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Learning Sewn Endbands

This past autumn I had the opportunity to take Bookbinding Level II through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CCBAG). During level two one of the things we learned was how to do sewn endbands. Previously in level one we had done endbands made from cord and cloth wrapped around it. These are known as “stuck on endbands” and they have been used as far back as the 1800s. I recently bought some prior to level two; they come in useful for a quick work!

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

Above is a picture of what they can look like. As you can see, all a binder would need to do is snip the endband to the correct size and stick it on with a bit of glue to the spine of the book at the head and tail.

Just to note, I’ve used the term endband to imply both bands at either head or tail of the book. Specifically, the band at the head is called a headband and the band at the tail is called an endband, however many people use either term to refer generically to both head and tail and often don’t specify. During class we called them endbands and so in this post I will refer to them as endbands.

Endbands are decorative and structural in function. The endbands can add strength and support to a binding. Sewn endbands consist of a core with either silk or linen thread wrapped around it. A core for an endband can be made from: cord, rolled paper, rolled leather, or a combination of leather and vellum. The core is generally thin, though you can create more elaborate endbands from double cores. In level two I learned how to do a two-color endband and a foundation endband. You can see these below. The two-color endband is number seven and the foundation endband (also called conservation endband) is number one.

Image credit: http://www.artesdellibro.com

Endbands can get even more creative and artistic than the variety shown here. Here are some found on the web:

   

Image credit: lilbookbinder.wordpress.com

Another style of endband is the Coptic endband. This endband has the weave going continuously from board across textblock and back to other board.

Image credit: henryhebert.net

Learning the endbands wasn’t as difficult as I imagined it might be, though it did take practice! We worked with silk thread and went around cord. The thread was probably the hardest to manage, being silk. Keeping the tension tight for the length of the endband was also something that required practice. In order to learn Dan (our teacher) had us practice on old telephone books. This allowed us to work with a larger cord and a larger textblock. Below is an photo of the two-color endband that we learned.

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

The endbands get sewn into the textblock and when working on a telephone book that proved to be tricky. Often times pliers were needed to help the needle along through the thickness of the book, when it came time to sew our actual textblocks it was much easier. As a result, the back of the phone book looks a bit messy from lots of practice attempts. Looking online though one can see many examples of sewn endbands that look very neat and uniform on the spine! Below is an image of the formation endband.

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

I find sewing endbands to be rather relaxing, other binders find it tedious. It certainly adds to the appeal of a book, I think. It’s certainly something that requires a bit of practice to get them really looking nice, and with so many styles to learn there is a lot to practice!


Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com

A Brief Introduction to Leather

A brief introduction to leather

I recently took part in a course through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CBBAG). This course is one of the many they offer, and is a prelude to their level three bookbinding course, in which students learn to bind in leather. Our instructor was Dan Mezza, a well known and highly sought-after bookbinder in the London, Ontario area. Taking lessons with Dan is always a pleasure as he truly knows the topic! Dan was a paper maker before he became a bookbinder.

Our introduction to leather was a three-day long course spanning a weekend. In this course we learned a bit about the history of leather, the types of leather used in bookbinding and how to properly pare leather and apply it to the board. We made a plaquette in the end for demonstration purposes.

Before we got started, we discussed what leather was, and the process used to make the leather we use for binding books. I’ll share a little of that here.

Leather is skin, common to all animals. Dan even showed us a book from fish skin and kangaroo skin. Leather is created by removing the hair, hair root and epidermis (surface layer of hard dead cells). These three layers are removed in tanning and the following are kept for leather: grain (outer layer from surface to hair root), corium (large fibre bundles interwoven at a higher angle towards the surface), and the junction of the grain and corium (this is different for each animal and the size of hair in an animal determines the strength of the leather).

image1A cross section of cowhide to give you a better idea of the layers (Image credits: vanderburghhumidors.com)

There are two different processes we discussed for how leather is treated: tanning and tawing. There is also the process of turning skin into vellum/parchment.

