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Bookbinding: A Vivid History

Unlock the centuries-old secrets of bookbinding! In this engaging article, discover the rich history of bookbinding and papermaking, complete with vivid details and fascinating historical facts. See the bookbinding process in action with our included YouTube videos at the end of the article. Don’t miss out on this in-depth look into the world of bookbinding!
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The Fine Art of Bookbinding

Bookbinding is a timeless craft that has been practiced for centuries, dating back to ancient times when texts were not yet written on paper. Instead, they were kept as rolls in wooden cases or boxes, and to keep them safe, wooden lids were used to bind the texts and fastened with strings. As parchment was introduced, the material was folded and stitched together to form a bound book.

  • Egyptians

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to use alphabetic writing, and they did so on the common Nile plant known as papyrus. In the beginning, the words were written without spaces or punctuation, in a style called scriptura continua. This is the earliest known evidence of written language. As the ancient Egyptians of the Fifth Dynasty rose to power, they stumbled upon a groundbreaking discovery: by gluing together sheets of papyrus, they could create a scroll. This revolutionary method of document preservation was first recorded in the account books of King Neferirkare Kakai, the Dynasty’s third ruler.

Egyptian Papyrus

The ancient Egyptians believed that the journey to the afterlife was a sacred and important one, and thus created the Book of the Dead, a monumental 200-page text that was used during funerary ceremonies to guide the deceased on their journey.

  • Phoenicia & Grecia

But the story of papyrus doesn’t end there. As Egypt’s influence spread, so too did their writing technology. The Phoenicians, known for their seafaring prowess, encountered papyrus and brought it back to their own lands. And so, from Egypt, papyrus spread to the Phoenicians, who then brought it to Greece around the 10th or 9th century BCE while they were trading with the Phoenicians in the port of Byblos (the Greeks also adopted the material for their own literature). This is where the term “biblos” originates, which in turn gave us words like “bibliography” and “bibliophile.” Papyrus scrolls truly were the books of the ancient world.

When it comes to the construction of scrolls, two methods have been used throughout history. The first is to wrap the scroll around a single core, similar to a modern roll of paper towels. While this method is relatively simple to construct, it has the disadvantage that in order to read the text at the end of the scroll, the entire scroll must be unrolled.

Phoenician Writing

The second method is to wrap the scroll around two cores, similar to the way a Torah scroll is constructed. With a double scroll, the text can be accessed from both the beginning and end and the portions of the scroll not being read can remain wound. While this method allows for more convenient access to the text, it still leaves the scroll as a sequential-access medium, meaning that to reach a given page, one generally has to unroll and re-roll many other pages.

  • India

India boasts of being the birthplace of bookbinding as we know it today, a claim that is not widely acknowledged in Western writings. It is said that in the 2nd century BCE, Hindi scribes began etching religious texts onto palm leaves, binding them together with twine between two boards to create a basic book-like structure. This method protected the palm leaves from the harsh elements, preserving the texts for centuries to come. Buddhist monks soon saw the value in this practice and brought it with them as they spread their teachings across the Middle East and Eastern Asia.

Bamboo-bound Manuscripts from India

  • Romans

While the Western world primarily used scrolls during Antiquity, they were not always the most efficient means of storing and accessing information. Wax tablets eventually became popular in the Mediterranean, as they were reusable and allowed for easy access to specific blocks of text. For longer works, tablets were sometimes hinged together, creating a device similar to the modern book, though with fewer leaves. Despite the availability of more practical methods, the scroll remained a popular method of record-keeping for centuries.

When it came to writing technology, the Romans fully harness the potential of wax and wood tablets by binding them together to form a notebook known as a pugillares. They even referred to their books as codices, a word stemming from “tree trunk,” solidifying their place in history as the creators of the first bound books. However, the ancient Egyptians had also dabbled in wax and wood “notebooks,” it was the Romans who elevated the practice by using paper (papyrus) to create bound books. This new method of writing quickly gained popularity among early Christians in the 2nd century. Some elite writers, such as Julius Caesar, even turned to parchment, crafted from animal skin, as their primary medium and folded and bound it together into a book known as a pugillares membranei.

