National Heritage Week 2020: Making a scholar’s notebook

by Josefin Jimenez, Bolton Conservator

For National Heritage Week 2020, I hosted an online workshop ‘Bookbinding: making a modern scholar’s notebook from recycling’ on 20 August 2020. The first part of this blog post outlines which materials and equipment needed to make a Scholar’s binding or notebook, while the second part provides a video tutorial and a step-by-step guide.



The scholar’s binding in Ireland occupies a unique position, as a vessel for language and scholarship and the continuation of the Irish manuscript tradition. This workshop aims to showcase Ireland’s rich and unique manuscript tradition, and connect old and modern skills in a workshop suited for both young and old. This online lecture and tutorial will touch briefly on the scholar’s binding – what it is and why it is so special in Ireland – and then look at a couple of scholar’s bindings in the Bolton Library at the University of Limerick. The online event will conclude by demonstrating how to make your own notebooks using recycled materials, such as packaging, envelopes, food cartons and other materials generally lying about the house.

No specialist tools or prior knowledge of bookbinding required. Please note children must be accompanied by an adult while following the steps below, especially while working with sharp materials.

How to make an Irish Scholars’ Binding at home


This list is a guide to what you might need, and it shouldn’t be read as law. The point of this is to make something of things you already have, and to look at materials in new light. If you don’t have anything exactly matching don’t worry, and try to find the closest approximation. The more you improvise in material and method the more interesting your binding will be as an artefact.  

Get to know your rubbish

Go through the paper recycling and have a look at what’s there. Useful paper to make notebooks of are papers with at least one blank side, and without coating or surface treatment – so avoid thick and glossy paper. You can look for envelopes, printer paper, paper bags etc. Anything with a texture or pattern that you might like or anything made from good quality material. Materials can come from surprising sources, for instance Tyvek, a synthetic weave material used in book conservation, is sometimes used for the lining of larger shipping envelopes. It’s worth it to have a root around!  

Material needed to make a scholars notebook:

  • Paper
  • Sewing supports
  • Cover material
  • Thread
Different notebooks made from recycling. You can see an attempt at a long stitch binding and a cross structure binding, developed by Carrmencho Aregui.

Paper for the notebook:

This material will make the pages of our book. The kind of book you want will determine what material will be useful. For writing or drawing shopping bags, envelopes, printer paper, brown packing paper, decorative paper, art paper, notebook paper etc is useful. If you want to decorate the notebook you can also save postcards, images, posters etc. Some papers are not good to use, for instance commercial leaflets (paper printed on both sides), heavy gloss paper, newspaper or wrapping paper. Don’t throw this away as its useful for scrap or paste paper. If you are hesitant on what you can use you can test it by drawing or writing on it.  
Envelopes, pharmacy bags, receipts and art paper.

Cover material

This material will form the cover of the book and needs to be sturdier than the material used for the textblock, and you need to enough in one piece to cover both sides of the book plus the spine. You can use cardboard from cereal boxes, shoe boxes etc. If using material from a food containers make sure there is no grease or stains on it. If you’d prefer a soft cover notebook you can use paper, such as brown craft paper, a poster, drawing paper or other sturdy paper.  
Card from a shoe box, cereal container and oat bar box.

Sewing supports/ laces

The sewing supports, or sewing stations, are flat strips, which hold the book spine together and form the connection between text block and cover. Traditionally they were made from leather, parchment, or flat cotton tape.     The number and width depends on the size of the book – for a smaller notebook, two strips, around 1 to 2 cm wide, should be enough. If the book is taller, you can use three or four strips. I’ve been using the handles of paper shopping bags, but any flat sturdy material will do. Tyvek if you can get hold of it, cotton tape, fabric bands, folded craft paper or leather strips etc.
The handles from a paper shopping bag and offcuts from a drawer liner in clear plastic.


This is what we will use to sew, or “bind” the book together. It needs to be durable but not too thick. Anything like fine knitting yarn, twine, string, linen thread, floss or sewing thread is suitable. If used on its own cotton sewing thread might too thin and snap, so you can twine it together to make a thicker thread.  
Twining sewing thread
  Cut a long piece of sewing thread, fold it in half and make a loop at the folded end, to tie around a door handle or end of a chair, twine the loose end of the folded threads in one direction, until the whole piece is wound together. Using your free hand fold the thread in half, bringing the end you have been holding back to the loop. Let the opposite end go and it twines together.  


Like the materials list this is more about finding something to match the function rather than the exact tool, and to think creatively about what you have already.  
Assortment of hands tools used in conservation and book binding.

Required tools

  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Paperweights
  • Press boards
  • Cutting edge
  • Ruler
  • Needles
  • Cutting mat or other protective cover
  • Bone folder
Optional objects which might come handy: letter opener, thimble, tweezers, small scissors, glue stick.


Anything heavy but relatively small. Paperweights are used for flattening paper and keeping it still. Rocks, dumb bells, actual paperweights, heavy kitchen ware, a metal hole punch or even a jar filled with something heavy will work.  
Examples of improvised paperweights: a mortar bowl from our kitchen, a rock from the ground and a crystal.

Press boards/paperweights

For pressing and flattening you can use heavy books or clean cutting boards. They need to be slightly larger than the book you want to make.  
I use my partner’s coffee table book about Wes Anderson and a ringbinder with my conservation articles.

