The Historic Japanese Book: From Waste Pulp to Woodblocks, with Anne Covell

The Japanese stab binding has been used for centuries as a simple and elegant structure for bookmaking, but little is known today about how the covers for these familiar bindings were made. Likely created from layers of poor-quality recycled paper covered with an outermost layer of thin, high-quality dyed paper that was either burnished or embossed for decoration, these soft and flexible bindings have withstood the test of time. However, due in part to its designation as a lowly craft, little of the process used to create these covers survives in the historic record.Anne Covell Edo books BookArtsLA

BookArtsLA is pleased to host Anne Covell for The Historic Japanese Book: From Waste Pulp to Woodblocks. Follow this link to register for the February 10-11 workshop.

While studying at the University of Iowa, Anne worked closely with conservator Kazuko Hioki to research the details about how the covers might have been made. In our two day workshop, students will explore processes of papermaking, cover decoration, and binding to create historic stab bindings as they were likely produced during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Japan.

Examples of Edo period books and text paper

You'll leave the course with a basic introduction to traditional Hangami papermaking and a beautiful Edo period style book. Distinctive characteristics of Edo period decorated bindings include a sewn binding with burnished or embossed patterned covers. There will be opportunities to experiment with a variety of decorative paper techniques (embossing, burnishing, natural dyeing, and more).  

Read more about Anne's research below.

paper fiber

In early 2012, Tim Barrett, paper specialist at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, approached me with a project query from Kazuko Hioki, the Conservation Librarian and Asian Studies Liaison Librarian then at the University of Kentucky Libraries, who was interested in locating a papermaker to help her recreate book covers from the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. By this point, Kazuko had been researching the history and characteristics of Japanese printed books from the Edo period for several years.

The process used to create book cover papers was never written down in any formal sense, but instead simply passed between papermakers over generations, and as a result, very little description of the process survives. This lack of historic documentation is due, in part, to the classification of recycled papermaking as lowly or peasant class work. As a result, Kazuko’s research left her with several questions that she, not a papermaker herself, hoped that I could answer through investigation. Over the course of the last few years, she and I have been collaborating to piece together elements missing from the historical record to produce a clearer picture of how book covers were likely produced in Edo, Japan.

Characteristically soft and supple to the touch, these cover papers were likely made from layers of poor quality recycled papers that were then laminated to achieve a desired weight and thickness. The laminated sheets were covered with a higher quality, dyed, thin washi paper and then either burnished or embossed for decoration. Here are a couple of examples of historic specimens I've observed in the Asian Art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Examples of historic specimens of Edo covers from the Art Institute of Chicago

This style of binding was incredibly popular throughout the Edo period and continued well into the late-Meiji. The process was used not only for literature and popular fiction, but also for government records and scientific publications. As a result, these bindings proliferate the shelves of used bookstores and stacks of books can often be purchased for less than a few dollars today in Japan. 

The quality of the recycled paper used to form the covers historically varied depending on a number of factors including condition of the original source, fiber preparation, and water purity. In looking at the historic specimens it is easy to identify an entire spectrum of quality ranging from poorly formed, dirty and discolored sheets to well crafted, near white samples. Here are a couple of specimens that show just how radically varied the quality of such papers were found historically.

Specimens that show the variation of historic paper used in Edo bindings BookArtsLA

Cover makers were part of a larger book production system in Edo responsible for cover making, collation, and sewing of popular side-stitch bindings. Since layers of paper were laminated together to make the covers, recycled papers were favored as the under sheet for their softness, thickness, and flexibility. As embossed cover decorations became popular in the eighteenth century, these qualities also served to enhance the embossed impression.

Patterned boards to use in making embossed covers

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