Anatomy of the book: paper-based covering materials

Good old paper. If we were turning all this talk of books into the tale of the three little pigs, paper bindings would definitely play the part of the house of straw. (And that’s not just because paper can actually be made from straw). But paper can be surprisingly durable. Some of the most beautiful bindings are paper-based—which makes sense, as decorated papers were often made to resemble precious materials like marble, gold or rich fabrics.

We’ve already heard about marbled paper, which is often used for end papers. It is also used to cover books, often in conjunction with leather or cloth. Marbling was most likely developed in the East (in Japan it is known as sumingagashi). It was used by Persian bookbinders in the 16th century and had made its way to Europe by the 17th. To make marbled paper, colours are floated on top of a mucilaginous liquid or size (usually made from carragheen moss or gum tragacanth) and the paper is touched to the surface. Patterns are formed by drawing combs and other tools through the colours. There are veins, pebbles, waves and shells. Traditional patterns have names, such as PEACOCK, FANCY DUTCH, REVERSED NONPAREIL, SNAIL and ZEBRA. I’ve attended a marbling workshop; I cannot CONCEIVE how anyone can reliably reproduce the same pattern over and over again but I guess you just have to practice a lot.

Another decorated paper that was used a lot for bindings (and end papers) is paste paper. Coloured paste is applied to paper and designs created by pressing objects into the wet paste, or by using rollers, stamps and scrapers. After drying, the decorated paper is glazed. Paste papers were one of the earliest types of decorative paper and were used quite commonly from the 16th to the 18th centuries. I’ve done a paste paper workshop too; it is excellent fun (somewhat like fancy finger-painting) but to get anything that actually looks halfway decent is harder than you might think.

And there are all sort of other paper covering materials, many coated and embossed to give the appearance of leather. It can be block printed, pressed, glazed, varnished, dyed, flocked, gilt. Sometimes the paper needs no embellishments, as the fibres themselves are all the decoration it needs.

A book bound with block-printed paper (and a bit of leather along the spine)

Sorry you’ve already seen this picture but I couldn’t find another one with marbled paper used for a book binding. Plus there is an adorable kitty in it.