BPG Cloth Bookbinding

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Cloth in Bookbinding

The use of cloth in bookbinding has a long history. The widespread use of cotton as a covering material for publisher’s bindings, beginning in the 1820s, is how it is best known. Cloth can also be found in doublures, hinges, endbands, page markers, edge ties, sewing supports, spine linings, and housing enclosures. A variety of fabric types have been used including cotton, linen, canvas, silk, and velvet.

Early Cloth Covers

Although there was no cloth manufactured specifically for bookbinding until the 19th century, it was used as a covering material well before then. Many early cloth bindings no longer exist, but there are enough extant examples that are intact, fragmented, or at the least bear evidence to help tell the story. For further information on the nature of the types of cloth used on these early bindings, studies in historical textiles should be consulted.


Medieval Chemise. L-R: upper board with chemise folded, inside of chemise fully unfolded, inside lower board. The entire volume can be viewed here.
Christ Church MS 92 (1326-1327). © The Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford [2020].
Zigzag sewing. Sequel to the English Reader (1829).
Cutout in overcover.
An Elementary Treatise of Natural Philosophy (1830). QC21 W73. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library.

Cloth has been used since the early days of the book to cover over primary/initial covers.[1]:214 There are numerous terms used to describe this added layer of material to the book’s binding, including secondary cover, chemise, and overcover. There do not appear to be any agreed upon distinguishing characterizes between the terms, and some scholars use them interchangeably.[2]:164 [3]:215-16 Ligatus refers to secondary covers as the umbrella term for any additional cover placed over a primary cover, including ephemeral dust wrappers. Chemise is usually used when discussing medieval examples,[3]:210-11 which have notably received the most research attention of all overcovers. Apart from Julia Miller’s research, there is very little literature on the more pedestrian overcovers of the 18th and 19th century.

Overcovers could be the work of binders or amateurs. They may be contemporary with or with the making of the binding or may have been incorporated at a much later date. An overcover may have been added to serve a utilitarian purpose, protection or stabilization; to satisfy desires for embellishment; and/or, in the case of earlier examples, as an expression of reverence for the book.[2]:234 As Bearman notes, medieval cloth chemises “may have been associated with the practice of draping and covering the hands while holding, offering, or receiving sacred books and other precious objects. The tradition of using drapery in this way can be traced back to the Early Christian period.”[4]:170

They can be detachable or permanently attached with sewing; adhesive (overall or drummed on by adhering only the turn-ins); or, in the case of some medieval examples, metal furniture. A particular construction feature of many medieval examples are flap extensions along the edges that served to help protect the bookblock. These flaps could be on just one side or all three.[4]:166 With the shift to upright shelving beginning in the middle of the 15th century, “it is generally believed that, in the rush to reshelve books, the flaps on these bindings were cut off and discarded, or the covers were removed altogether.”[4]:175

Overcovers dressing 18th and 19th century volumes are usually an addition made by the owner.[3]:307 The treatment of the corners and turns-in vary and are executed with various degrees of care. They are commonly secured with zigzag sewing used to tension top and bottom turn-ins.[3]:218 (A sure sign of a lost overcover is distinct zigzag burn marks from acid migration of these tension threads.) Broadly speaking, Miller reports that most overcovers (constructed of any material) that she has examined from this period are without titling. Cutouts over the spine were commonly made to make visible the titling information on the primary cover.[3]:234

Cottonian Library overcover. The Forest Minstrel (1810); Courtesy, Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester.

Various textiles have been used as secondary covers. Medieval cloth chemises usually exhibit rich, costly textiles such as velvet and brocade, which are often further ornamented with corner tassels and colored stitching along the edges,[4]:166 whereas more commonplace fabrics are typically found on the more function-focused overcovers of the 18th and 19th century. Some are crude and solely utilitarian in appearance, whereas others suggest that thought and consideration were involved in both cloth choice and execution. Famously, a collection of books with worn, tattered covers from the personal library of Romantic poet Robert Southey, were covered over with remnants of patterned cottons by his daughters and their friends, making a lively, colorful collection known as the “Cottonian Library.” Southey writes that the fabrics were often carefully selected by his daughters to match the mood of the text: “clothing a Quaker work of book of sermons in sober drab, poetry in some flowery design….” [5][6]:469

Overcovers are an important part of the history of bookbinding. However damaged, fragmentary, or displeasing in appearance from wear, an overcover can offer unique evidence of the interaction between the owner and book. This is particularly true for homemade varieties that are commonly found on very early examples and those from the 18th and 19th century.[3]:307 Overcovers or any remaining evidence thereof should be carefully preserved whenever possible.