Cutting edge

A very sharp cutting blade, like a scalpel or an art/hobby knife, Stanley knife (retractable blade, snap blade), carpet knife, rotary cutter or similar, most standard toolboxes will have something.  
Swann-Morton scalpel handle with a 10A blade from our local art store.


A standard 30cm plastic ruler, or even better, a metal ruler. If you have a setsquare (triangular ruler) or a quilting ruler that is helpful too.  
This is a completely normal amount of rulers to just have at home.


You need one sharp needle for piercing the sections and one blunt needle for sewing the sections. It is helpful if the piercing needle has a handle like a sewing bodkin or awl but a larger sewing needle is fine. For sewing you need a larger blunt needle, like a tapestry needle or darning needle is fine. That is just to avoid pricking your fingers, if all you have is sewing needles that will work.  
The image shows my curved needles because it was what I had home, but for this technique, a straight needle would be better.

Cutting mat

You will need an art or hobby cutting mat, you can also use a piece of thick board or matting to use to protect the surface underneath when you are cutting.
My trusty A4 cutting mat.

Bone folder

A book binding tool used to smooth and reinforce folds in paper. They are traditionally from cow’s bone but come in Teflon, plastic and wood. Plastic ones can be bought in most art stores, but you can use the flat side of a pencil, flat side of a toothbrush, a clean ice-lolly stick. If you don’t have one don’t sweat it, it’s the least necessary tool on the list.  

Video tutorial and step-by-step guide

These five short videos demonstrate the entire process of making a notebook: how to prepare and fold the paper, mark and cut the sections, sew the bookblock and make the cover. In previous posts on this blog you can see what kind of material and tools are needed as well as a little bit of background about the Irish scholar’s binding. As explained in previous posts, Irish scholar’s bindings were improvised structures and as such didn’t follow any particular binding style or method  ̶  even if you can see borrowed elements and influence from certain structures in the bindings  ̶  however for ease of learning we are making something called a “laced­­ case binding”. It’s is called that because because the case (or cover) is made separately from the book block and then laced on using the sewing supports. It’s an established structure originating in the printing industry in Italy and closely related to the limp parchment binding, it’s also been modified within the conservation community. What connects this to the tradition of Irish scholar’s bindings is the use of found material and close link between maker and writer. In other words you.  

Preparing and folding the paper

  The first step is preparing and folding the paper, this video goes through how to tear, flatten and fold paper to make the sections, or gatherings. It goes through making a section out of an A-4 sheet, an envelope and a paper bag. It will also briefly show the tools and materials needed. This method will give you a gathering of 16 pages by folding the paper four times. Folding more will give your section more pages but make it smaller in size, and less folding will make the section larger but with fewer pages.

Marking and cutting the sections

  How to mark the spines of the sections at the head and tail, and mark and cut the holes for the sewing stations. This method is loosely based on the practice of putting the book block into a laying press and scoring or sawing across the back of the sections, creating the holes for the sewing. Alternatively, but not shown here, there is a method of using a needle to pierce the sections one by one from inside the centre fold, matching the mark on the outside of the section. If you have taken bookbinding classes before you might be more familiar with the latter method and prefer that. Another way to keep track of the order of sections, instead of marking the first and last section, you can draw a diagonal line across the spine and use that to place the sections in correct order.

Sewing the book block

  Now we can start putting the book together! This video shows how to sew the sections together, how to attach the sewing supports and make a kettle stitch between each section. It also briefly goes into how to make twine from cotton sewing thread. The book is sewn by stacking the sections on top of each other. The sewing pattern here starts at the bottom (the tail) of the section and works upward towards the top (the head). It starts from outside of the section, going inside to come out and go around the sewing support, repeating twice and ends up at the outside of the top of the section. The same pattern is used in Carmencho Arregui’s Cross Structure binding Basic, and for a more in depth explanation of the sewing and sewing pattern there is a link here. Each section is anchored with a kettle stich, or a chain link stitch, alternating at the head and tail. It steadies each section and keeps them from sliding around.  Using the needle you go back between your two previous sections and make a loop around the stitch bridging the two, forming the knot by pulling the needle and thread through the loop.  
This image showing how to make the kettle stitch is taken from Natalie Stopka’s blogpost on the same topic

Making the cover, hard cover and soft cover version

These videos shows two versions of how to make the cover, one with a hard carton cover and one with a soft cover made from paper. The first video goes through the measuring, folding and scoring the cover, and cutting the 8 slits for lacing through the sewing supports. For the soft cover binding the video shows how to fold your material to the correct size and then go through the same steps of folding, cutting and lacing through. When lacing through the paper cover it is easy to damage the cover, this can be fixed by putting a small with a piece of washi or archival tape inside the cover under the cut and cutting through the slits again. In the workshop we talked a little about how to modify the structures to personal taste. One participant suggesting that instead of cutting off any excess in the cover using it to make a foredge flap, and another pointed out that if you leave the sewing supports long and lace them back out through the cover they can be ties to hold the book closed. Yap edges, where a part of the covers is folded over the foredge, is also an easy modification to make on the soft cover and there are many ways to decorate. While I was developing the class I got quite good results making decorative papers with acrylic colours and potato stamps.  
Wrapping paper from a postage parcel with a repeat spiral pattern made with a potato stamp


National Heritage Week is a wonderful resource and we recommend taking a look at the other finished interactive projects. We would love to know if you have been making note books with us and to see any bindings made with your recycling. You can tweet a photo at us @UL_SpecColl or email us