Coptic Bookbinding: Past, Present, and Future

An Overview of Coptic Binding:

Coptic Binding, or Coptic Book Binding, is a method of binding books dating back as early as the 4th Century A.D.  As the name suggests, this style of book binding was utilized by the Coptic Church, and had a profound impact on how people tend to visualize books today.  Up to this time in history, the majority of written information was preserved on scrolls.  Coptic stitch binding produced codices, which was essentially sheets of paper stacked between wooden covers, producing books rather than scrolls.  There are many advantages even today of utilizing Coptic stitch binding:

  • With Coptic stitching, books can open up to 360 degrees without damaging the spine.
  • Books bound with the chain stitch (Coptic stitch) are very artistic and attractive
  • Undertaking a Coptic Stitch Tutorial shows deference to a traditional craft that has survived for over 16 centuries.

History of Coptic Books:

Historically speaking, Coptic Books of old were produced from materials that the average bookbinder does not have at their disposal today.  The bookbinding materials are different, the tools of the trade have changed, and ultimately the primary focus has changed.

Early Coptic Books were written on papyrus.  For those that aren’t sure exactly what that is, papyrus is produced from the pith of a tall water plant, such as what would be found in the Nile River basin.  Originally scrolls were made of papyrus.  This was expensive and the scrolls were difficult to produce, since several sheets of papyrus had to be meshed together to produce scrolls.  When the codex form emerged, the papyrus sheets were simply stacked one atop the other.  The first codex book covers typically were composed of limp leather stiffened with waste sheets of papyrus, such as is evidenced in the Nag Hammadi bindings discovered in 1945 Interestingly enough papyrus is still utilized in a few isolated regions of the world, though less for writing surfaces and more for construction of items from baskets, to roofs, to rope.

While papyrus records survived quite nicely in the dry climate of Egypt, papyrus documents and books were assailed by moisture, mold and rot in Europe.  In Europe, vellum took the place of papyrus as a writing medium.  Though vellum involves the time consuming process of stretching and treating animal skins (typically of sheep), vellum proved to be quite durable.  Many copies of the Gutenberg Bible were printed on vellum.  Though paper was available at this time, vellum was still considered of higher quality.  Since there is some discrepancy as to what constitutes vellum, for modern purposes it is typically defined as the unsplit skin of calves, while parchment is reserved as an umbrella term encompassing a variety of other species, including goats, sheep, donkeys, and camels.  Save for the Torah and some Muslim works, the modern use of vellum is rare, and the term is now applied to the imitation which is produced from cotton.

Modern Coptic Book Binding Materials:

Modern Coptic book binding materials are usually available between a well-supplied arts and crafts store and a sewing shop.  Today, book binders have many more options to work with, and the choice in materials will make a difference in the style and expression of the finished book.  In terms of categories, the fledgling artisan will need to think of the following:  book covers, writing surface, stitching, tools, and embellishments.

Book Covers:  Book covers for Coptic bound books can be as simple as millboard to something as durable as quarter sawn hardwood.  As a general rule, the book boards should be thin enough to be easily worked with crafting tools, but stiff enough to be durable.  Millboard is likely the cheapest and most readily available, but quarter sawn lumber offers up some intriguing advantages as well.  For some, quarter sawn lumber holds an attractive grain and wonderful aroma.  Cedar and fruit trees are especially fragrant.  These lumber sheets can be sanded and stained, providing a stand-out finish.  Millboard can also be embellished upon.  Some ideas for embellishing millboard include contact paper, cloth, or leather that can be adhered to the board.  Otherwise they can be painted or etched on, limited only by imagination and skill.

Writing Surface:  What used to be done with vellum and papyrus is now done with card stock or canvas.  For the true do-it-yourselfer, a trip to he store to buy paper or card stock isn’t necessary.  If learning how to bind books isn’t enough of a thrilling challenge, classes and seminars in papermaking are also available.  It’s simply a matter of learning the plants, the pulp, and the entire process of baking and mashing that pulp into sheets.

Stitching:  Coptic book stitching materials are generally thicker than just needle and thread, though a basic knowledge of sewing certainly wouldn’t hurt.  To start, you need a needle with a large eye, because these books are bound with something thicker than thread.  There are needles designed specifically for binding books, but any traditional needle can be used, so long as the eye is large enough.  Many craftsmen find it easier to bind Coptic books using a curved needle, such as a curved tapestry needle.  In terms of thread, think of something thick.  Waxed linen thread, hemp cord, twine, and narrow ribbon all work well.  If you have a thick cord or something you think might work well, anything used as thread can be given a waxy coating by running it through a block of beeswax.

Coptic Bookbinding Tools:  Coptic bookbinding tools are necessary to place holes in both the signatures and cover boards.  There are many options and it’s likely that you will have to bind more than a few books before developing a preference as to what combination works best for you.  The bottom line is that the choice of tools, at least for starting out, may simply be a matter using the tools you have at hand or can easily get.