Luxury Textile Bindings

Canvas Bindings

Canvas binding published by Isaiah Thomas.
A New Introduction to the Latin Language (1795). Courtesy, Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester.

Canvas was used on trade bindings as a substitute for sheep[7]:21 [8]:124 in the second half of the 18th century, first in London (c. 1760s), and then America (c. 1780s).[3]:129 Although canvas had previously been used as a secondary covering material and as a substrate for embroidery work on luxury textile bindings, it wasn’t until this time that it was put to use on any noticeable scale as a primary covering material in its own right. (Miller notes that there are some earlier examples of other “common cloth” bindings but “such use seems to be rare, perhaps because there are only a few known examples that survive.”[3]:131

Canvas is a strong, woven cloth made from flax, cotton, and/or hemp fibers. (See Suave Mechanicals, Vol. 5 for a recent study on the fiber content of a selected group of historical canvas bindings.)[9] It comes in various weights, and its weave can vary from fine to coarse. Most sources describe the canvas used during this time as being of various tones of brown. Carter mentions the use of green canvas.[10]:58

Canvas was a practical substitute for leather at the time. It is highly durable and naturally less impervious to moisture, due to its thickness, than many other textile options. Leighton points this out as one its greatest virtues.[11]:39 It is plausible that it was common practice to alter the surface quality of the canvas to further increase its impervious nature to the binder’s adhesive and help preserve it. Miller notes that many of the examples she has examined “have been either treated with some sort of consolidant, or pressed or burnished to consolidate and polish the cloth surface” and that “such practices were standard with other types of cloth-making.”[3]:134

Binders turned to this suitable alternative presumably because it was a less expensive, easier, and faster option. A shortage of leather in the late 1760s likely also played a role.[12]:93 Canvas bindings are found on volumes in the low end of the market, in particular educational books —“obvious candidates by virtue of cost, quantity, and heavy use.”[13]:89

Some typical features of a canvas binding are a sewn textblock over two supports; laced-on boards; cut, undecorated edges; tight back; light rounding and backing; and no lettering or labeling.[11]:40 [3]:140 Furthermore, turn-ins are generally neatly trimmed with corners that are folded in on themselves or pleated.[3]:140 The weave of the cloth used on English volumes are typically fine to medium according to Miller’s findings (Leighton describes them as “coarse”);[11]:39 whereas, coarser varieties (medium to very coarse) cover American imprints.[3]:141

Deterioration of the cloth over the board corners is the most common damage found on these bindings, second to weakening along the joint. Generally, damage is more likely and extensive when scaleboards are in use.[3]:142

Canvas trade bindings—the precursor to cloth publisher’s bindings—had a short life, mostly petering out by the early 19th century. (They were produced in Ireland until about 1850.)[12]:93 Despite receiving little attention in the literature on bookbinding history, canvas bindings were commonly used.[12]:93 [3]:131 In America, they were particularly popular in the Boston area.[3]:131

Folk Bindings

Manufactured Bookcloth

Bookcloth is a general term for all of the fabric goods that are used to cover books. The fabrics are usually woven cotton, which can be bleached, mercerized, dyed, and/or filled with pigment colors, gelatinized, starched, coated, or impregnated with plastics then calendared and embossed. The history of bookcloth, the methods for preparing it and the advantages of one method over another are important to consider whether repairing an old cloth book cover or choosing a book cover for a new cover.[14]


Book cloth is a general term for all of the fabric goods that are used to cover books. The fabrics are usually woven cotton, which can be bleached, mercerized, dyed, and/or filled with pigment colors, gelatinized, starched, coated, or impregnated with plastics then calendared and embossed. The history of book cloth, the methods for preparing it and the advantages of one method over another are important to consider whether repairing an old cloth book cover or choosing a book cover for a new cover.

During the hand press period (generally, 1455 – 1800), books were typically sold in sheets or in plain paper wrappers; printers and booksellers typically had very little to do with paying for, designing or executing the bindings. A book's binding was the responsibility of the book buyer, along with costs of the materials (leather, parchment or paper) for the covering. Technical developments in the printing industry beginning in the early 19th century helped bring down the cost of a book, specifically mechanized production of paper, less expensive materials used in papermaking, and the mechanized printing press.

Costs associated with book bindings also changed. Publisher William Pickering and binder Archibald Leighton were among the first to introduce book cloth as a book covering material. Pickering printed and sold the Diamond Classics in 1821. The Diamond series was a set of octavo-sized cloth bound books, printed with small typefaces that are now recognized as the first publishers’ cloth bound books. Archibald Leighton, while working with William Pickering experimented with new, less expensive materials that would be elegant and durable, eventually developing book cloth as a practical covering material. The manufacture of book cloth began in Germany and England in the early 1820’s and for the rest of that century these countries were the only ones producing and selling book cloth.

