in medieval traditions, but more recently limp bound suede bindings were a hallmark of the Arts and Crafts movement bookbinder, Roycroft Press.

Books may be entirely bound in leather, or leather might be paired with another covering material.

2. Quarter-bound

The spine is leather-covered, but the front and rear boards are covered with a different material.

3. Half bound

The spine and the corners of both the front and back boards are covered with leather, while the remaining portions of the front and back boards are covered with a different material.

4. Three quarter bound

The spine and part of the front and rear boards are covered in leather, as are the corners of both the front and backboards. Similar to half bound, with a greater amount of the spine and corners bound in leather, resulting in approximately ¾ of the total outside of the book being leather.

In all of the partial leather bindings, the leather is often paired with a complementary material, such as a pebble-grained cloth, or a decorative contrasting material like marbled paper.

Essential Tools You Need For Bookbinding

When learning how to design a book, you’ll need the right tools for the job.

leather bookbinding

Book design principles start with understanding your goal, so when setting out on your leathercraft journey, you don’t want half a workshop in your toolkit. 

Here’s a list of the must-haves. 

Until you are ready to specialise, these tools will be the perfect outlet for your creativity:

  • Steel Ruler
  • Cutting Knife and cutting mat
  • Awl
  • Needle and wax thread

Book Binding Techniques and Tips

There are a few tips worth knowing which help to avoid classic pitfalls, or to enhance your craft, that you should pay attention to:

1. Always Use A Template

Sounds obvious, but when you’re excited about your first book design adventure, it's the obvious things that slip under the radar, which is why it's essential to:

2. Slow Down

Take your time.

The process and experience of book designing is the best part!

Enjoy it, relax into, test the dexterity of your fingers and appreciate the art of making. 

Honestly, this will shine through in the end product. 

3. Mark Your Paper Before You Cut It

Sure, it feels incredible to “eyeball” it, but it’ll be a while until that is a good idea, and it arguably never will be! 

Be methodical.

4. Research How Long You Want Your Thread To Be

Running out of thread halfway through the binding is just the worst feeling, and a real hassle to fix. 

It’s always better to err on the side of longer, rather than shorter. 

Use wax thread too; it gives a more potent, more vibrant edge to your binding.

Remember, there are no strict rules on how to design a book. 

Give some of these ideas a spin, or think up your own, and challenge yourself to a rich and creative experience!

5. Get Creative With The Paper That You Use

The classic parchment is elegant and prestigious, but why not try a few wild cards?

Recycle paper from around the house, throw them together and make yourself an exciting conglomeration of colours, styles and thicknesses sure to make every page original.

6. Give Pattern To The Stitching

As long as you’ve got a knack for judging tautness and integrity in your thread, mixing up the patterns in the stitching can blend some entertaining design into an aspect most people would never think to adapt or evolve.

7. Accessorise!

Got a nifty badge lying around?

Or maybe some seashells or cute little glass bottles.

Why not attach these to the cover, or make a clasp from them? 

Plain leather is lovely, but that personal touch can go a long way to making something your own.

Create Your Own Leather Journal

leather journal

No step by step guide will ever get across the experience of the leather in your hands, or the thread as it glides between sheets of paper. 

Fortunately, though, it doesn’t have to, because you’ll be doing that for yourself! 

Take this small guide and give it a whirl. 

You’ll be hooked from the moment the mise-en-place is laid out before you.

  1. Gather your materials: Paper, Leather, Waxed Thread, Cardboard
  2. Make a template for the page size you want.
  3. Mark and cut the paper to size.
  4. Fold the pages into booklets, known as “quires”.
  5. Make holes in the pages by marking one sheet where you are placing the holes, collecting the sheets into their quire and then driving a spot through the paper with your awl.
  6. Cut the leather. You want a long rectangle, maybe a third longer than the pages laid open flat, with one short edge rounded off into a smooth crescent.
  7. Align one of the quires with the leather and poke holes through with the awl. Repeat with the other quires until you are ready to thread through them.
  8. Sew the quires to the leather through the new holes until they are taught and tie a knot on the outside of the journal.

And there you have it! A simple yet elegant journal. 

The lessons you will take away from the experience of crafting it will stay with you like your first foray into book designing, teaching you how to design a book and giving you a grasp of book design principles. 

It is your unique addition to the history of book design.

Future Frontiers

After this trip down the history of book design and an exploration of how to design a book, it's easy to fixate on this one element of design and craft. 

However, there are countless opportunities for growth through craft at your fingertips - creations that challenge you and improve your skills, knowledge and understanding of this traditional art. 

Why not try a classic wallet or some beautiful leather jewellery? .Ar:ti|sans Leather Kits offer this opportunity, tailor-made for you.

.Ar:ti|sans kits are exquisite experiences, made to give you a more in-depth insight into the history, heritage and talent of leathercraft so that you can experience something for yourself that will provide you with a deeper connection to the art of making.