Category Archives: Making

A Brief History of Bookbinding 2: Sewing, paper, glue

By about the fourth century AD, pretty much all written information in Europe was stored in codices. A codex consisted of vellum or parchment pages, each folded once, sewn in variable-sized signatures. Sewing threads were linen, and connected the signatures with chain stitches. The stitching also attached wooden boards, which were the same size as the pages, and whose weight kept the pages from cockling and buckling (vellum and parchment expand and contract a lot with variations in atmospheric moisture.)

These books were stored lying down, with their titles written on either the fore edge or the spine. Spines were not glued in any fashion, so these books felt fairly sloppy in the hand. It wasn’t a perfect style – the stitching tended to break at the covers, requiring the whole book to be re-sewn – but it beat scrolls. For four centuries, nothing much changed.

Then, once again, someone did something clever. Rather than sewing the book with chain stitches, they started sewing the signatures onto leather strips or linen cords running across the spine. These cords could then be laced into the wooden covers, providing a much more secure attachment.

Another four hundred years passed (these centuries are just zipping by! This is the pace of change you get when books are rare, expensive items produced by monks.). A trendy new material spread through Europe during the 1100’s – paper. It was cheaper than vellum, not as prone to swelling like mad in the moisture, but it was fragile, particularly at the folds.

To protect this new stuff, binders began – tentatively – using leather rather than vellum to cover books. They started sticking the leather directly to the spines of the books, either with hide glues or with starch pastes.

Adhesives on spines changed everything. It made the books hang together better. Suddenly books were cohesive structures! They were also beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside. Binders started – tentatively – adding gold decoration to the covers and sewing brightly coloured silk headbands at the top and bottoms of the spines.

When Gutenberg arrived, bookbinding went (relatively) mass-market. Over the next century, binding moved out of the monasteries and into the royal courts. Monarchs wanted pretty books* in large. Spines became rounded, making the books strong enough to be stored standing up**. Endpapers were introduced, often marbled. And covers began to glitter with gold.

* Elizabeth I of England, for instance, had her entire library bound in different colours of velvet. It was said to be quite a sight.

** A good thing, too – library sizes grew an order of magnitude after moveable type reduced the cost of book production.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Brief History of Bookbinding 1: Much concerned with materials

(Much of this information is undated, because we don’t have any exapmples of these bindings left. It’s based on pictures, later books, and a certain amount of guesswork.)

In the beginning was papyrus, made from the fibrous stems of a swamp plant that grows by the Nile. It was cheap, easy to make, took ink well, and lasted forever, but it didn’t fold. So the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all made scrolls.

These scrolls weren’t formatted the way you’re think they were. The text wasn’t written line by line down the scroll – portrait format, if you will. Instead, it was written in blocks, side to side, so a reader could read with a roll of papyrus in each hand, unrolling with one hand and rolling with the other to move through the text.

Over time, civilisation moved out of the swamplands beside the Nile, and papyrus became less convenient. Scribes cast about for new materials, and ended up with parchment, or vellum. This is the inner hide of either a sheep or a cow. It’s whiter than papyrus, more durable, and you can get sheep and cows everywhere. (It’s more pricey, but until Gutenberg, the most expensive part of the book was the writing inside it. Material costs were immaterial.)

One day someone got hacked off at scrolls. Maybe one too many got squashed – that leaves hundreds of narrow strips of papyrus to try to stick back together. Not fun. Or perhaps yet another pile of cylindrical scroll casings fell down on someone’s foot after the library equivalent of an avalanche.

So they started fan-folding the vellum scrolls (this is why it matters that they were written landscape style.) It was a logical extension of the idea to sew one set of folds together, so that the book held together nicely.

Not much later, some bright spark realised you could get more book out of every sheep by writing on both sides of the parchment* rather than fan-folding it. And you didn’t have to paste the sheepskins together to make a long roll. All you had to do was take a bunch of rectangles, fold them up, sew them together at the folds, and hey, presto! It was like the Mac revolution.

Thus was the codex born: the sewn book block that we now know and love.

* The Japanese, who used rice paper, made a different transition. Their inks penetrated the papers too much to print on both sides, so they folded the papers in half with the raw edges at the spines. This leads to some clever things you can do in spy novels, writing inside the folded sheets. But I digress.

Originally posted on Making Light

Recent Photos

In case you’re wondering, dear reader, Edinburgh continues to be lovely. It isn’t always sunny, or warm, but it is still magical to me.

Leaves, a pattern shot
Taken 10 July 2006

Tree bark in the botanics
Taken 18 July 2006

Rose in Gorgie Farm
Taken 14 August 2006

Monocot lying in the arms of a dicot
Taken 22 August 2006

Scarlet poppies, glowing in the rain
Taken 23 August 2006

Poppy seed head. (This photo has been cropped)
Taken 23 August 2006

Thistle buds, insanely purple. (This photo has been cropped)
Taken 23 August 2006

These photos, like all of mine these days, are hosted on Flickr, and can be viewed in different sizes by clicking on them.

