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A Period Bookbinding

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A period bookbinding

– Iulitta Rowan of Arran

From the early years of the fourteenth century, rich textiles such as velvets and silk brocades were used in royal and lay circles for covering favorite or especially valuable manuscripts. From the fifteenth century, in particular, the velvet cover was often adorned with embroidery.

Unfortunately, the fragility of most textiles as a binding material has resulted in a scarcity of surviving specimens. Very few well-preserved textile bindings survive from before 1500, because prior to 1500 the velvet was either pasted directly onto wooden cover boards or made into a loose envelope or “chemise” into which the volume was tucked.

In the sixteenth century on the European continent, the embroidered fabric binding gave way to the more durable leather binding decorated with gold-tooling, but in England embroidered bindings remained widely popular until the midseventeenth century, dying out only with the Civil War, after which leather became more generally used for bindings in that country as well.

The fact that embroidered covers remained popular in England long after they had gone out of fashion on the Continent has been ascribed to the personal taste of Queen Elizabeth I. A number of books presented to her, or bearing the royal arms or emblems, are preserved in their original embroidered covers.

This project is a book cover inspired by the embroidered binding of a Bible presented to King Henry VIII of England in 1543. The original is a large book, measuring 151/8” tall by 91/2” wide.

The thread used is metal twist, made with a flat ribbon of metal wrapped in a spiral around a central silk core. The design is a deceptively simple-looking single-line drawing. The outer border is a reversible flame pattern, separated from the inner pattern by a double straight-line box. The inner design is a flowing pattern of flowers and leaves surrounding a central double circle. The pattern incorporates points, curves, circles, straight lines, right angles, sharp corners, and the solid initials (“HR”) of the intended recipient, Henry Rex. I reduced it to fit my book, adapted it slightly for simplicity, and changed the initials to “IP,” the initials of the friend for whom I made this.

I thought the design was very attractive, and the single line of twist looked as if it would be a relatively simple pattern to duplicate. (This last assumption was an error, as I later learned!) The original is stitched on reddish-brown velvet, with the nap of the velvet running sideways on the book from the front cover edge around to the back. I used satin instead of velvet for the cover fabric on this first try; again, I discovered later that velvet is actually easier for this project!

The satin was then stitched onto a backing of heavier cotton to provide strong reinforcement for the metal thread embroidery. The heavy cotton was stitched into a wooden slate frame, then pulled and laced until it was “drum-tight.” This tight tension is necessary for high-quality metal thread embroidery, and was maintained throughout the embroidery process.

The twist I used is a three-ply thread, rather than the original two-ply, because I couldn’t find two-ply twist for sale. I was able to compare the overall thickness of the twist I used to the original on the binding, and the twist I used is twice as thick as the two-ply used on the Henry Rex cover. I also used imitation metal twist rather than 2% real gold twist because of the cost involved in purchasing real gold metal thread.

The twist was attached by laying the thread along the line of the pattern, separating the plies of the twist, and stitching (“couching”) between the threads (over one ply, but under the other two). When the plies are twisted closed into a single thread, each finished stitch should be hidden by the remaining top plies. The ends of each piece of twist were pulled through the fabric to the underside of the embroidery (called “plunging”), and secured to the backing fabric with three or four small stitches. The bookbinding took me almost ten months to complete.


• M.M. Foot, The History of Bookbinding as a Mirror of Society, British Library (1998)

• P.J.M. Marks, The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques, British Library (1998)

• Textile and Embroidered Bindings, Bodleian Library Picture Books, Special Series No.2, (1971)



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