Leather – A Bookbinding History


For many centuries, leather has played a significant and historical role in the art of bookbinding.

In England in particular, leather has been an important bookbinding component since as far back as the Saxon times. While uncertainty prevails about the type of leather used in earlier times, volumes dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries were discovered to have been bound in goatskin.

The simplest explanation for this is that bookbinders simply took to using what was available to them at the time. Goats were commonplace in terms of domestic use, and as such, the skin was often preserved for the binding of books. Also, given how abundant deer had been in England’s hunting industry in those early years, this type of skin was also often used in the art of the binding of books.

Early Evolution

By the time the 15th century rolled around, sheepskin became a popular binding material, as did calfskin.

Calf skin, especially, lent itself perfectly to this particular art. Once tanned, calf skin takes on a smooth and rich brown colour, which proved not only practical but also aesthetically pleasing.

As for goatskin, the majority of this appeared during the 18th and 19th centuries. These were coloured in dyes of blue, bright red, and lively green.

Early on in the 18th century, binders came up with an entirely new and modern idea; that of covering only the back and sides of the book in leather and making use of boards covered with paper for the front.

Binding Expertise

A great deal of thought and decision-making went into choosing the appropriate style of binding.

The type of book and how often it would be handled were just some of the factors taken into consideration by the binder. This was deemed a great responsibility by those who practised the art and craft of bookbinding.

For instance, if a book was to be handled regularly, goatskin would make for the most suitable covering because of its hardiness. On the other hand, if a book was expected to sit on the bookshelf for long periods of time, the preferred method of binding would be sheepskin or vellum.

Use And Application

But bookbinders also needed to understand the treatment of the leather before deciding on a particular type of skin.

Leather typically underwent one of two processes of treatment: either tanning or tawing. Tawing is a process involving treatment with salt and potassium aluminium sulphate, which produced a flexible type of leather binding. Tawing was a treatment process that became exceptionally popular during the 15th century and produced leather that was white in colour.

By the beginning of the 16th century, however, binders started to switch to tanned leather. During the tanning process, the inner layer of the skin, which is referred to as dermis, was treated with a lime solution that ensured the removal of all flesh and hair. Then, the leather was immersed in a tanning agent of oak bark (ground) and water. The skin was then left to dry out completely leaving plenty of time to check out the latest NZ horse racing tips before being cut and dyed for final use.

Whatever the process, choice, and treatment, bookbinders have always preferred leather over any other material for their beautiful craft.