Time Travel


Today I’m going to share a beastly, strange, Frankenstein of a book that I did for the “Time Travelers” show at the Asheville Bookworks. You can see an online gallery of the books in that exhibit here.

The time traveling theme was meant to give artists the opportunity to illustrate and respond to the various ways that book structures and materials have changed over time and across geographic regions. I decided to take the prompt a little more literately and ask what would happen to the book itself  if it traveled back in time.

There is a lot of great literature out there about time travel; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  by Mark Twain immediately spring to mind when I think of stories that follow this theme. I decided, however, that the high points of the genre have probably received too much attention already and that it would be a lot more fun to focus on one of the not-so-great stories. You know – one that nobody would spend time or materials rebinding. Maybe one of those titles that you often find in library book sales or your local thrift shop. Maybe even one that was adapted into video game and a feature film starring Paul Walker and Gerard Butler.

That’s right – I’m talking about Micheal Crichton’s 1999 book Timeline.

My submission to the show is rebound in the Carolingian style, fully covered in deer skin with a brass fastener (made by Kait Kennedy, a jewelry maker here at NBSS).

In the story, a group of history students travel back to medieval France to rescue their professor, Dr. Edward Johnston. After the their teacher disappears, the students find a  600 year old note from Johnston buried in the ruins of a castle and hijinks ensue. I thought it would be fun to make the book look like it had traveled back in time with the characters, but never made the return trip. I also like the juxtaposition of a machine-made, mass-produced piece of popular fiction in a binding from a time in which books were handmade, incredibly expensive, and unique. Technically, the story takes place in the 14th century, and Carolingian bindings are produced from the late eighth to the end of the twelfth centuries (Szirmai, 2000, p. 100) – but I’ve wanted to try one of these bindings for a while, so let’s just ignore the fact that this should be more of a Romanesque binding.

So a bit about the structure of Carolingian bindings, with the caveat that I have absolutely no experience with historical examples. While I’ve examined a hand-full of manuscripts from this period, none were in their original bindings. All my information comes from Szirmai’s chapter. These bindings are a kind of structural transition between the squared-up, leather-covered Ethiopian structures (unsupported chain sewing that also functions as the primary board attachment) and the rounded spine Romanesque  and Gothic bindings (sewing on supports that are laced into heavy wooden boards).

As I said before, this is a Frankenstein of a book – not only content-wise, but because of the way I had to put it together. As many bookbinders know, it can be difficult to find a printing of contemporary literature that is actually sewn folios. Most are either single, adhesive bound sheets, or were folded sections that have been sawed open at the spine for better adhesive penetration. My copy was glued single sheets, so I had to reform the text into sections. Sections can be made by guarding the leaves together with Japanese tissue, but this method often creates a significant amount of swell at the spine of the book. Swell is good if the book is going to be rounded and backed, but because Carolingian bindings have flat spines, I needed absolutely minimal swell. I decided to use a sewing machine to assemble sections.

This method is a little bit crazy and I wouldn’t recommend it for a book that is meant to last – but it is quick and gets the job done. It might depend upon the model of sewing machine that you use, but the one that I used pierced the sewing holes very close together at the widest setting. Doing so effectively perforates the sheet, and since the adhesive probably isn’t going to be penetrating that far, you are creating a good opportunity for mechanical detachment of single leaves later on. Whip-stitching by hand, a common technique used in atlas bindings, would probably be stronger. But this book is for show, not to be read!

Traditionally a binder would probably prepare the boards as their first step (Szirmai, p. 103), then, after sewing, trim the textblock to the size of the boards with a drawknife (p. 119). I trimmed all the sections down in the board sheer to give a kind of rough-cut edge and then prepared the boards. Szirmai reports that a range of wood is used for the boards of extant Carolingian bindings; most are oak, but beech, fruit tree, and poplar are also found (p. 103). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get quarter-sawn oak boards that were large enough in time for the exhibit deadlines, so I had to fake some up by laminating layers of 1/4″ plywood and millboard.

