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A History of the Fading Art of Bookbinding

When we bound these books, I thought, they were identical. But I realised they couldn’t stay that way. As soon as someone cracks the spine, a book develops a character all its own. What impresses or concerns one reader is never the same as what impresses or concerns all others.” ― Pip Williams, The Bookbinder of Jericho

I am a bibliophile and I love books. I am also fascinated by the way they are made. Whenever a new book arrives, I touch it, I smell it. I run my fingers on the cover. I love the whole tactile experience.

When I was a child, I used to be amazed by the intricate designs and beautiful bindings of some of the books in my school library.

One day, I was at the library and I found a book that had been beautifully bound in leather. The cover was embossed with a delicate design, and the pages were edged in gold.

leather bound book with golden edges

I was so taken with the book that I asked my mom who used to teach at the same school if I could have it. Mom shattered my heart saying it was a ‘Special’ book and could not be borrowed. I don’t remember anything about the book except how it made me feel. Such is the enchantment of bookbinding.

In this post, I will explore the history of bookbinding, and the reasons why it is a dying art. I will also shine the spotlight on a few hero artisans who are trying to keep this tradition alive. And for those keen to delve deeper, I have curated a list of notable books on the subject. You can find it toward the end of this post.

The History of Bookbinding

Bookbinding is the art of creating a physical container for books, from simple pamphlets to elaborately decorated tomes. It is a complex and time-consuming process that involves many different steps, from preparing the materials to sewing the pages together to attaching the cover.

India is traditionally considered the birthplace of bookbinding. In the 2nd century BCE, ancient Hindu sages began engraving religious texts into palm leaves. To protect the palm leaves from direct exposure to sunlight, they used to bind them together with twine to form a basic book-like structure.

This practice gradually spread to the Middle East courtesy of Buddhist monks.

Middle Ages – Scrolls, Codex, and Illuminated Manuscripts

The art really took off in the Middle Ages when Egyptian bookbinders started to bind papyrus sheets together to create a scroll.

Ancient scroll

During the Roman Empire (somewhere between 100-200 CE), the technique of binding folded parchment or papyrus between wood boards called Codices became popular.

The word “codex” usually refers to old hand-written books from long ago. In ancient times, codices were used for both personal writing and recording sermons and teachings.

handwritten Hindu codex

The transition from the scroll to the codex is hailed as the most significant development in book creation prior to the emergence of the printing press. This change gave us the book design we still use and love today.

Then came the Catholic Church which became a major patron of bookbinding. Monks and scribes would create handwritten books, bound in leather and decorated with gold and silver. The bindings were considered works of art in their own right and came to be called Illuminated manuscripts.

These manuscripts, crafted between 1100 and 1600 CE, were initially produced in monasteries mainly for worship. However, by the twelfth century, with the rise of universities and the middle class, manuscript production expanded beyond monasteries, turning into a lucrative urban business involving bookshops and scribes.

Illuminated Manuscripts - ancient bookbinding examples

One of the most significant innovations in bookbinding during the Middle Ages was the development of the sewing frame. This device allowed bookbinders to sew the pages of a book together more efficiently and with greater precision.

This made it possible to produce larger and more complex books, leading to the creation of the first printed books in the 15th century.

By this time, the craft of bookbinding had become a highly regarded profession. People were reading more and bookbinders responded by developing new techniques and materials to create more durable and attractive books.

Gutenberg Printing Press

By mid-15th century, Johan Gutenberg‘s press had come into its own. As the printing press revolutionized the production of books, it also brought about changes to the way they were bound.

Instead of being sewn by hand, the pages of printed books were now glued together, making the binding process much quicker and more efficient. This was important in the early days of printing when there was a huge demand for books and a need to mass-produce them.

Bookbinding continued to evolve over the next few centuries, with the development of new materials and techniques.

Industrial Bookbinding

In the 19th century, the invention of advanced machinery turbocharged the mass production of books. This led to a new era of bookbinding.

Industrial bookbinding became more standardized, with books being produced in large quantities using machines. This made books more affordable and accessible to a wider audience.

However, the advancement sounded a death-knell for the craftsmanship of bookbinding – bringing the age-old practice to a grinding halt.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a resurgence of interest in traditional bookbinding techniques. Many bookbinders began to rediscover the lost art of bookbinding. Production became more mechanized to meet the increased demand.

In recent years, bookbinding has continued to evolve and change. For example, digital printing has made it possible to produce high-quality books in small quantities.

There is also a greater emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendliness. New materials, such as recycled paper and vegetable-tanned leather, which are kinder to the environment are being used more.

A man reviving the art of bookbinding

All said and done, handcrafted bookbinding is a craft on decline. It no longer carries the tropes of a full-time profession. Despite the downward trend, there are still enthusiasts and generational bookbinders around the world who are keeping the craft alive.

These artisans are preserving a centuries-old tradition and creating works of art that will be admired for generations to come.