But as the Roman Empire began to decline in the 5th century CE, relations with Egypt cooled, and obtaining papyrus became increasingly difficult. This resulted in parchment, a centuries-old medium, becoming the primary writing material. Though it may have seemed like a setback, parchment proved to be a more durable material and many of the great manuscripts written on it during the subsequent centuries have managed to survive until today. Libraries began to form and, though manuscripts still had to be copied by hand, book collections grew. This marked the rise of manuscripts as the dominant form of written literature.

Roman binding

As the pages of knowledge and history were inscribed by hand onto delicate parchment, the binding of books in the Western world underwent a transformation. Beginning in the fifth century, hardcovers were utilized to protect the precious contents within. The pages were folded and sewn onto sturdy cords or ligaments, which were then attached to wooden boards and covered with rich leather. Each book was a unique creation, with sizes and styles varying greatly due to the handmade nature of the materials.

But it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that books began to have the rounded spines that we associate with modern hardcovers. This was necessary because the vellum used in early books would expand and contract with changes in humidity, causing the book to take on a wedge shape. To counteract this, medieval books were often secured with straps or clasps, with metal bosses added to the covers to keep the book elevated off surfaces. These straps and bosses, known as “furniture,” were essential in preserving the integrity of the book. One of the oldest surviving examples of European bookbinding is the St. Cuthbert Gospel from around 700 CE, bound in red goatskin.

Early Middle Age Binding

  • Europe

The rich history of bookbinding in Al-Andalus, the Islamic kingdom in Iberia, is often overlooked by Westerners. But did you know that Al-Andalus was actually the first place in Europe to create a printing press? This is just one of the many fascinating facts about the intricate and beautiful art of Islamic bookbinding. And let’s not forget the equally captivating history of bookbinding in China. Allow me to take you on a journey through time and explore the rich traditions and techniques of these ancient cultures, painting a vivid picture of the skill and artistry that went into creating these treasured works. From the stunning embellishments of Islamic bindings to the delicate intricacies of Chinese bindings, we will discover the beauty and cultural significance of this oft-overlooked art form after I share a few details about the later European history of bookbinding.

In the 15th century CE, Venice was a bustling hub of activity in the book industry. The narrow streets, or calles, were lined with workshops of various craftsmen involved in the printing, binding, illustrating, and goldsmithing of books. Prospective buyers would wander the markets, haggling with vendors over the price of loose sets of printed pages that they would then take to be bound into a finished volume. By the 16th century CE, Venice had become the epicenter of Europe’s printing industry, with half of all print shops in the continent located there.

Venetian Bound Books

One notable figure in the Venice book trade was Aldus Pius Manutius, the founder of the Aldine Press. He recognized the need for personal books that were small and portable and began producing books in smaller formats such as quartos and octavos. These could easily fit in a saddlebag, making them perfect for travelers.

During the late 16th century, books bound in the West were commonly found with endpapers brought from the East. It wasn’t until a century later that European bookbinders began to make them themselves. Today, hand-made marbled papers are a rarity, but clumsily reproduced imitations are still used for various purposes. The rich history of paper-making in Tunisia serves as a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient craftsmen who created these unique and beautiful papers.

Leipzig, a city in Germany, also played a significant role in the book trade during this time. By the mid-18th century, it had a thriving book industry with 20 bookshops, 15 printing establishments, 22 bookbinders, and three types of foundries. The book distribution system in Germany at the time allowed end-user buyers to make separate arrangements with either the publisher or a bookbinder to have printed sheets bound according to their wishes and budget.

German Bound Books

The reduced cost of books also facilitated the production of cheap and lightweight Bibles made from tissue-thin oxford paper and floppy covers, similar to early Arabic Qur’ans. These portable books were particularly useful for missionaries, who could take them with them as they traveled around the world. And the use of modern wood glues also enabled the production of paperback covers for simple glue bindings.

Chinese Bookbinding

Chinese bookbinding has a rich and ancient history dating back over 1,700 years to the Shang Dynasty. Of course, western accounts will always differ from the accounts of people from the rest of the world; in this context, let’s take a deeper look into the history of Chinese bookbinding from a Chinese perspective. The earliest form of Chinese writing, oracle bones, were inscribed on turtle shells and ox scapulae, but later bamboo would be used as a medium for the first bound books. Bamboo was cut into long vertical strips, each containing one column of text, and then bound together with string and rolled up. This created a sturdy and waterproof book that has stood the test of time with the oldest surviving example dating back to the 5th century BCE.