It is important to note that tawing is not tanning and the hides are treated differently. For tawing, the hides are treated with aluminum salts plus egg yolk, flour, and other ingredients. This technique was used in Egypt before it became widespread in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. It has good handling properties, and is generally left white. This is where the term “White Library” is from, as before the 1500s everything was bound in tawed leather. “Brown Library” came after when tanned leather began to replace tawed. If the tawed leather gets wet it turns into rawhide, so as long as they don’t get wet, the bindings in tawed leather can last hundreds of years.

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Example of alum tawed (image credit: https://guildofbookworkers.org)

The tanning process is rather different; Dan argues that the best leathers are from the early 1800s, as anything after the Industrial Revolution begins to face deteriorating problems. Before the 19th century most leather was tanned with oak or other vegetable tannin. From the 1850s to the 1920s cheaper catechol (no longer vegetable oil, but chemicals) tanned leathers began to be produced which resulted in the problem of red rot.

Traditional tanning follows these steps: limed and dehaired, delimed, drenched in bran and citric acid, placed in a vat with tannin in it while progressively upping the strength of the tannin, dried, split and then finished. Modern methods of tanning are less time consuming. They involve stronger liquor (chemical in the vat), mechanical action to speed tanning, pH control, and a precise control of acids and salts.

Tanning is subdivided into vegetable tanned (used in historical and traditional work) and chemical tanned (often called chrome tanned and used in clothing), and then combination tanned (provides the flexibility of vegetable tanning and the longevity of chemical). The objective of tanning is to render the hides and skins resistant to decomposition or bacterial decay and to provide it with tensile strength, flexibility and abrasion resistance.

As for vellum and parchment, it is a semantic nightmare. The meaning of the word can vary with country origin, language, period in which the term was used, the animal it comes from, the usage to which it is being put, or a combination of any of those! In the European continent, the term parchment, according to Dan, is used as a generic term for any skin processed in a manner for binding. Whereas the term vellum, which comes from old French, may indicate thin material finished on both sides and used for writing.

In England specifically though, vellum refers to skin that is finished on one side only and used for binding, and parchment is finished on both sides and used for writing.

Both vellum and parchment are made by stretching skin and scraping it over and over again.  Vellum is very stable: it’s almost a neutral pH level.  Often times the term “limp vellum bindings” is heard and this refers to an old form of binding used to make the cheap “paperbacks” of medieval times – it’s very durable though!

It does caulk easily with water, so relative humidity effects it a lot.

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Example of limp vellum bindings (image credit: andrewhuot.com)

This was just the beginning of information we received at the workshop. We also covered what makes leather quality good, how to tell goat skin from pig or calf, and what type of leather is good for bookbinding. It was a very informative workshop and provided a good introduction to leather and to leather-working as we also covered paring knives and how to pare the leather.


Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com

The Macabre of Bookbinding: Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Not too much about book history can be considered ghastly or morbid. But as you gear up for Halloween this year, don’t disregard the rumors lurking in the stacks: Some books throughout history were bound in human flesh. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, the academic term for books bound in human skin, fascinates many students and researchers around the world.  There are a handful of books living in universities, museums, and private collections across the globe with these rumors attached, and to the excitement of some — and the horror of others — several have been scientifically proven true: they are indeed bound in the flesh of humans.

Many questions arise when one is told a book they’re holding is bound in human flesh. Who created these books and why did they choose such a material? Who was the willing (or unwilling) donor?  What kind of text has been fated to wear a shroud of human skin for the rest of its days? And lastly: Do I want to put this book down or dive into its curious past?

Throughout the middle ages and popularized more in the 1800s, books have been bound in human skin for a variety of reasons. In tales that can rival the best works of horror, mystery, and crime, the owners of these skins include medical patients, secret admirers, criminals, enemies, and more. Whether from the behest of the donor before death or at the strange obsession of a doctor or even at the bidding of the law — several of these tomes have survived the test of time.

