Reverse Engineering Historical and Modern Binding Structures, Part Two with Karen Hanmer – Day 1

I just finished my first day of Karen Hanmer‘s workshop, Reverse Engineering Historical and Modern Binding Structures, Part Two. This was a sequel to a workshop I took with her at the last FOBA conference and the focus was on board attachment.

Before I go any further, I have to mention that the person with the largest army of miniature sewing frames wins.

Miniature bookbinding sewing frames

Karen wins!

Karen started out the class by passing around around 2 dozen cutaway models of historical and modern bindings. Even though I’d seen them before, who gets tired of looking at a box of candy?

Box of historical and modern bindings

We completed two bindings today – the Ethiopian binding and the Medieval binding. Most of the work had already been done for us – drilled holes, beveled board edges – but we still had plenty to do.

Materials kit for Ethiopian binding

I love kits.

The Ethiopian binding is part of the Coptic family. It doesn’t use sewing supports and is sewn with double needle link stitch.

We used poplar for our covers. The boards have multiple holes, one of which enters at an angle from the edge of the board through the front.

Starting inside the first signature, exit both sewing stations with the thread distributed evenly, or as Karen put it, hanging out “like a very long odd pair of pants”. Boards are attached by sewing them on like an additional signature. We then worked our way through the signatures, adding the second board in the same manner as the first.


Here are some shots of the outside of the completed book:

Ethiopian binding

This is not a sandwich.

Ethiopian binding

For more information on this binding, Karen referred us to J. Szirmai’s book, The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding.

Next came the Medieval binding. Wheee!!! Another kit!

Materials kit for Medieval bookbinding

This binding was more complex than the first one we did. It’s sewn on double cords which are then laced into the boards. The insides of the boards are beveled at the shoulder and the book rounds itself by the action of closing the boards.

Medieval binding - sewing on double cords

When sewing, you wrap the threads around the cords in the direction of your sewing. I had to remind myself of this every time I did it. I think I messed up a few of them, but this is my learning book so I’m letting it go.

Medieval binding - sewing on double cords

Next, we flattened the spine edge of our signatures by rubbing them with a bone folder. We glued up the spine and attached a vellum lining in between the double cords. We scraped up the shiny surface of the vellum prior to gluing – that’s some slippery stuff! We worked the PVA in with our fingers and let it dry.

Medieval bookbinding spine in progress

Our boards had pre-drilled holes, but we got to cut the channels for the cords. I got to play with a 1/4″ chisel that I absolutely have to have now.Carved out channels in wooden boards for Medieval bookbinding

We applied paste to the cords and worked them through the holes, resting them in the cut channels. To secure the cords even further, we created leather “pegs” that helped tighten up any of the looseness in our holes. The cords and pegs were cut flush to the cover. The last step was attaching the vellum spine lining to the inside of one of the covers.

Here’s the completed cutaway model:

Medieval binding - completed cutaway model

I’m pretty damn happy with today’s work and I’m looking forward to my second day! I’ll leave you with some awesome Karen quotes:

“You can’t use my finger.”

“Everybody look at me, look at me!”

6 Responses to “Reverse Engineering Historical and Modern Binding Structures, Part Two with Karen Hanmer – Day 1”

By Lyna Lou - 29 June 2013 Reply

Elissa…Looks like you are having a blast!! Let me know when you are back. I really need your help to get my website together!! I can come to “beautiful Montpelier”!
Thank much!

By Elissa - 3 July 2013 Reply

Lyna Lou –

I did have a great time! It’s nice to get out of your “usual” environment every once in a while and learn new things.


By velma - 29 June 2013 Reply

yay! karen is an awesome teacher and mighty fine human, too. the class looks wonderful.

By Elissa - 3 July 2013 Reply

Velma –

I had such a great time and I’m hoping that Karen will keep teaching more of these models. I’m happy to continue taking the workshops until she runs out of structures.


By James Fish - 12 June 2016 Reply

Thank you for posting your work in medieval bookbinding techniques; I found it helpful and inspiring.


By Elissa - 19 June 2016 Reply

James –

I’m glad you enjoyed the post!


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

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