In 105 CE, the invention of paper by the official Cai Lun revolutionized Chinese culture, and with it came new binding techniques. The first form of binding for paper books was scroll roller binding, where paper strips with images and writing were pasted onto fabric in handscrolls that could be laid flat on a table and read section by section. The oldest printed book in the world, a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, was discovered in the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu Province and dates back to 868 CE.

As people continued to read and use scrolls, they began to realize the limitations of the format. It was difficult to quickly locate specific sections and the constant rolling and unrolling could be quite cumbersome. In response to this, new binding styles were developed. One of the first was called folded sutra binding, also known as concertina dragon scale binding. This method involved folding the scroll in an accordion style and holding it between two blocks of wood. This made it much easier to find specific sections.

Chinese Binding

Another new style that was developed was butterfly binding. This involved folding sheets of paper in half and then stacking them together so that the folded edges formed a spine. The pages opened in a manner that resembled the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, hence the name. A variation of this style called tuipeng binding, featured pages that turned vertically instead of horizontally. Due to their durability and ease of use, by the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), butterfly-bound books had become the most popular.

In the final stage of Chinese bookbinding development, a method called stitched thread binding emerged and became the standard during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). Advances in the production of xuan paper allowed for more intricate and colorful printing. Sheets of paper were sewn together using white silk thread and placed within a cover made of thicker paper that was reinforced with silk. These stitched books were often stored in wooden boxes and covered with silk. Although stitched thread binding is not widely used today, having been replaced by the Western codex style, traditional scroll and concertina binding methods have remained in use.

  • Dragon Scale Binding: A Lost Gem of Chinese Bookbinding

Imagine a book that resembles the scaly skin of a dragon, textured and mesmerizing to the touch. This is the essence of dragon scale binding, a rare and long-forgotten art form that once graced the pages of ancient Chinese literature.

During the late Tang Dynasty, dragon scale binding was the epitome of elegance and innovation. It was a transitory step between scrolls and threaded binding, and it aimed to solve the problem of handling lengthy scrolls with ease. The pages were pasted in by their edges, with the shortest page on top and the longest page at the bottom, allowing the book to be rolled up like a scroll but also allowing pages to be turned like a modern-day book.

However, despite its beauty, dragon scale binding was not without its flaws. The individual pages tended to roll up on their own when the scroll was unraveled. Nevertheless, the books were aesthetically stunning and the textured surface of the pages truly resembled the skin of the auspicious dragon, giving the binding style its name. Like traditional scrolls, the books exuded an elegant beauty when rolled and tied with string.

Dragon Scale Binding from China

The most recent surviving dragon scale-bound book is a 1,000-year-old report by Wang Renxu, hand-copied by his wife and master calligrapher Wu Cailuan. This unique treasure, a true testament to the skill and creativity of ancient Chinese artisans, is a reminder of the beauty and ingenuity of a binding style that has been lost to time.

Islamic Bookbinding

One of the most renowned examples of bookbinding is Islamic binding, which has a rich history dating back to the 9th century CE. These beautifully crafted bindings are a testament to the incredible talents of centuries of artists, as well as the historical influences of Islamic culture. The intricate designs and patterns used in Islamic binding reflect the blending of artistic traditions from different kingdoms and continents, making it a truly unique and captivating art form.

Conceptual Illustration Depicting the House of Wisdom in Baghdad

The Islamic codex, a tangible recording of the Qur’an, was born out of a need to easily transport the sacred text as Islam spread across the globe. From Indonesia to Iberia and across North Africa, historic Islamic binding styles can be found, each bearing the unique mark of the binder’s culture and traditions. Binders from Samarkand, Yemen, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Mughal India, among others, left their own mark on the increasingly ornate decorations associated with Islamic bindings.

As trade routes expanded during the Middle Ages, thanks in part to the liberation of Northern Africa, Islamic books and paper became highly valued trade items. Today, these bindings are still revered for the religious texts they convey, the intricate illuminations they feature, and the artistic structure of the binding itself.

