Making a model of a limp parchment binding

by Josefin Jimenez, Bolton Conservator

I recently had the good fortune to take part of an online bookbinding class to make a model of a Christopher Clarkson limp parchment conservation binding. The class was arranged through the Institue of Conservators-Restorers in Ireland (ICRI) and taught by Anne-Marie Miller, ACR, MA of Codex Conservation.

A stack of papers with a green paper at the bottom, cream and white paper on top, linnen thread wound around a piece of cardboard and white leather thongs. A hand is holding the package open.
Material package, sewing thread, green handmade paper, paper for textblock and endleaves and alum tawed cords.

The materials came through the mail to each participant, containing paper, thread, a strip of parchment and alum thawed cords.

Christopher Clarkson (1938-2017) was instrumental in developing modern conservation methods and ethics in the UK, designed the model after working with recovering manuscripts and printed books damaged in the 1966 Florence floods. He noted that parchment bindings with soft covers and laced through attachments fared better than hardbound books, relying on boards and adhesion. He experimented with creating a non-adhesive binding with soft covers and a spine lining, which would function as a strong flexible support for the movement of the spine.

A “conservation binding” is an umbrella term for binding structures designed by conservators with longevity, re-treatability and mechanical function in mind. They are often made by “cherry picking” features from historical bindings to ensure best function. Even if rebinding or making an new binding is considered a radical step it is sometimes the best way to ensure that a book is protected from damage. By making a model of a binding, or structure, a conservator can learn how to best put the binding together, or which features could be suitable to incorporate in future projects. The physical object also makes it easy to observe how the structure moves and changes over time and with handling.

Taking part in an online tutorial was somewhat different from learning in person and sometimes required inventive takes and improvisation to gather the necessary equipment and tools, but once in session it was surprisingly familiar.


Image of a cluttered table, in the foreground the uncovered text block
The textblock with the sewing finished, just removed from an improvised sewing frame.

As this is only a model, and in the interest of  avoiding exorbitant material costs the parchment for the cover was substituted with a sheet of thick handmade paper, which has a similar drape and function. The binding features split alum thawed sewing supports, which laced through the boards forms the primary connection between cover and book block. Hidden under the cover is the parchment spine lining which provides a support the the laced through endband, or “structural endband” gives additional support and attachment. The lining attaches through the stitched tie downs. The binding is finished with alum thawed ties to hold the book closed.

Personally, stitching the endbands by hand were the biggest challenge, as tension is very important and there is a tactile element to it difficult to convey through online teaching, but after a few tries it went very smoothly. When making the endband it is important to keep the tension on the thread even, not pulling it too tightly while still keeping the beads firm enough to lock the structure.

A close up of a white linnen thread endband


Stitching the endband

The above link is a beautiful time lapse from Julia Poirier’s Instagram, conservator at Chester Beatty Library showing her stitching the endband for her model. This endband has a bead at the back and front and is stitched through the sections and spine liner. The endband forms the primary attachment of the spine lining and book block.

The spine and parchment spine lining, slots are cut in the lining leaving the sewing stations visible
The spine and sewing, with the parchment spine lining stitched into place.

Even as a model, it’s a very beautiful binding and it was fantastic to get back into working practically and participating in a joint endeavour across long distances.

A book with soft cover made from paper and white ties at the foredge.
The finished model with the thongs tied.

For anyone interested, this blog has a detailed tutorial with instructional videos in how to make a similar, but much simpler binding, from home made materials which we made for National Heritage Week 2020.


Further reading