Cloth Embossing Machine, from The Bookbinders Shop (Sketched from the Establishment of Westleys & Clark)

Initially book cloth was not popular with the book buying public. Consumers tended to view book cloth the same as paper covers – a temporary binding that was meant to be replaced. Despite that feeling the cheaper cloth bound books sold well. Thus cloth covered publishers’ bound books became popular, and over time the material proved to be durable. Publishers discovered that they could easily stamp full designs on book cloth, which was cheaper and less expensive than creating a design on a leather cover that had to laboriously be done element by element. Therefore book cloth was easy to decorate and easy to apply to boards, creating distinct book covers cheaply. It quickly became established that book cloth could provide well ornamented bound books at a lesser cost. By 1859, book cloth was widely accepted as a good publishers’ binding (Blaser 1973).


  • Cotton - Preparation began by removing the impurities from the fibers. The fibers were drawn and twisted into yarn that was then sized to retain the twist. The yarns were then woven together to form the fabric. During the period when book cloth was first mass-produced the preferred qualities included minimal spinning, occasionally with weaving imperfections, to create the longest cloth possible, preferably 250 feet or longer. Once the weaving process was complete, the cloth was called “grey cloth.” Besides the woven yarns, grey cloth contained residual dirt, natural color and sizing. Because the initial sizing caused the grey cloth to become nonabsorbent, the cloth had to be scoured, bleached, and resized to accept the final coating. To begin that process, the cloth was passed over an open flame to remove any nap that remained on its surface. Then the cloth was soaked in water overnight to soften and partially remove the initial sizing. The next day the soaked cloth was washed and wrung out anywhere from 25 to 30 times to completely remove that sizing. Then the grey cloth was put into a pressure cooker tank and boiled for eight hours under 20 pounds of pressure in a weak solution of caustic soda. Boiling in caustic soda removed any remaining sizing and impurities. The grey cloth was then passed through a weak solution of sulfuric acid to remove mineral salts. The next step bleached the grey cloth in a weak chlorine solution, and rinsed it in an acid bath of water, sulfur dioxide, and sulfurous acid to neutralize the bleach. Finally the grey cloth was given a final wash before drying. After purifying and testing the grey cloth was ready to be made into book cloth.[14]


Fabric Type Dye/Pigment

  • Colorfastness
The Textiles Specialty Group is currently updating its page on spot tests for colorfastness which might be worth a look in the future.
  • Toxicity
The Winterthur Poison Book Project, led by Conservator Dr. Melissa Tedone and Scientist Dr. Rosie Grayburn, is an investigation of potentially toxic pigments used to color Victoria-era bookcloth. The highly toxic arsenic-based emerald green pigment (copper acetoarsenite) has been identified on some mass-produced green bookcloth. The project is ongoing.

Backing Sizing

  • Starch
One method of preparing book cloth is to finish the cloth with starch sizing. Starch sizing is made by creating a slurry using water, starch, and clay. Pigments are added to the slurry and then it is cooked down to a doughy consistency. The face of the cloth is coated twice with the slurry using knives. The back of the fabric is only coated once with a knife and the slurry. The starch slurry is used to bind the pigments to the yarns and closes the interstices between the yarns. The coated cloth is dried between heated rollers. The dried cloth is then slightly dampened with water and passed through a calendaring process to give the cloth a smooth surface.[14]
  • Pyroxylin
Pyroxylin impregnated cloths are similar to starch filled book cloths, and are made in a similar manner. Pyroxylin is made by mixing nitrocellulose with a solvent and a plasticizer. Sometimes stabilizers and catalysts are also employed. The plasticizer is usually oil (one such oil is castor oil) and the solvents are either esters or keytones. One economical advantage of pyroxylin is that it can be diluted with less expensive solvents. Pyroxylin is mixed with pigments and applied in the same manner as the starch to the prepared grey cloth. Pyroxylin cloth is dried in a chamber where the volatile spirits are removed. After drying the cloth is then calendared to create a smooth surface.[14]



Cloth Style

  • Grained
  • Ungrained
  • Ribbon-embossed
  • Pre-ornamented
  • Reversed Cloth
  • Other Rare Cloths



Other Uses of Cloth

Conservation Treatment

Preservation Concerns

Pyroxylin-coated or -impregnated book cloths can off-gas and cause damage to sensitive materials (NISO 2001) and (Garside and Knight). For this reason, using pyroxylin bookcloth to make enclosed boxes for photographs or other sensitive materials is not advised and conservators should be cautious about using it as a rebinding material.