  • Origins

One source claims that the art of bookbinding was developed in Central Asia with the invention of paper, particularly among the Turks. The first bindings from this culture can be seen with the Uyghur Turks in East Turkistan dating back to the 7th century CE. This art form also spread to China with the settlement of Uyghur artists. In the East, the first paper factory was established in the city of Samarkand in 652 CE, further advancing the development of bookbinding in the region.

Uzbek Bookbinders

Another source claims that Arab peoples brought the art of papermaking to the Middle East and later Europe via the Chinese as a result of the Battle of Talas in 751 CE. During this battle, it is claimed that the Chinese transmitted the art of papermaking to the Arab world, and it became an important export commodity for the people of Samarkand. However, it is believed that the variation between both sources can be interpreted in a way that indicates papermaking was well-established in Central Asia before it came to Arabia after 751 CE.

The 10th-century author al-Tha’alibi reported:

“Amongst the Chinese prisoners of war captured by Ziyad ibn Salih and brought to Samarkand were some artisans who manufactured paper in Samarkand; then it was manufactured on a wide scale and passed into general use until it became an important export commodity for the people of Samarkand. Its value was universally recognized and people everywhere used it.”

  • Growth of an Art

The ancient art of bookbinding made its way to the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq after first flourishing in East Turkistan and Khorasan. In the 10th century CE, a revolutionary industry was born in Iberia – the paper industry. The Andalusians, with their masterful artistry, crafted paper from a variety of materials including silk, cotton, rags, and wood. The epicenter of paper manufacturing in Europe was the city of Shatiba (Jativa) between the years 1144 and 1154 CE, which remained under Muslim control until 1239 CE. Cordoba, on the other hand, was the hub of paper trade throughout Iberia. This was also the very location where Andalusians gave scraps of knowledge to the Europeans, who would then learn the craft of papermaking.

Andalusian/Moroccan Style Binding

The Arabs’ contribution to the paper industry was monumental, as it paved the way for the widespread dissemination of knowledge in Europe. Without paper, the mass education that Europe is known for today would not have been possible. In Europe, silk was not readily available, so the Andalusians’ method of producing paper from cotton was especially valuable. The Andalusian technique of paper-making quickly spread to Italy in 1268-76 CE and France, where the first paper mills were established. From there, the industry continued to expand throughout the rest of Europe, forever changing the way knowledge was shared and preserved. Also, by this time, there were several hundred factories in the Moroccan city of Fez alone.

The craft of bookbinding was also a well-established trade in the Islamic world, with texts such as the Art of Bookbinding by Bakr al-Ishbili, dating to the 12th century CE, describing in great detail the methods, tools, and equipment used by bookbinders of the time.

Furthermore, along the shimmering shorelines of Iberia, in the ancient land of Tunisia, lies a rich history of paper-making dating back to the days of Amir al-Mu’izz Ibn Badis, a powerful ruler of the Zayri dynasty (1015-61 CE). His treatise, one of the earliest of its kind, delves into the intricate process of preparing the pulp, creating sheets, and the various techniques used to clean, color, polish, and give the paper an antique appearance.

This work stands out as a unique treasure in the annals of history, as no other text of such an early date, dealing with paper-making, is known to exist in any other language. The preparation of pulp itself, as described in the treatise, involves a plethora of complex chemical processes, highlighting the advanced level of chemical knowledge possessed by the Muslims at the time.

  • The Turkish Influence

As the Turks embraced Islam, bookbinding saw a significant advancement. The spread of the religion to three continents, the reproduction of copies of the Qur’an, and the importance placed on knowledge and education within Islam, all played a role in the preservation and protection of works that are vital sources of knowledge.

An Old Turkish-Bound Book

Muslims hold a deep reverence for writing and books, and this is especially true for religious texts. Out of respect for their faith and their modest and cultured way of life, they show great deference to books, particularly the Holy Book of Islam, the Qur’an. This led to an emphasis on the most beautiful gilding and binding techniques for the Qur’an, elevating bookbinding to a true art form.

As the skilled hands of the Turks delved deeper into the art of bookbinding, their techniques and designs began to greatly influence the European bookbinding scene. One of the most notable introductions from the Turkish artisans was the technique of paper marbling, which added a vibrant and unique touch to the bindings of European books. Additionally, Islamic gilding motifs began to make appearances in the bindings of Western European books, adding a touch of elegance and luxury.

