Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


I am a textiles artist who has become interested in book arts, as have many others. In looking for historic precedents, I was amazed to learn that there was a history of books bound in fine fabric dating back to medieval Europe. These are rich, elaborately crafted objects that required binders to collaborate with craft persons skilled in needlework. Beautifully woven fabrics were used, some of which were made for clothing. Other fabrics had been made for smaller, more durable objects like books or perhaps hats and handbags. There are records of milliners making some of the bindings. The appearance and ownership of the rich volumes I’m about to show you reflect the status and power associated with the ownership of silk, books and, thus knowledge, in earlier times.

Textile bindings exist in small numbers in relation to leather books. There are several reasons for this. The books are fragile and many have disintegrated. Some religious books were destroyed during the Reformation; others were dismantled at various times to reclaim precious gemstones and metals. Many books bound in cloth were rebound in earlier times for conservation reasons. Finally, tastes changed, and book historians did not consider the textiles bindings worthy of study. Perhaps the bindings were considered woman’s work, and not as important as the popular Moroccan leather books that followed.

This paper begins by looking at books in British and French Collections of the Middle Ages and somewhat beyond. Each country’s descriptions start with velvet bindings, and moves on to embroidered bindings. Some of the bindings feature abstract designs, similar to those seen on leather bindings, others are pictorial. Geometric designs and the tools that make them can be reused in different configurations on different titles. This is not always the case with pictorial representations, which also require more skill to execute. However, many of the pictorial bindings feature portraits of the owner, or broad religious themes and are more interchangeable than one might think.

In the centuries before printing, the goldsmith or skilled embroiderer lavishly decorated most important books. One of the results of the invention of Printing and the rapid development of the book trade that followed in the latter 15th Century, was the search for new forms for the decoration of books. The major innovation was the use of gold tooling, mostly on durable Moroccan calf, popularized in Italy where the art was probably introduced through Venice by the work of Islamic craftsmen.

From the early 14th Century onwards, rich textiles such as velvets, silk brocades, and cloth of gold was used in royal circles for covering important manuscripts. From the 15th century onward velvet covers were often adorned with embroidery. In Europe, this form yielded rather quickly to the more practical Moroccan calf, but in England textiles bindings remained popular until the mid 17th century, dying out only after the British Civil War.