Fridays with the Kids

Every Friday, the kids and I get to spend the day together. We have some very good times, and I’ve taken some fun shots. Now I have the time to post some!

16 June 2006

Waiting for the bus


They made a sand castle, sort of. (The little one with the sticks. The other one was someone else’s work)


All fall down.


2 June 2006

Portrait of Fiona and me, by Alex


Portrait of Alex, by Fiona


“We’re best friends”


Watch out, Fiona! There’s a cow!


Fiona meets a cow she likes in the Cow Parade


Alex and Fiona meet Robocow


Recent Edinburgh Shots

In between trips to London, I’ve been so busy studying that I’ve taken very few shots around Edinburgh. Of those, only a few are really worth your consideration, gentle reader.

The roses are past their best in George V Park, but I still love them.


Taken 15 June 2006


Taken 15 June 2006

Splendidly bizzare monkey puzzle in the Botanics.


Taken 1 June 2006

Tender shoots of holly, Arboretum Avenue


Taken 1 June 2006

Photos from London

I’ve been down in London a good deal over the last few weeks, studying for an exam. I brought my phone, of course, which means I brought my camera.

I rarely find the classic London landmarks inspirational for photography. They’re too…well…big.

But the pavement by Tower Bridge really got my interest.


Taken 17 May 2006


Taken 17 May 2006


Taken 17 May 2006

The leaves of an ornamental plant near the Tower also caught my eye.


Taken 13 June 2006

On one of my visits, I walked by the crew setting up for a concert on the Tower grounds. The ironmongery was interesting.


Taken 23 May 2006


Taken 23 May 2006

I was also fascinated by the bright yellow locks on the gates to Trinity Square, a tiny park dedicated to naval war dead near the course hotel.


Taken 24 May 2006

Rainbow over the Thames


Taken 23 May 2006

Overall, though, London does not appeal to me photographically. I guess my heart is in Edinburgh.

Biking on the Beach

Friday, though cold, was a bright and sunny day – perfect for a family expedition. We took Alex’s bike to the John Muir pathway along the Firth of Forth, just outside of Musselburgh. It’s time for Alex to get more confidence in his bike and himself on it. He needs to ride faster if we’re going to take his stabilisers off.

It was a good ride – he started slow and hesitant, but I started challenging him to races. As the trip went on, I found myself striding less and running more to keep up with him. He was thrilled to be pushing me, but insisted after a time that we were “a team” and should cross every minor finishing line at the same time.

At the midpoint of the ride, we all stopped on the beach. The kids threw rocks into the water. I found a couple of old bikes on the stony shore, slowly rusting in the salt and being buried by the tides.

The first bike, frame and cables


Taken 14 April 2006

Cables round the stem of the bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Pedal mount on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Rust replaces chrome on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Handlebar mount on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Sprockets in stone, bike 1


Taken 14 April 2006

Stone in sprockets, bike 2


Taken 14 April 2006

Wheel mount, bike 2


Taken 14 April 2006

Not just a bike, but the headphones for a walkman too!


Taken 14 April 2006

Handrail hardware by the firth


Taken 14 April 2006

A Trip to the Tannery

Every time I go to J Hewit & Sons, my favourite bookbinding supplier, I feel the overwhelming desire to bring a camera, tripod, and a day’s free time. I don’t think I will ever tire of taking pictures there.

I could take the “industrial site” type pictures of all of the machinery they use to dye leathers, or the “variety of stuff” pictures of the rolls and rolls of finished hides, or the “run down melancholy” shots of the light from the dusty windows falling on the worn boards of the upper floor. I’d photograph the staff, who always treat me so well, if it wouldn’t embarrass them.

But I don’t, because I am there to buy. I did take a few shots of the pale leathers they had piled on the Low Value Shelf upstairs.

Edges of a stack of pale goatskin


Taken 7 April 2006

The same grained goatskin, with the marks of the stretching clips still visible.


Taken 7 April 2006

Pale calfskin, un-grained.


Taken 7 April 2006

Maybe I can find a market for a feature article on the company – its history, its processes, its business. I’d love to do it. I’d love to have the excuse!

The Camera is Back

My phonecam developed a spot about a week ago. Ugly, in the way, and depressing. It ruined a number of photos that I really wanted to take.


Taken 1 April 2006

Occasionally, I could get a shot in that it didn’t ruin, but that was rare.


Taken 29 March 2006

Fortunately, my phone insurance covers the functionality of the whole instrument, including the camera. I called Vodafone, and they sent a new phone to replace the old one. So now I have my camera back!

I tried it out on Fiona this morning.


Taken 4 April 2006

Then I was back to taking the pictures I’ve been missing.

Leaf growing through a fence, Newington


Taken 4 April 2006

Shadow of a doorknob, looking like a warmer day


Taken 4 April 2006

Cut-off fence post.


Taken 4 April 2006

Framing the world, one tree at a time (this photo has been cropped)


Taken 4 April 2006

Yay new phone!