Friday, 9 September 2011

The Binding makes the Book! - Part Two (and a History Lesson!)

Hello again, this is Part Two of my posts about some of the many Binding Types and Styles used for making books.  See Part One here.  

The first post had some notes about Single-signature Bindings, the traditional Case Binding and Longstitch Bindings. 

I would just note here, that I am not an "expert" bookbinder - after a couple of comments, which made me feel I was being regarded somewhat in this light, I felt I should just make this clear.  I have been learning for a couple of years, have read a fair bit, taken a couple of short courses and tried a number of bindings myself.  I have been selling my own work for about 18 months and it has improved immensely over that period (!). That is where I am writing from; if you want to know more, then there are lots of books and websites, where you can get more information.  I will include a list of some I have come across, towards the end of my "Binding makes the Book" set of posts. 

Okay, so now I've got that off my chest....

I thought I would continue my amble through the various bindings I've tried, or read a bit about.  I'm trying to order them in a reasonably logical way, but I may end up jumping back later, to something I feel I left out.

* * *

So, still on the theme of bindings that are sewn on the spine edge of the book:

Coptic Bindings - A Short-and-possibly-fancifully-inaccuate History Lesson

This style of binding always makes me feel a sense of the History of bookbinding (in the Western and Middle-Eastern world).  Aside from scrolls, this kind of book is among the most ancient styles of binding in the world.

Ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptians, made long sheets of papyrus, leather, skins or parchment material.  They would draw, write or paint their messages onto the surface (ie paper) and then roll it round a stick - or two sticks, to make a scroll

This kept the writing surface clean, dry and scratch-free.  It was easy enough to read a scroll - especially the double-ended kind.  You unrolled from one end, rolling the end up onto the other stick as you read.  Scrolls could be set up to read vertically or horizontally.  Very handy...  Very bulky and tricky to store.... Easy to get confused, lose your place, write the same bit twice...

The Greeks and Romans were quite clever and developed a writing tablet, a set of boards, coated in clay or wax, with a hinge, which could be closed to protect the contents. 

The wax was inscribed, using pointed tools.  The only thing was, this wasn't very permanent... Even so, adaptations of this tablet were still used in Europe during the C19th!

So people began to cut the long strips of papyrus, parchment etc into smaller sheets, then store them in piles - perhaps with a stone to weight them down and prevent them becoming scattered or lost. Then they put wooden boards on top, to keep the parchments clean and protect them. These progressed into a sort-of sandwich, with a board each side, which could then be made into a storage folder, by the simple addition of leather strips on one side.  Also, people worked out that they could fold sheets of parchment and write either side, also tucking several sheets together, to form a codex, or early un-bound book.

Another way of dealing with the nuisance of scrolls, was to fold them into accordians, or folios.  Many were written in columns, so it was not to difficult to arrange the columns to be folded at regular intervals.  This made reading and storage a lot easier. 

People worked out that they could cut the folios up, into folded sections, then tuck them inside each other.  They began to glue or sew these folios together, although the order of the writing would have been a bit tricky to follow and the pages may have been curvy. 

Eventually then, folios and codices became the common way to write down and store information.  Then ways were found to connect the folios together with stitching, making a codex of numerous pages, which formed a cohesive block. 
The boards used to protect these were then attached, using leather strips or thongs,  then the leather strips began to be stitched to the edges of each folio, forming a strong and solid book-like block, with covers.  The covers were attached by making holes and lacing the supporting thongs or cords through the holes.

Experimentation produced a variety of ways to attach covers and gradually people found ways to create covers from lighter materials, such as leather.  Western Book-binding had begun and it continued to develop throughout the Middle-Eastern and European parts of the world and beyond.  

Of course, the Chinese and Japanese Empires had long-ago developed their own methods of binding (and paper!) - but that really is another story!

And why "Coptic" bindings?  It is widely believed (perhaps not completely accurately), that an ancient group of Egyptian people called the "Copts" were responsible for developing this style of binding, where the pages are stitched at their edges and the covers laced onto the top and bottom of the codex.
In any case, it is certain that the Copts really did make books in this way, whether they were the originators of this style, or not and the name has been adopted and become part of the modern language of book-binding.

* * *

Modern-style Coptic Binding

There are a number of types of binding, which people refer to as "Coptic" bindings.  They are all a form of chain-stitch binding, where the stitching is made at the folded edge of each signature, attaching them together, but allowing the book to open out flat.  I will refer to this style of binding as "Coptic", because that is what is generally used - whether accurately or not!

A Coptic or Chain-stitch binding can be used with, or without covers.  The covers for such a book can be made from many materials - wood, boards (pulp / fibre/ cardboard), paper of various weights, leather - firm or soft, fabrics, even plastics or natural materials, such as bark, leaves etc.  Book binders and artists often experiment with covering materials and everyone has their own favourites. 

The Coptic style is very popular for journals, notebooks, scrapbooks, even photo albums.  It is strong and also flexible.  It also looks attractive - although if the spine has no covering material, it makes the book more vulnerable to dust, dirt and damage.  Coptic Stitch is one of my own favourites and very popular with my customers.  I have sold quite a number of guest books and albums this year, with a decorative chain stitch binding.  I enjoyed playing with the way I attached the covers, to make patterns - which was also well-received by customers of my Etsy shop!
 A Coptic-bound book will open flat
A Six-thread Coptic Binding
 Fancy stitch pattern
 Binding pattern on Coptic style Wedding Album

Two-coloured binding, in red and chocolate

If you're interested in seeing more about how I make this type of book, I made a post here:
(although I have since switched to using curved needles!)


To see more examples of lovely Coptic style bindings, try these links:

Mesquite Wood and Rattlesnake Book with historic binding - Mary Jane Henley

Coptic Bound Lego Book - Moonlightbindery

Posh Peacock Guest Book - Emerson Bindery

Wild Cherry Mono Journal - Blue Roof Designs

Six Journals - Rhonda Miller, My Handbound Books

And here is a great post about Chain Stitch binding (which will probably explain much that I don't know!):

A Little History of the Chain Stitch, by Rhonda Miller, My Handbound Books

Thanks for reading - I hope this was interesting! I hope to post installment Part Three soon. 


  1. What an interesting post Lizzie. Thankyou for the history lesson, I really enjoyed it.

  2. I think you are going to be an entry for my September Learn Something New Every Day, Lizzie! I love those Coptic bindings ...

  3. Well, thanks, Alexa! I feel honoured!
    I love Coptic bindings too, though they are very time-consuming, especially to be sure of getting them right - neat, tidy and even - and especially when stitching multiple threads and more than one colour!

  4. Great post, Lizzie! Very interesting!

  5. Both of these posts are so wonderful and educational! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. I love coptic binding.

  6. i think u are an expert lizzie, of lizziestyle heehee. i love the books uve kindly givwen and know coptic stitch isnt as easy as u first think having watched a youtube video. i did manage it though and was proud of my lil book,
    jo xxxxx

  7. This is such an educational post - I too like that Coptic binding.


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