Uncovering the history of bookbinding

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Aimee MacDonald
Writer

Although one might imagine that bookbinding is a lost art, it has very much survived the ravaging claws of mass production. Binding has a vibrant community much like any DIY or craft activity and it has maintained its prominence over the years. After seeing how passionate people are about this sacred art, I decided to get stuck in. Bookbinding was an alien process to me a fortnight ago, but now I’d consider myself something of an expert.

Bookbinding originally hailed from India, then rapidly spread to China by vehicle of travelling monks. Further west, the Ancient Egyptians also dabbled in the craft, separately from the people of Asia. Britain’s (and Europe’s) earliest example of a book is St. Cuthbert’s Gospel from the seventh century, possibly produced at Lindisfarne. To pay homage to this wonderful fragment of history, I chose to use a high-quality material to cover my book, similar to the Gospel’s deep red leather – my old jeans. With the intention of the finished product being displayed at the British Museum in 1,300 years, this book now had to live up to its greatest rival.

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel appears to have been temporarily bound in a previous life with little needle holes found on many of its pages. It may have received this momentary binding for ease of transport or as a practice run before finally being correctly bound. Yet, many mysteries remain surrounding the book, as even the official date of production has not been entirely agreed upon by experts.

The monks of the seventh century used a method called Coptic binding for their masterpiece. This process originated from the Copts, an early Egyptian-Christian people. This process consists of sewing a chain-like link with thread from one cover to the other, creating a strong spine to hold the book together. Coptic binding is a useful method for those without access to glue and is arguably the most accessible of all the binding types. It’s no mystery as to why it was one of the first binding techniques to be invented. Its simplicity would have allowed for anyone using any sort of paper and thread (depending on quality, of course) to create a book.

Armed to the teeth with a litre of PVA glue, children’s sketching paper, cardboard, a knife, two lengths of string and, of course, my old jeans, I endeavoured to recreate this timeless binding system. As much as the Coptic method can be done with paper, cardboard and string, I felt that this was not enough to impress the monks of yesteryear. Beginning with four signatures (the name given to groups of folded sheets of paper) stacked on top of one another, I pierced two holes about an inch in from either ends of the folds. This allowed the thread to be sewn throughout what will eventually become the pages.

After creating the spine, the paper had now become a book. Persevering to exceed the skill of those monks, I added cardboard covers. My work of art was originally supposed to be a hardback, but the amount of PVA I applied sadly destroyed the card’s structural integrity. This minor setback didn’t come close to hindering the creation of the eighth wonder of the world, however.

It was now time to cover the bound signatures. With even more PVA glue, I attached the outer cardboard to the protective material. Surprisingly, denim sticks rather well to card, so it was plain sailing. After leaving my modern masterpiece to dry, an overwhelming sense of pride rose within me. It had been completed. Nothing could stand in the way of this mighty creation becoming world-renowned. St Cuthbert himself would surely be proud. Alas, we shall never know.

If this short exploration into the vast world of bookbinding has taken your fancy, then you’re in luck! Glasgow has a fantastic community of bookbinders with at least nine events for you to get stuck in before the Christmas season: there are regular classes held at Downie Allison Downie Bookbinders as well as an introductory session at The Lighthouse on 24 November, hosted by Gillian Stewart. The art of binding a book is surprisingly accessible and can be done with household items. A trip to Hobbycraft is only necessary if you’re going to get adventurous. All in all, the process was rewarding and highly enjoyable. And if you feel at all nervous at the prospect of getting stuck in – I’m now open for commissions.