Upclose detail of leather tooling
Behind the scenes Collections Series Short read

Materials of the Book – Leather

Leather is durable strong and flexible, also luxurious, tactile to hold

Leather is the preserved hide or skin of an animalAny skin can be made into leather and species as diverse as deer, shark, dog and kangaroo have been used. It is a ubiquitous material found across the world and throughout history. Some of leather’s earliest uses were for shelter, footwear and carrying water.  

Book full bound in deer leather
English MS 895 Process of The Passion; The Gospel of Nicodemus – 15th Century deer skin covered binding

Library collections are full of leather, as a covering for books. Leather is ideal for this purpose because it is 100% collagen and its fibrous structure means it is durable, strong and flexible.  Leather is also a luxurious material, which is tactile to hold. Goat and cattle skins are popular leathers for book covering as they display these characteristics well.  

Skin in its raw form would quickly putrefy and decay. To stop this happening, methods of altering the physical nature of the skin were employed. These ranged from tanning or tawing, to simply drying and using the skin as raw hide. 

Detail of a manuscript illustration of two people making leather
German MS 7, 26 recto – detail of leather preparation

The earliest leathers were prepared using smoke, which is a mild tanning agent. Another known method was to rub the brain of a dead animal, which is full of oils and enzymes, over the surface of the hide to make it supple and durable. Vegetable tannage is another method; oak bark is traditionally used for this, with hides being soaked in a pit containing an oak bark solution for a year.  

Tawing is another method of preserving a skin. Traditionally alum is used, resulting in a white skin which is sometimes used for the structural elements of book’s binding such as sewing supports and closures. 

Alum tawed leather sewing supports laced through the wooden boards
English MS 84 Deeds of the Apostles – Alum tawed leather sewing supports laced through wooden board

Leather covered books are decorated in a numbers of ways. They can be embossed and lettered using heated metal hand tools: this is called tooling. Acid can also be used to decorative effect; and leather-working techniques can be employed to create both decorative and functional features such as ties, endbands and in-lays. 

Upclose detail of leather tooling
Arabic MS 42 (704) Qur’an – Detail of the fine leather tooling

When books are digitised by the library’s imaging team the bindings and the content are photographed. Follow this link to explore the Manchester Digital Collections. https://www.digitalcollections.manchester.ac.uk/ 







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