The result was a super-thick board (around 1/2″) that was heavy and hard like wood, but was extremely easy to drill and shape. Szirmai states that the thichness of Carolingian boards (with leather covering) ranges from 7 to 17mm (p. 103). After marking up the board and drilling angled holes for the lacing, channels are cut between the holes so that the laced cord doesn’t sit proud of the board surface. Szirmai provides a range of diagrams on the variations of lacing patterns through the board (p. 107).
 Szirmai (2000) states that cord was used primarily as sewing supports in the Carolingian bindings surveyed, but that white leather thongs are also found in books from France and Italy (p. 112). An extra long length of cord is laced through the front board, then tied up onto the the sewing frame. The sections are then sewn through the “center” around the double supports in a ‘herringbone’ pattern (Szirmai, p. 101).

After sewing, the second board is laced on. Traditionally, the free end of the cord is secured into the lower board with wooden wedges or dowels (Szirmai, p. 103). I didn’t have much faith in the strength of my boards, so I just frayed out the cord ends, fanned them out with adhesive, and hammered them into the interior surface of the board. The pastedowns are typically put down onto the boards before covering (Szirmai, p. 117).

Headbands are sewn either in the coptic style or around double cords that are laced into the boards (Szirmai, p. 121). A distinguishing feature of these bindings is the leather tabs that extend over the head and tail of the book. Shelving books upright was not a common practice during this time, and books were often stored in chests. The tabs facilitate lifting the volume up and out of it’s enclosure.

When the endband thread is anchored into the secitons, it passes through one layer of the leather tab. I used the same deer skin for the tab that would be used for the covering… this skin was odd to work with, but more on that later. Here is the endband from the back, showing the anchoring. .

It looks very rough, but after covering and doing the parimeter sewing to keep the parts of the tab together, the result is quite nice and super strong. Szirmai has excellent diagrams of several variations of tab construction (p. 125).

After cutting a small channel in the upper board for my fastener, the book was covered. Szirmai states that the majority of extant Carolingian bindings were covered in thick (2mm) ‘chamois’ or buckskin (species of origin unknown, p. 127). The skins of local wild animals were used, as Charlemagne’s edict of AD 774 gave the Abby of St. Denis permission to use deer skin their forest for bindings (Szirmai, p. 127). The deer skin that I used was actually donated to the school (along with a variety of odds and ends) some months ago, so I do not know from whence it came or how it was tanned. It was quite scarred, stained, and difficult to pare, however. Perfect for making a medieval book!

The covering leather is adhered directly to the spine, which actually produces a nice opening for the book.

The thickness of the boards meant that the turn-ins have to be left extra long and made doing the corners a bit of a challenge. Ordinarily, a leather corner can be pared quite thin and pleated along the inside of the board to fully cover the corner and deal with excess material. The toughness of the deerskin made this difficult, so I cut the leather as one would do a cloth corner. On the inside of the boards, I mitered the leather and stitched it – as diagrammed in Szirmai, Fig. 7.29 (p. 129).

Szirmai reports that the majority of surveyed bindings from this period are left untrimmed at the turn-ins (p. 129).

As for fasteners, Szirmai says that they were a regular feature on carolingian bindings, but that few of them have survived; all that remain are stubs of leather straps and holes from pins (p. 131). The author includes drawings of a few examples  from the Abby of St. Gall with extant rings and pins that I modeled mine after.

The pin is just hammered directly into the lower board. The ring is attached by a looped piece of calfskin (stitched with a strip of parchment) and secured to the upper board with brass escutcheon pins.

As I said before, these books were not stored in the way that we are accustomed to shelving books, so I inked the title onto the fore-edge. I have not read all that much on the titling of books, so I do not know how titling or distinctive markings were made during this period. If you have suggestions for reading on the topic, please post them in the comments.


I think I’m going to try to put up a post on sewing models next. Look for it soon!


Szirmai, J. A. (2000). The archaeology of medieval bookbinding. Aldershot : Ashgate.


5 thoughts on “Time Travel

  1. So happy to see this post – I’ve been meaning to send you a note. I live in Asheville and am a ‘regular’ at BookWorks. We LOVE LOVE LOVE this piece. It’s well done, thoughtful and a terrific interpretation for this show. I’ve been following your blog for awhile – your talent inspires me. Thank you for showing/sharing and your great work. Happy day

    1. Thank you so much! It was a really fun project and I’m glad you have enjoyed it.

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