Another type of paper that was widely used during this period was marbled paper, which was a popular choice for endpapers, book covers, and edges. This type of paper was primarily prepared in the East and exported to the West. Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English philosopher, and scientist mentions the use of marbled paper in his work, where he states that:

“The Turks have a pretty art of chamoletting of paper, which is not with us in use. They take diverse oiled colors and put them severally (in drops) upon water, stir the water lightly and then wet their paper (being of some thickness) with it, and the paper will be waved, and veined, like Chamolet or Marble’.”

Turkish Style Marbled Paper

As the 17th century CE rolled around, the classic style of bookbinding began to give way to new and innovative designs. One of the most notable new styles to emerge was the “shukufa” style, which featured intricate and stylized flower illustrations. This shukufa period marked the end of the classic era of bookbinding.

As the 18th century came to a close, Turkish bookbinding art began to be influenced by Western styles, such as Barok and Rokoko. These new styles brought a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of creativity to the art of bookbinding. Eventually, as the world moved forward and technology advanced, the traditional methods of bookbinding were replaced by modern techniques, bringing the art of bookbinding into the present day.

  • Prized Discoveries

Discoveries of long-hidden codices have shed new light on early Islamic binding techniques, particularly the techniques used in the 9th-13th centuries CE. One of the most significant discoveries was made in the 1940s when 175 works were found in a storeroom of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia. These works revealed some of the characteristic features of Islamic bindings, such as the leather flap that extended beyond the fore edge of the book to further protect the text and the elaborate blind-tooling and stamping decoration of the leather covers.

Yemenite-Bound Book

Another major discovery was made in Yemen’s Great Mosque of Sana’a in the early 1970s, where thousands of fragments of parchment and bindings dating from the first five centuries of the Islamic era were discovered. These texts, while mostly severely degraded, display some of the more unique facets of Islamic binding such as oblong or horizontal-shaped books, and a type often referred to as “box books.” Box books, which were found at both Kairouan and Sana’a, were apparently unique to Islamic craftsmen and included additional leather walls around the edges of the book raised at right angles to the covers, creating a box-like enclosure.

Islamic binders of the 10th century CE introduced a new method of creating book covers by using pasteboards. These covers were fashioned by adhering pieces of papyrus together until the desired thickness was achieved. The covers were then attached to the book via a technique called case-binding, which involved building the cover separately and attaching it to the text block with adhesive. This method was centuries ahead of when it became common in the Western world.

In addition to the covers, Islamic bindings also featured highly decorative endbands, which were sewn at the head and tail of the book. The endbands served not only as a decorative element but also added additional support to the book’s structure. The traditional Islamic binding technique used two thread colors in a chevron pattern at the head and tail, making it one of the most challenging elements of this type of binding to replicate.

An Old Bound Book Found in Kairouan

Islamic codices are known for their intricately decorated covers, which were created using specialized blind-tooling and stamping techniques. The Kairouan bindings also include some of the earliest known examples of covers stamped with gold. These bookbinders used traditional Islamic imagery such as the eight-pointed star and other geometric patterns to create new methods of rendering these images onto leather covers.

The most common design elements found on these covers include twisted rope or braid patterns, and stamped ringlets, stars, rosettes, and fleurons. These designs were likely made on the leather before it was attached to the covers. Early texts document the use of heated tools to imprint designs into the leather. Once the book was assembled, it would then be provided with clasps or leather thongs to hold it securely closed. These elements made the Islamic style of binding recognizable as part of a long-held and highly developed tradition, and it was also considered one of the most outstanding features of the Islamic codex.

The features of the classic bindings are as follows:

A classic binding is a true work of art, crafted with care and precision using only the finest materials. The main materials used in bookbinding are leather and boards, with leather being the most important component. The leather is carefully selected, with goat leather being the most commonly used, and is then moistened with water and softened to a thin, pliable state. This leather is then cut and shaped to fit the book, with the most popular colors being black, light beige, brown, and maroon.

