Limp Binding

Limp binding is a bookbinding method wherein a book has supple sides made of cloth, leather, or paper instead of hardback covers. When the material is vellum, the method of bookbinding is known as limp vellum.

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Limp binding is a bookbinding method wherein a book has supple sides made of cloth, leather, or paper instead of hardback covers. When the material is vellum, the method of bookbinding is known as limp vellum.

Think of the medieval limp vellum bound book as our modern paperback.

Limp bound book
Limp Bound Book

Vellum is usually calfskin, processed to make it suitable as a writing material. Today, paper vellum is made from synthetic plant material and used for technical drawings, blueprints, maps, and plans.

In limp binding, a single piece of material (vellum, leather, cloth) is folded around the text block and the front and back covers are folded double. 

The text block is laced into the limp cover such that it can be removed easily. This was done for two reasons: 

  • to make it convenient to replace the covers of frequently used books like prayer books or reference books, and 
  • to reduce the cost of making covers for the bookbinder.

Origin of Limp Binding

The earliest “books” were papyrus rolls, which later became replaced by parchment.

Parchment (goat/sheep skin) was preferred because it could be folded and sewn together to make a flat and compact book called codex.

Codex
A Codex

Codices were made by stretching cured animal skin onto wooden boards. At this time, limp vellum binding came into being.

The written portions of the book were sewn to leather blocks. Braids of parchment were used to connect the leather blocks to the cover through holes. 

Later, pasteboard was stuck to the covers to provide some stiffness. 

Limp vellum binding
Limp Vellum Binding

There are three kinds of parchment bindings:

  • Limp – flexible covers with no board beneath them

  • Semi-limp – a little stiff due to addition of flexible boards

  • Stiff – rigid due to addition of stiff boards in the front and back

It appears that semi-limp bookbinding was more popular than limp binding or leather binding in medieval Europe (13th and 14th century) because they were easier to make and less costly

So book conservationists surmise that semi-limp bookbinding was probably preferred in order to construct more books for the general public in a profitable way.

The 16th century saw the art of limp vellum binding at its height because of the focus on structure. In the following years, decoration became more important and the quality of binding deteriorated.

Quoting Pickwoad (1995)

“the book is sewn through both the gatherings and the covering material (Typically parchment or thick paper) at the same time, and results in lengths of thread showing in one or more rows across the spine. It was a rapid and economical way to hold books together, and was often used for temporary, retail bindings and cheaper blank books from the late fifteenth century onwards.”

Limp parchment bindings with laced-on covers are quite durable and many such books survived the flooding of the Florence Biblioteca Nazionale in 1966. 

Limp vellum binding spine
Limp Vellum Binding

Limp bound books are sometimes paired with yapp edges to protect from damage, typically for Bibles.


When and why was it used?

Limp bindings were used for commonplace books (a sort of scrapbook) starting from the 13th century until the 17th century. After that, its use was discontinued until private presses restored the bookbinding method towards the end of the 19th century. 

Between 1775 and 1825, limp leather binding was used for pocket books (small paperbacks). In the 1880s, only religious books, verse books, and diaries used limp binding.

If you have some time, you can watch this 10-minute video to see how medieval limp bookbinding was done:


References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limp_binding
  2. https://lib.msu.edu/exhibits/historyofbinding/limpbindings/
  3. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/BPG_Parchment_Bookbinding#Limp_Parchment_or_Limp_Vellum
  4. https://cool.culturalheritage.org/don/dt/dt2082.html
  5. https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre/depositors/conservation/bookbinding
  6. https://www.biblio.com/book_collecting_terminology/limp-bound-335.html
  7. https://nyamcenterforhistory.org/tag/semi-limp-binding/
  8. https://henryhebert.net/2011/12/18/limp-paper-and-vellum/
  9. https://gleesongleanings.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/limp-vellum-binding/

8 comments on “Limp Binding”

  1. You know in our school library there were these old books with limp binding. Did not know of their importance back then. Specially the Bible.. which the Nuns would take out with so much care.
    The way you include pictures in your write-up makes it easier to understand and connect
    Deepika Sharma

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reading, Deepika. I’m so fascinated to know that you’ve actually experienced some of the things that I’m writing about.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Vellum – Satabdi

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