Islamic bindings – a background

Last week, we were lucky enough to be visited by Kristine Rose from the Fitzwilliam Library in Cambridge, who is spending time teaching us Islamic bindings, their history, their structure and their necessary conservation. So here I will record what I have been learning as I go – it may be staggered.

Kristine Rose Islamic Binding
A binding made by Kristine Rose


Kufic bindings are the earliest script known, dating back to the 7th-10th century. They were commonly in landscape format, made with wooden boards and parchment text blocks. They were sewn using a link stitch.

The Mamluk manuscripts followed dating back to 1250-1517 in Sultanate-Egypt and Syria. These had paper text blocks with pasteboards and were elaborately tooled with individual hand tools. The Battle of Talas in 741is meant to be the start of paper in Islamic territories, as Chinese soldiers were kidnapped and forced to give up the secret of paper making to save their lives. It was a more refined structure due to paper and pasteboards though it remained a link stitch with a finer thread, and almost always using two sewing stations with single stitch – there were very few exceptions to this.

The Maghrebi style was dated from 922-1492 is small and square in format, looking like a standard Islamic style with heavy gold tooling and an envelope flap, however the board attachments at very different.

The Persian style of islamic binding dates back to the Safavid dynasties and Mongol ancestry (1501-1732). The bindings had decorative paper and leather inlays with extremely fine filigree. All the tooling was done by cold tooling as the leather was so thin and the paste boards, very receptive to the tooling.

The style of bindings made during the Ottoman period (1453-1924) were extremely refined bindings – both quality workmanship and made with the finest of materials and techniques. They were everything that the Persians were doing, but better and more refined in every way. At this time books were in abundance – everyone was expected to read or at least recite and understand the Koran.

The artists who designed the books used numerous techniques to decorate the smallest areas including burnishing, piercing. Filigree was used to decorate deblures, very intricately designed, cut and applied. There is some indication that the envelope flaps were used as page markers though not in every case. Binders in the Islamic world were very mobile, light materials and few tools, they would move about all over the place, working for different people.


TheĀ  Chester Beatty Library Dublin is the greatest collection of Islamic bindings outside of the east. There is evidence from Chester Beatty that the Islamic structures are often not case bindings as previously thought, though the inner join still remains quite sensitive. TheĀ  structure is not inherently weak as so many will suggest – if it used in the correct way – pulling it flat will damage the book, as it is not meant to be used like this and should be read with a rull for support.

Islamic Binding Rull
A Rull


Damage has often been caused by natural aging of materials.

Commonly the boards will delaminate due to the way they are made.

Often the books are rebound in a western style which will damage the book further, the paper is not as limp as western paper, they are sized and are very stiff, so the sewing has to do all the work, which is why putting the text block in a western binding, where the flexibility of the paper is relied upon.

Binding styles

Type II – claimed to be the most common, though not necessarily – most important difference to others that it is a case binding with the boards prepared separately to the book.

Turkish two piece – very similar to the above, though boards are prepared separately to the book though leather flanges extend over the spine.

Andalucian style – same silk thread and two sewing stations, spine lining is extended and non adhesives and secured with long stitches. End bands are adhered with a Chevron sewing pattern. The board attachments use the extended spin lining to attach the boards.


The majority of boards were paste boards, which were made using many different sheets of paper.

When tooling, they would have cut out the tooling shape in one of the boards prior to laminating, then when pasting up for leather, they would have added additional paste to the tooling bit. Once pasted down, a tooling shape would have gone straight into the recess and pressed cold.

In some cases there is evidence of sewing onto fabric which has already been pasted onto part of the boards so that it would have already been in the correct place, then additional paste boards were added on the back of the initial one.

Pigment Microscopy

So in a similar theme to the previous post on pigments, this weeks microscopy lecture was also on pigments. I’m glad to say that I did follow this lecture considerably better than the previous microscopy one, perhaps as it was more about colours and pigment than the microscope itself.