The binding process itself is composed of four distinct parts, each playing a vital role in creating a finished book that is both beautiful and durable. The upper cover, also known as the right cover, is the front of the book and is bound to the back cover, creating a seamless and elegant look. The back cover, or left cover, is the back of the book and serves as the backbone of the binding.

Wallpaper in Iran Depicting Bookbinders of Old

The foredge strip is the part that sits between the foredge flap and the back cover and is the part that covers the side of the papers when the book is closed. This strip moves with the back cover, ensuring a smooth and even finish. The foredge flap is the final piece of the binding puzzle and is the part that is inserted between the pages, providing a protective barrier for the pages themselves. It is bound to the foredge strip, creating a finished and polished look.

Each step in the classic binding process is done with the utmost care and attention to detail, resulting in a finished product that is both beautiful and built to last. The leather and boards used in a classic binding are carefully chosen and expertly crafted, creating a book that is not only a pleasure to read but a true work of art.

The margin left between the cover of the binding and the length of the book – which is very little and is done for preventing damage to the page edges.

The forms are mostly bound with tram silk with a suitable color for the color of the paper. Then the headband is knitted by hand. The headband ensures the forms do not disperse and stay smooth. Then the leather cover, which is prepared according to the size of the book, is bound.

The book back is smooth and has no writing on it. Ground gold is prepared in the classic style and is polished. Gilding is done on both covers and, on the flap, and strip.

Various Bookbinding Methods

Bookbinding is an ancient art that has evolved over the centuries, with various methods developed to protect and preserve books. Some of the most fascinating and unique methods include (in alphabetical order):

  • Anthropodermic bibliopegy – a rare and controversial practice of using human skin to bind books. This method was used in the past for books that were considered highly valuable or were meant to have a macabre significance.
  • Bradel binding – a method that involves gluing the spine of a book to the covers, creating a clean and sleek look.
  • Calf binding, also known as leather-bound, is a traditional method of covering books in calfskin leather. This method creates a luxurious and durable finish, perfect for high-end books and special editions.
  • Cased cloth binding is a method where cloth is glued to a cardboard cover and then glued to the spine of the book. This method is often used for mass-market paperbacks.
  • Coptic binding is an ancient method of sewing the pages of a book together, creating a flexible spine that allows the book to lay flat when open.
  • Embroidered binding is a method where the covers of a book are decorated with intricate embroidery designs, adding a touch of elegance and uniqueness.
  • Ethiopian binding is a traditional method of binding parchment or vellum using leather covers and wooden boards, often featuring intricate designs and patterns.
  • Girdle binding, also known as limp binding, is a method where the book’s covers are flexible and can be folded over like a girdle.
  • In-board cloth binding is a method where cloth is glued to the spine and then glued to the cardboard covers, creating a durable and sleek finish.
  • Islamic bookbinding features a flap on the back cover that encloses the front when the book is closed. There are many different types of Islamic bookbinding, such as Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Mughal, Moroccan, etc. each with its own unique characteristics and designs.
Islamic Miniature Art Depicting Bookbinders
  • Limp vellum binding is a method where the book’s covers are made of flexible vellum, allowing the book to be folded over and carried easily.
  • Long-stitch bookbinding is a method of sewing the pages of a book together using a long-stitch technique, creating a flexible and durable spine.
  • Paper case binding is a method where the pages of a book are glued to a paper cover, creating a cost-effective and lightweight option for mass-market books.
  • Secret Belgian binding, also known as criss-cross binding, is a modern method invented in 1986, that involves sewing the pages of a book together in a criss-cross pattern, creating a unique and visually striking spine.
  • Traditional Chinese and Korean bookbinding, and Japanese stab binding, are methods that have been passed down for centuries and feature unique designs and patterns that reflect the cultural heritage of each country.
  • Wooden-board binding is a method where the covers of a book are made of wooden boards, creating a sturdy and durable finish, perfect for ancient texts and manuscripts.

Various Bookbinding Videos & Tutorials:

The Art of Islamic Bookbinding
Persian Style Bookbinding
Byzantine Style Leather Bookbinding
Italian Bookbinding
Vividly-Detailed Video Series On Medieval Bookbinding (Part 1 of 4 – Watch the Other 3 On Four Keys Book Arts’ Channel)
Dragon Scale Bookbinding
Chinese Bookbinding
6-Fold Notebook Binding

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