For the long term preservation of materials, one should consider the separation of cloth covers, which are pyroxylin or coated with other formulations of cellulose nitrate, from the book block. It is easy to house the cover and contents in separate housings where the cover easily detaches as in albums and scrapbooks with post bindings or cord. Cellulose nitrate coatings deteriorate and the VOCs can penetrate and deteriorate the book block.


  1. Miller, Julia. 2014. Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Szirmai, J. A. 1999. The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 Miller, Julia. 2018. Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Bearman, Frederick. 1996. “The Origins and Significance of Two Late Medieval Textile Chemise Bookbindings in the Walters Art Gallery” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 54: 163–187. Accessed June 2, 2020.
  5. Reithmayr, Andrea. 2012. “The Creation of Beauty Is Art.” Part of an online series on historic book bindings written for the Library as Incubator Project. Accessed April 20, 2020.
  6. Southey, Robert. 1855. The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, edited by Charles Cuthbert Southey. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. Accessed April 30, 2020.
  7. Pearson, David. 2014. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450–1800: A Handbook. Wilmington, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
  8. Pickwoad, Nicholas. 2020. “Bookbinding,Companion to the History of the Book, edited by Simon Elio and Jonathan Rose, Second edition, Vol 1: 111–128. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Accessed May, 20, 2020.
  9. Kiefer, Kathleen, Barbara Korbel, and Eva-Maria Schuchardt. 2019."Picking Up the Thread: A Study of Bookbinding Canvas." In Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, Vol. 5, edited by Julia Miller: 198–227. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The Legacy Press.
  10. Carter, John and Nicolas Barker. 2004. ABC for Book Collectors, 8th edition. New Castle, DE and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Leighton, Douglas. 1948. “Canvas and Bookcloth: An Essay on Beginnings.” The Library s-5-III, no. 1: 39–49.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Bennett, Stuart. 2004. Trade Bookbinding In The British Isles, 1660–1800. New Castle and London: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library.
  13. Pickwoad, Nicholas. 1994. “Onward and Downward: How Binders Coped with the Printing Press before 1800.” A Millennium of the Book: Production, Design and Illustration in Manuscript and Print 900–1900, edited by Michael Harris and Robin Myers: 61–106. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Blaser, Linda A. 1973. Book Cloth. Unpublished.


The Bookbinder. 1888. “On Cloth Bookbinding.” The Bookbinder 1. 49-51. Accessed April 15, 2020.

The Bookbinder. 1889. “The First Bookbinder’s Cloth.” The Bookbinder"" 3. 32. Accessed April 15, 2020.

Carter, John. 1932. Binding Variants in English Publishing, 1820-1900. Constable & Company Limited.

Collins, Arthur Frederick. 1932. Book Crafts for Senior Pupils. The Dryad Press : Leicester.

Cunha, George Martin and Dorothy Grant Cunha. 1971. Conservation of Library Materials. Second Ed. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. : Metuchen, N.J.

Frost, Gary. 2007. "Case Construction, Cloth Covered Book Manufacturing In the United States, 1820–1850." Presented by Gary Frost at Bryn Mawr College.

Garside, Paul and B. Knight. Undated. "Perception and Conservation of an Ersatz Material: Bookcloth (PDF)". London : British Library.

Brief summary of FTIR and Oddy testing results on 6 modern bookcloths. Acrylic-filled bookcloth passed testing while bookcloth filled with cellulose nitrate and glazed starch released "significant quantities of reactive volatiles."

Gill, Kate. and Boersma, Foekje. 1997. “Solvent Reactivation of Hydroxypropyl Cellulose (Klucel G®) In Textile Conservation: Recent Developments.” The Conservator 21. 12-20. Accessed April 15, 2020.

This article explores the different types of reactivating Klucel G for textile linings, the ease and control of the adhesive application, as well as the aesthetic appearance and strength of the repair. The authors included various case studies and tables with tests done with Klucel G to illustrate their discussion. Some of the tables showed tests on the sheen on the surface of the silk crepeline, the ease in which the adhesive could be removed, and the application methods. All the tests concluded that Klucel G was a very successful adhesive to treat heavily deteriorated textiles, though it looses its strength over time. Klucel G has also known to discolour over time, but the adhesive is used in very low concentrations that it is not usually noticeable. The article also showed some developments in the applications of Klucel G, it is a stronger adhesive when reactivated with IMS or acetone as liquids rather than in vapour state, even though more control is achieved through vapour application.