Pigments in India, on market stall – photo (with thanks) by By Dan Brady –, CC BY 2.0,

Here we were learning to recognise and record pigment data from objects. It is possible to compare the pigments you find against known specimen samples, which can be bought or homemade from swatches, and also to compare them against published data, such as the Pigment Compendium. With experience, will also come the ability to recognise pigments without comparison to recorded data. Pigment samples can be acquired from various suppliers, and can be homemade as well. They can be relatively cheap and accessible and useful to help ID many traditional pigments, especially organic ones such as Palestine Blue. For a more in-depth insight into pigment recognition, I suggest a trip to your local science library!

The Chelsea filter is an interesting addition to a microscope when looking at pigments and can be used to look at blue and green pigments, with some appearing red when looking through the filter. It passes two narrow bands of light – yellow/green and red and was initially developed for the gem trade, to distinguish from high quality gems!

Pigments & organic colours used in manuscripts from Armenia & Egypt

This lecture took place a while ago now, and it has taken me a while to write anything about it, though that does not make it any less interesting. Unfortunately I have no pictures, so will endeavour to make it short. Our lecturer was Cheryl Porter who is a a specialist in pigments and had kindly given us her time as part of the Book and Paper ICON Group move to provide more specialist lectures, which was fantastic as her skills and experience are extensive.

Porter has been spending time in both Armenia and Egypt to study the pigments found in manuscripts over there. She concentrated on red and pink pigments for our lecture as there is such a huge depth of information on the subject as a whole, it could be impossible to cover all of it.

There was a specific type of red pigment found in Armenian manuscripts that they had initially found difficult to locate. After extensive research, Porter found that the pigment was made from female Armenian Cochineal beetles, specifically found in the base of the valley of Mount Arrarat. The earliest knowledge of the use of this pigment was in 1743 and was not just used for colouring manuscripts, but also as a fine dye for fabrics and silks.

Porter duly went on a beetle pilgrimage to the valley of Mount Arrarat and found disappointingly few beetles and almost no-one who knew anything about them. However luck was on her side as she met a father from the Khor Virap Monastary who was familiar with the pigment and was even able to show Porter how to formulate it from the small amount of beetles that they had found, which included keeping them in alcohol for about a year to separate the fats – this would be after slow roasting them in order to dessicate them, so a relatively gruesome process!

The number of beetles has reduced for several reasons, including the building of a chemical factory after the war, and using it as a military area, there is also no control over the animals, which are free to roam the area and eat all the grass, removing any food source for the beetles. Grass is also destroyed by using the land for crop growing, so sadly the beetle colony is reducing year by year.


It has become apparent that part of the duties of a conservator, requires the knowledge of the complex workings of a microscope.

These are not the basic microscopes that are familiar to children with a new science kit for christmas. No, these are complex beasts with delicate, easy to break and expensive to replace mechanisms, that, I’m not ashamed to say, are extremely un-user friendly.

After a few lectures on the subject, their secrets still elude me, and I’m not entirely sure this part of conservation is one I’m going to fully understand for some years to come.

This, I have found, is a trinocular microscope, as it has three eye pieces, two for your eyeballs and one for a camera!

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A lecture on David Smith and the use of Modern Paints

Recently I have been attending a few evening lecturs set up by ICON (Institute of Conservation). These have been on a range of different subjects concentrating on members specialities and the research some members are undertaking.

Thursday’s lecture was delivered by Richard Mulholland, a paper conservator at the V&A who has worked all over the world in paper conservation. Mulholland has a speciality in the work of David Smith and has researched him for much of his career.

Here Mulholland was showing us the use of paint in Smith’s work, both in his sculpture and drawings, which have not had as much publicity as his sculptures in the past. Smith started his career in the industrial welding industry, a skill which he transported across to his sculptures. It is also this interest in the industrial metal works throughout the early 20th century that affected the paint he used. Mulholland discussed the research he had made into the paints used by Smith and their chemical make-up, which were found to contain industrial paints, both for metal work, and for interior decoration, these were in small amounts compared to the more common use of artistic paints, such as alkyd and casein paints and later acrylics when they became more common. Smith had also stated throughout his career that he mixed many of his own paints which used egg yolks – it was due to these ingredients that Mulholland found some fatty acid deposits on top of the paintings which he was researching.

I believe a full review of this lecture will be on the ICON website in the not to distant future, but thank you very much to Richard Mulholland for a fascinating lecture.

Toning Japanese tissue for repair