Harvard and Des Destinees de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul)

Harvard’s Houghton Library boasts a single proven anthropodermic binding: Des Destinees de l’Ame by French writer Arsène Houssaye, bound in the mid-1880s. This volume, presented by the author himself to his friend Dr. Bouland who completed the binding, is a meditation on the soul and contains an inscription by Bouland detailing the origins of its binding:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” (Source)

In 2014, testing by Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and
Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Dr. Daniel Kirby
of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies confirmed with 99% surety that the binding came from a human. With this inscription, we are left wondering who this woman was and why history remembers her skin but not her name; however, we are also given quite a poetic motive for its binding. Several other rumored bindings in Harvard’s collections were tested as well, yet proven to be bound in sheepskin.

Continue reading here for more information on the scientific testing of Des Destinees de l’Ame.

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Stockton Hough Collection

The Historical Medical Library (HML), located within the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, proclaims to house the largest collection of confirmed anthropodermic bindings in the United States. In March of 2015, the HML invited Dr. Richard Hark of Juniata College to take samples of their five rumored anthropodermic books and Dr. Daniel Kirby confirmed that they are, in fact, bound in human skin. Through inscriptions and historical documentation, we know that three of the five books share a mysterious past: all bound at the hands of Dr. John Stockton Hough, and all bound in the skin Mary Lynch, a tuberculosis patient at the Philadelphia General Hospital, who died in 1869.

Evidently, Dr. Stockton Hough collected a sample of Mary’s skin before her burial in 1869 and kept it for several decades before binding these books in the 1880s. We may never know his motives for doing so. The books themselves? Historical texts on female health and reproduction.

To read more of Mary’s story, visit the blog of the Historical Medical Library.

Medical Historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris talks about three primary reasons that a book might be bound in human skin: as a passion for collecting odd items which are in turn viewed as valuable, to memorialize the dead, and finally, as a lasting punishment for a criminal. Check out this fascinating video of Dr. Fitzharris speaking on the history of anthropodermic bibliopegy in episode five of her video series “Under the Knife” (7:18), which includes the gruesome tale of execution of William Burke, a criminal, whose remains were used to create the “Burke’s Skin Pocket Book.”

The Science

How does one determine if a book is truly bound in human skin or if it is actually a more common leather taken from sheep, goat, cow, or pig? Des Destinees de l’Ame and the Stockton Hough Collection were scientifically tested using the same method: through a process called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF). PMF uses very minute samples from the book’s binding and tests for specific amino acid sequencing, comparing the results to what is known to occur in various mammals.

The Anthropodermic Book Project has made it its goal to investigate claims of human skin bookbindings. So far, they have tested 30 books claimed to be bound in human skin using the Peptide Mass Fingerprinting method, with 18 positive results and 12 books determined to be fakes. No published lists of results exists, as many institutions wish to remain private on the status of their materials. For a complete description of Peptide Mass Fingerprinting, including a comparison to DNA analysis, visit: Analyzing Alleged Human Skin Books Via Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.

In 2014, anthropodermic bibliopegy became popular in the media after Harvard declared that one of their rumored books was actually bound with sheepskin, rather than human flesh. We can be grateful for this resurgence in interest, lest many bibliophiles or fans of the macabre would have never known about this eerie past lurking in the archives of the world.  


ABM Guest Blogger Sherry Lochhaas is a librarian by trade and enjoys exploring the odd & fantastical side of life. She lives in Oakland, California.

Bookbinding Technique of the Month: Sewing Over Tapes with a French Knot

It seems to me an interest in bookbinding is an interest that goes beyond the love of books and the act of reading: it’s really a preoccupation with how things come to be, an origin story for an object so ubiquitous we forget it had to be sewn and stitched together in the first place. It’s a desire to know where this amazing thing comes from. For me, it’s not only an aesthetic interest in the formal object but one that I know stems from wanting desperately to understand how those written words or printed images came into existence, in all senses, how they got on that page, how the ideas of another ended up in front of me. Big statement: Bookbinding (with a capital B)  is an attempt to apprehend the genius of art through the mechanics of its physical production. Like if I break it down enough—if I can identify the correct execution of a Coptic stitch—all will become clear. (more…)