Jennett, Sean. 1967. The Making of Books. Faber & Faber: London.

Johnson, Arthur W. 2013. The Repair of Cloth Bindings: A Manual. New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press.

Krupp, Andrea. 2008. Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-50. New Castle and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2008.

From the publisher: "This volume offers a new edition of Andrea Krupp's groundbreaking article, which first appeared in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, and includes an expanded Catalogue of Bookcloth Grains, with illustrations in a larger format and, for the first time, in color. Sue Allen has written the preface for the book. Ms. Krupp's three-part essay, with several illustrations, covers the introduction of bookcloth and the early decades of its use, discusses bookcloth grain nomenclature and concludes with detailed observations on several cloth grain patterns. The first of three appendices is an information-dense table that lists each grain pattern with date range and frequency and provides cross references to previous nomenclature. Appendices 2 and 3, which together comprise the Catalogue of Nineteenth-Century Bookcloth Grains, include images of the various grains, reproduced at actual size. In this edition, the number of catalogue entries has been expanded from 222 to 248. The swatches are printed in color, and many of the ribbon-embossed patterns in Appendix 3 are formatted to represent the patterns more completely than when first published."

Miller, Julia. 2014. Books Will Speak Plain: a Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Ann Arbor, Michigan : Legacy Press.

This book provides an excellent introduction to Western book binding styles, and is particularly notable for the wealth of bibliographic references to explore topics in greater depth, the attention paid to the more prosaic bindings of various time periods, and the great color images on the accompanying CD. Many references to the development and decoration of cloth bindings.

Miller, Julia. 2018. Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Legacy Press. Includes chapters on canvas bindings and overcovers.

Morton Sundour. 1970. Sundour bookcloths. Toronto : Morton Sundour (Canada) Ltd.

NISO (National Information Standards Organization). 2001. Guidelines for Information About Preservation Products (PDF). ANSI/NISO Z39.77-2001. Bethesda, MD : NISO.

Notes that " Pyroxylin-treated cloths have been shown to embrittle and cause discoloration of adjacent material."

Roberts, Matt and Don Etherington. 1982. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington DC : Library of Congress. Accessed April 15, 2020.

The definition of book cloth includes descriptions of pyroxylin impregnated and starch filled cloths and a history of book cloth manufacture.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. 1970. "The Bibliographical Description of Patterns." Studies in Bibliography 23. 71-102.

Tomlinson, William and Richard Masters. 1996. Bookcloth 1823-1980: A Study of Early Use and the Rise of Manufacture, Winterbottom's Dominance of the Trade in Britain and America, Production Methods and Costs and the Identification of Qualities and Designs. D. Tomlinson : Stockport, Cheshire, England.

Wheatly, Henry B. 1889. “On Binding in Cloth.” The Bookbinder 2. 51-54. Accessed April 15, 2020.

Further Reading

Allen, Sue, and Charles B. Gullans. 1994. Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers' Bindings, 1840-1910. Oak Knoll Press.

Allen, Sue. 1998. American Book Covers, 1830-1900: a Pictorial Guide to the Changes in Design and Technology Found in the Covers of American Books between 1830 and 1900. Library of Congress, Binding & Collections Care Division, Preservation Directorate.

Allen, Sue. 1976. Victorian Bookbindings: a Pictorial Survey. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Ball, Douglas. 1985. Victorian Publishers' Bindings. London : Library Association Publishing.

Bennett, Stuart. 2004. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800. Wilmington, Delaware : Oak Knoll Press.

Comparato, Frank. 1971. Books for the Millions: a History of the Men Whose Methods and Machines Packaged the Printed Words. Stackpole Books.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, Lawrence C. Wroth and Rollo G. Silver Lehmann-Haupt. 1951. The Book in America: a History of the Making and Selling of Books in the United States. R.R. Bowker Company.

McLean, Ruari. 1972. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. Faber & Faber.

McLean, Ruari. 1974. Victorian Publishers' Book-Bindings in Cloth and Leather. Gordon Fraser, .

Miller, Julia. 2010. “The Book from 1800-1900.” In Books Will Speak Plain: a Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings, edited by Julia Miller. The Legacy Press. 135–191.

Pearson, David. 2014. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800: a Handbook. Wilmington, DE : Oak Knoll Press.

Rogers, Joseph W. 1967. “The Rise of American Edition Binding.” In Bookbinding in America: Three Essays. R. R. Bowker Co.

Sadleir, Michael. 1930. The Evolution of Publishers' Binding Styles, 1770-1900. London : Constable & Richard R. Smith, Inc,

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