For drilling or punching holes in the cover boards, an electric drill, awl, or Japanese screw punch can be used.  Grommets or eyelets are optional as they can make the holes more sturdy.  A bookbinding awl or a pushpin can be used to puncture holes through the signatures.  It’s preferable to sand the edges of the cover boards, so sand paper and a sanding block is recommended.  A ruler and an exacto blade or other utensil for scoring card stock is also useful.

The location of the holes can be determined and set by making a template, also called a jig.  One of the simplest versions of the jig is to cut a piece of paper or thin cardboard the length of the book (of the card stock, not the cover board) and roughly half the width.  How many holes are drawn is determined by the number of signatures used in the binding.  The important thing to remember is that the topmost and bottommost holes need to be set in at least an inch in from the edges.  The remaining holes should be evenly spaced, and roughly a half inch in from the spine.  Use a pencil and ruler to trace these notations onto the template.  When the template is finished, it should look something similar to the left hand margin on a sheet of notebook paper with the top and bottom holes up an inch from the top and bottom, and all holes set half an inch in from the left edge of the paper.

Basic Coptic Book Binding Instructions:

Be advised that these instructions may not be complete and should be double checked before committing to a Coptic book binding project.  If anything this should serve as a rough idea for the process of Coptic stitch binding.

1) Cut the cover boards down to size and sand the edges.  No matter what is used, the cover boards need to be larger than the writing surface.  In the example below, card stock measuring 7 and 5/8” and 10 and ¾” is used.  Hence the cover boards could be cut to 8 ½ x 11 inches.  If the cover boards are going to remain plain, they are ready to be drilled.  If cloth, fabric, or leather is going to be covering the boards, the cover should be attached before drilling the holes in the cover board.  The cover boards can be painted either before or after drilling.

2) Assuming the jig (template) has already been made, line it up on the cover boards one at a time and keep it in place using paper clamps.

3) When cutting card stock, cut the card stock with the grain of the paper.  Most commercially available paper will have a grain, and the majority of the time it runs the length (not the width) of the page.  Divide the card stock into sections to make the signatures (sometimes called folios).  Signatures are simply sheets folded together to form a section.  Continuing with the example of card stock, 12 pieces of card stock will produce three signatures. Each signature will have four sheets.  Each sheet forms four individual pages.  Thus each signature will have sixteen pages, or eight double-page spreads.  Three signatures equals 48 pages.

4) With the signatures set, it’s time to set the jig to them and punch the holes through the signatures.  The holes do not have to be large.  They simply need to be big enough to pass the needle through.  These holes can be made with either a bookbinding awl or a pushpin.  With the guide holes evenly spaced in cover boards and signatures, it is time to thread the needle and stitch it all together.  For those with familiarity with sewing, the Coptic stitch is sometimes called the chain stitch, as it is virtually identical to the same-titled embroidery stitch.

There is a basic formula for calculating the length of thread needed to complete the Coptic binding:  The length of string is equal to the length of the spine multiplied by the number of signatures plus the length of the book spine.  For those not as concerned with being precise, the string can also be snipped after the last knot is tied.  And for those who tend to underestimate the amount of string needed, the weaver’s knot can be employed to reattach more string to keep going.

The tricky part about Coptic stitching is that it’s such a visual task that it’s very difficult to put into text.  It simply cannot be accurately described on paper.  Thankfully there are many diagrams, online videos, and arts and craft seminars taught by professional book binders to hand down their knowledge and translate the steps.  From what I’ve been able to understand from a myriad of instructions is that from top to bottom, each signature is designated a letter.  Four signatures, top to bottom would be labeled as A, B, C, and D respectively.  Each hole in the signature is given a number, top to bottom 1, 2, 3, and 4.  The holes are called sewing stations.  Hence, when an instruction might reference the second sewing station of signature C, it would be the second to last signature, and the second hole down from the top.  Beyond this basic understanding, I am at a loss.

Coptic Binding, The Finishing Touches:

With the freshly bound Coptic book in hand, you may notice that it looks a little plain for your tastes.  Relax, the hard part is finished.  What’s left is a matter of embellishments, and that’s up the imagination.  Commonly Coptic bound books are used as albums or journals or scrapbooks, and the same supplies needed for scrap booking are some of the very same supplies that can be used to dress up the front and back cover and the pages.  For a more polished look, silver or gold-leaf pens can be taken to the edges of the pages.  Beads can either be sewn in or glued on.  It’s helpful to know ahead of time how much substance will be added to the Coptic bound book during the binding process.  For scrap books or other similar collages, using a thicker string will allow more flex in the spine.  If privacy is an issue, such as in a diary, any variety of clasps can be attached to the book boards.  Regardless of whether or not Coptic book binding is a hobby used once or one hundred times, each book is going to be like a recipe, each time picking up a slightly different variation and artistic flavor.