Here are a few well-known bookbinders and book artists from around the world

1. Rhonda Miller

Rhonda Miller is a bookbinder and book artist based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She creates beautiful and innovative hand-bound, functional journals. who Her blog is a treasure trove for those wishing to deep-dive into the craft. She is known for her attention to detail and her use of high-quality materials, and she has won numerous awards for her work.

2. Peter and Donna Thomas

Peter and Donna Thomas are a husband and wife team of bookbinders and book artists based in the United States. They are known for their beautiful and unique book structures, and they have been at the forefront of the revival of traditional bookbinding techniques in the United States.


The couple has also co-authored the following books: More Making Books by Hand (2004), The Muir Ramble Route (2010), and 1000 Artists’ Books (2012).

3. Monique Lallier

Monique Lallier is a bookbinder and book artist based in France. She is known for her beautiful and innovative hand-bound books.

To maker her work stand out, she uses unusual materials such as eggshells, wires, snakeskin and even her own hair. She has won numerous awards for her work over the years and is considered one of the leading bookbinders in France.

4. Radha Pandey and Johan Solberg

Radha Pandey and Johan Solberg lead Halden Bookworks in Norway, an illustrious center dedicated to book arts. Johan Solberg, a native of Norway, harmoniously melds traditional and contemporary techniques.

At Halden Bookworks, they not only offer an amalgamation of these crafts but also foster the appreciation of book arts through workshops, events, and research. Dive into a world where pages, ink, and craftsmanship intertwine seamlessly.

5. Maria Ruzaikina

Maria Ruzaikina is a master gilder steeped in the European binding traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Mentored by her renowned father, Alexander Alexandrovich Ruzaykin, in their Moscow workshop filled with historic tools, she upholds a legacy that intertwines artistry and respect for books.

Even as she divides her time between Moscow and London, Maria fervently champions the irreplaceable art of hand-tooling, undeterred by the modern decline in traditional craftsmanship.

6. Glenn Malkin

Glenn is a distinguished Fellow of Designer Bookbinders, and operates from his East Yorkshire bindery. He established Signature Bindings – his bookbinding venture in 2008. Glenn not only crafts unique design bindings but also specializes in book repair, re-binding, and bespoke projects.

Since winning his first award at the Designer Bookbinders competition in 2009, Glenn’s acclaim has grown, securing his work in global collections. Committed to tradition, Glenn employs age-old methods, offers workshops for budding binders, and frequently speaks at bookbinding events.

It’s crazy how this art has evolved over time to keep up with the changing needs of society. I mean, we’ve gone from hand-sewn manuscripts to mass producing books, but bookbinding has always been an important part of the literary world.

Whether you’re a book collector, an artist, or just someone who loves the beauty of a well-made book, you can’t deny the magic of this ancient art form. If you are looking to dive deeper into the world of bookbinding, there are several books out there that can give you all the information you need!

Here are four books that you might find interesting if you’re looking to learn more about the art of bookbinding:

1. “Bookbinding: A How To Guide” by E.P. Carter

Ever thought of crafting your own personalized journal or sketchbook? This concise guide offers a beginner-friendly introduction to bookbinding, featuring over 250 detailed photos.

Dive into various stitching techniques, from creating simple travel journals to intricate leather-bound hardcovers. It is perfect for DIY enthusiasts.

2. “Bookbinding and Conservation by Hand: A Working Guide” by Laura S. Young

This book is a practical guide to hand bookbinding, and it is perfect for anyone who wants to start learning this craft. It covers everything from basic techniques to more advanced methods, and it includes a wealth of information about the materials and tools that are used in bookbinding.

3. “The Art of Bookbinding” by Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf

This book is a classic work on bookbinding, and it has been considered a must-read for bookbinders for over a century. It covers the history of bookbinding, as well as the techniques and materials that are used in the craft, and it is a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about this fascinating field.

4. Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction ” by Aldren A. Watson

Hand Bookbinding

This book is a classic work on bookbinding. Published in 1996, this guide revives this craft with detailed instructions and 270 illustrations on classic bookbinding methods.

Despite its age, the book stands out for its thoroughness and enduring value, with clear monochrome visuals. It remains a recommended staple for novices and experts alike.

These books are a great place to start if you’re looking to learn more about the art of bookbinding. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced bookbinder, you’ll find something of interest in these works, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of this fascinating craft.

From the ancient scrolls and codices to the mesmerizing illuminated manuscripts, each chapter tells a story not just of literature, but also of artistry, dedication, and evolution.

Today, as digital screens dominate, it’s more crucial than ever to appreciate and support the artisans breathing life into this age-old craft. Their hands weave past traditions with present innovations, ensuring that bookbinding remains not just a relic of the past, but a living testament to human creativity.

So, why not pick up a beautifully bound book today, or better yet, explore the artistry firsthand?

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