Putting a finger on it: evidence of unusual historical repair materials and methods in two special collections

Victoria Stevens ACR

Victoria Stevens Library and Archive Preservation and Conservation Ltd.

victoriastevensconservation@gmail.com

When it comes to the repair of bound items, there is a long tradition of the reuse and repurposing of materials. The recycling of waste is predominant in the history of book construction and repair methods throughout the medieval and early modern period, with manuscript fragments and printers’ waste being reused from the earliest point of codex production. Manuscripts, discarded in favour of printed editions or rendered redundant by the Reformation, quickly found their way into new bindings in the form of covers and constructional elements such as spine linings, pastedowns or endpaper reinforcements.

Highly visible manuscript waste, repurposed to create new bindings: Campion Hall collections (top) and New College; both colleges of the University of Oxford

Rarely hidden, the aesthetic for visibly reused components did not diminish until the beginning of the C17th when the fashion for all new materials, as a signifier of wealth and the ability to afford expensive tastes, became more prevalent and the use of highly visible waste slowly dropped away.

Waste materials continued to be used, however, but usually secretly: most Victorian cloth cases use printers’ waste for spine stiffeners or linings, and in some instances, these add to the provenance and story of the bindings by providing social or geographical markers.

Hidden printers’ waste: From Round the World from London Bridge to Charing Cross, via Yokohama and Chicago: An album of pictures from photographs of the chief places of interest in all parts of the world, published by George Newnes in 1895; from the collection of Magdalen College School; adverts for brandy creating the spine lining of a book in the Wordsworth Trust collections.

A good example is the spine lining in the Examiner’s Copy of TE Lawrence’s undergraduate thesis, held in the collections of Jesus College, Oxford. Here we see that the spine lining is a clear geographical signifier, indicating its origin and confirming the likelihood of it being a local creation. On the spine lining are adverts for a robe maker in St Aldates (opposite ‘Christ Church’) and businesses on Banbury Road, one of the main thoroughfares to the north of the city centre.

The spine lining of the Examiner’s copy of TE Lawrence’s undergraduate thesis; Jesus College Oxford

It was not only binding waste that was repurposed in library and archive collections: recycled clothing and textiles often feature in binding construction, with linen and printed cotton waste being used for seal protection, spine linings, endbands and in some cases early textile book covers. I have subsequently – and excitingly – discovered that ecclesiastical robes were used for repairs to the St Catherine’s Monastery collections in Sinai (1).

The remnants of a textile seal protector; Worcester Cathedral library and archives
Dress fabric used to cover a binding: Murray, Lindley. 1829. Sequel to the English Reader. Philadelphia: McCarty & Davis; featured on the https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/File:Zigzag_sewing.jpg#filelinks

A recent discovery that covers – literally- the space between the recycling of traditional binding materials and items of clothing are the glove repairs in two collections with Jesuit links, recently assessed during separate conservation audits. My interest was first drawn to several items in the special collections held at the Bar Convent, York. These remarkable repairs using soft ladies’ kid gloves are beautifully executed, with a precision and neatness that shows some significant technical and three-dimensional craft skill. The glove seams are clearly visible, and carefully positioned to hug the book; there is purpose here in how they have been cut, stitched and adhered to the original covers to repair what was likely to be gaping spines and detached boards. This was clearly a case of make do and mend, and thrift in conservation and collections care, C19th style.

Imagine my surprise when assessing the Heythrop material (2) at Campion Hall a few months later to discover examples of similar repairs, again in a Jesuit collection. Here there was less evidence, with only one item being found to have a glove repair. This had a somewhat less decorous and less charming thin textile spine covering it; that too had become damaged, and, peeping out, was the tell-tale seam of a glove. The cloth was ridged at the tail of the spine: clearly there were further glove seams lurking there too, giving rise to the fact that they were possibly spine linings rather than the full reback-style repairs to the books at the Bar Convent.

These discoveries have led to a bit of an obsession, and to the potential for their inclusion in a conference paper on binding repairs. The effective ‘upcycling’ of materials is both so archaic in a throw-away world, but also so current with the drive to reduce, reuse and recycle. It would be great to know if this is a common feature in Catholic collections, possibly specifically Jesuit collections, and whether this is something that was taught to the communities that cared for these collections, perhaps by an itinerant binding teacher or through word of mouth.

I would really welcome any information from CAS members on comparable items they may have discovered. Please do get in touch using the email below; I look forward to making links and connections between the collections you now care for.


(1) Email correspondence with Dr Nikolas Sarris

(2) The Heythorp material is a recent addition to the Campion Hall collection and is currently unavailable for research use.

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