A Look at the World of Islamic Book­bind­ing with Yas­meen Khan – Day 1

Today I started Session 2 of the Paper and Book Intensive. Talk about intensive, I had no idea what I was in for when I walked into that classroom.

FYI – Islamic headbands are HARD. And yes, we did the sewing.

Islamic binding headband

I did NOT do this sewing

Yas­meen Khan is teaching the class and she’s a Senior Rare Book Conservator at the Library of Congress. Those are some serious credentials!

She started off the class by passing around samples of Islamic bindings for us to check out. We learned a number of things that are characteristic of these bindings, including the following:

  • Book are flat and sleek with a burnished surface.
  • Round and almond shapes are considered to be balanced forms.
  • Onlay work is done in paper and inlay work can be either leather or paper.
  • The headbands are the most complicated part (I can vouch for that one).
  • End caps may be turned in or cut off.
  • The format of the book went from horizontal, to square, then to vertical – it changed along with the format of paper.

Pile of Islamic bindings

We started off by sewing up a text block. We punched four holes in each signature, but only sewed them together using the inner two (traditionally, holes were punched and not cut). The outer two holes are involved in sewing the headbands. We used link stitches, but no kettle stitches. I can’t exactly remember why that was the case.

The sewing was traditionally done with silk thread, which holds no tension – not the best idea for a book. In general, this book structure wasn’t built to be strong.

Sewing a text block

After the sewing was complete, we pasted up the spine:

  1. Put a layer of paste on the spine and rub it in with your fingers.
  2. Let the paste set up.
  3. Add another layer of paste, then add a layer of linen.
  4. Rub the linen with your finger, then add another layer of paste.
  5. Rub the paste in, then let it dry. Pretty straightforward.

Pasted up text block

Next came the headbands. The fact that I can still type right now is a miracle as I have serious hand cramps. Ow.

Headbands are sewn with silk thread that is wrapped around a leather core. The traditional design is a chevron. The direction of the chevron depends on the direction of your sewing.

Before you start sewing, you place slips of paper the center of each signature so you can easily find the center and don’t have to open the book up. Always move in the direction of the sewing. No matter what direction you use, it’s really important to be consistent.

I wish I could give a tutorial here on how to do the Islamic headbands, but the fact is that I just don’t get it yet. My brain hurts as much as my hands – cramps in both places. I recommend getting a copy of Headbands: How to Work Them by Jenny Hille and Jane Greenfield (ISBN: 0938768514) – it’s a great book and contains the directions.

Here are some pictures to tide you over until you get to your local library:

Sewing Islamic headbands

Islamic book headband

That’s mine!

Here are the day’s fun quotes from Yasmeen:

“Where are those child laborers?” (referring to difficulty threading needles)

“Nobody cares about the spine until the British arrive.

“”Maybe I should have some of that wine before I do this.” (referring to her headband demo)

I hope my hands recover for more work tomorrow!

So what do you think? I'd love to know!

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