Saturday, July 10, 2010

A little history of the Chain Stitch

Early multi-section Coptic codices
Dating from the 2nd century AD, the Copts used a chain stitch to bind multi-section books. In most documented cases, it seems that these books were sewn with a continuous thread and a single needle. The first and last sewing stations thus having half the number of loops as the other sewing stations. There are variations in the chain stitches from this period, though, since the technique was still in development. The cover would be made separately & attached after the textblock was sewn, covering the book completely including the spine. The textblock was attached by pasting it directly to the covers.

Later Coptic codies
After about the seventh century, there are very few extant Coptic bindings and most remnants are very badly damaged but it is evident that the chain stitch was still used. It also seems that the cover boards started being attached as part of the sewing process – unlike the separate attachment of the cover described above for the early Coptic codices.

Ethiopian Codices
Dating from about the sixteenth century, chain stitch binding had also evolved in Ethiopia. These books typically had paired sewing stations, sewn using two needles for each pair of sewing stations (so if there are 2 holes, use 2 needles…or 6 holes, 6 needles etc). The covers were wooden and attached by sewing through holes made into edge of the board. Most of these books were left uncovered without endbands.

Byzantine bindings
There were also Islamic bookbinding methods employing the link stitch, and Byzantine/Greek bookbinding methods using a link stitch. An interesting variation employed by the Greeks was sewing the sections in two groups, then joining them so the chains meet in the middle. This makes it look like the chain stitches change direction in the middle of the row. The Byzantine bindings are more likely to have elaborate endbands which are worked onto supports and anchored to the cover boards through holes in the boards. These books typically had full leather coverings.

This quick summary is largely based on information in Szirmai’s text, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. There are five chapters dedicated to link stitch bindings so this is really a miniscule summary of what I read.

There is some debate surrounding the various terms used to described the chain stitch binding methods that are so often used today, especially concerning the very loose application of the term "Coptic binding." Ekthesis has a nice article about the Coptic binding which includes some discussion of these issues.

Photo courtesy of The Crafty Kitten
Originally posted to the BEST Blog, Oct 2007

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