Anatomy of the book: cloth-based coverings

So, you can’t afford leather or parchment for your book covering. May I interest you in cloth? Now, there is the odd velvet-covered book about but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The majority of cloth-bound books are bound with cotton or linen fabric, which has usually been coated or impregnated with starches, pigments and other fillers to create a more durable surface. Some are also embossed—say, to give the impression of leather.

The general-purpose name for such cloths is, not surprisingly, book cloth. Never let it be said that the bookbinders of yore were not imaginative types. But there are all sorts of particular types of book cloth—indeed, entire books, themselves bound in book cloth, have been written about the various varieties.

One type of cloth that pops up more frequently than most is buckram. Though these descriptions are often used somewhat loosely, buckram is, in general, thicker and more durable than bookcloth—perhaps more heavily filled, so the warp and the weft of the cloth is less visible.

Apparently books bound in burlap go back as far as 1760 but they were generally held to be quite ugly. Book cloth started its reign in around 1820, when a bloke called William Pickering started using a finer calico cloth. However, unless lined with paper it apparently “disintegrated” when glued. Another bloke (Archibald Leighton) is credited with creating the first durable book cloth, a dyed and glazed calico impregnated with starch to make it more glue-resistant.

Pyroxylin-treated cloth was introduced in about 1910 and became popular as it was much more durable than starch-treated cloth. (Pyroxylin is another word for nitrocellulose)

There were all sorts of weights and colours and finishes of both book cloth and buckram, some earning their own names—duck (a rough, heavy cloth similar to sailcloth), imperial morocco (a fine linen cloth made to resemble morocco leather, which was generally sumac-tanned goatskin with a characteristic pinhead grain) and oxford (one of the finer varieties of book cloth). There were also various tradenames, such as Rexine, Pluviusin, Durapline, Keratol, Fabrikoid and others. (Wikipedia sez that Rexine was also used for teddy bear paw pads! How adorable!). Certain colours and weights of cloth became standards for law bindings, library bindings and other purposes.

Paper was in fact more common as a covering material than cloth until about the middle of the nineteenth century, when technologies improved so that book cloth could be gold tooled and finished in a manner similar to that of leather.

Samples of some types of book cloth in an old book about book cloth


An advertisement for Pluviusin in the back of a book about bookbinding (with samples)