Boards: Preparation for Sewing

In preparation for sewing, a characteristic arrangement of tunnels is pierced along the spine edge of the board. Each set of holes corresponds to a sewing station on the text block and is coupled with a set of holes on the opposite board. The holes may be marked out on the boards first and then transferred to the quires or vice versa, depending on the preference of the bookbinder. Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Notches carved into edge of the boards on MS Ethiopic 3, presumably used to indicate placement of sewing holes. Detail, right, taken under magnification.

The boards on this manuscript are in especially good condition. These notches, if once present, would likely be lost as the boards wear and become rounded at the edges through daily use.

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 1. Board notch for sewing holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

Each set of holes comprises four tunnels: two made perpendicular to the face of the board at intervals from the edge, and two made at an angle. This configuration appears to be standard regardless of whether every hole will be used or not. The angled holes, called śaragalā (ሠረገላ), bifurcate from the center of the edge of the board, one fork leading to the outer face and the other to the inner face, with each terminus aligning with the respective end of the face-to-face tunnel nearest to the spine edge of the board. Fig. 2. More often than not all the holes are part of the board attachment sewing, but in one particular variation, to be discussed in a later entry, the face-to-face hole closest to the spine edge is superfluous and yet it is pierced just the same.
Fig. 2. Cross-section diagram of the traditional arrangement of holes pierced though the board for attachment.

Diagram: Author
Fig. 2. Cross-section board tunnel diagram. Diagram: Author

Two variations on this pattern appear within the literature. A diagram depicted in an article by conservator William Bull shows the sewing thread looping through tunnels in the face of the board that do not pass completely through the board. Executing this sewing would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish, if not impossible, especially given the limited set of tools at the disposal of the Ethiopian scribe. I see no logical reason why a scribe would break with tradition on an otherwise conventionally produced manuscript in order to make the attachment of the boards more challenging with no additional benefit. What is more likely is a misapprehension of the tunnel structure of the boards given that they seem to have been still covered with leather on the outer faces, limiting visibility. Bull, “A 17th-century Ethiopic Bookbinding,” 45 Gary Frost’s diagram in the instructions accompanying an Ethiopian bookbinding model making kit produced by Iowa Book Lab shows a configuration of three holes, excluding the tunnel from the board edge to the inner face. This is a variation appears to be based on Frost's own structural theories rather than historical precedent. Frost, Wearable Ethiopian Journal with Mahdar, [3]; Frost, Correspondance, 6 April 2015

While preparing the sewing tunnels, each board is “held in one hand or the lap while the other [hand] pushes the awl through” in a back-and-forth drilling motion. Winslow, Correspondance, 16 October 2013 Fig. 3. Fekade indicates that, for this operation, the holes are initially pieced with a sharp awl that is heated—likely what Sergew refers to as a “glow awl”—and refined using a cold awl. Fekade, Ancient, 207 Sergew. Bookmaking, 24 However, if the wood is soft enough, this activity may be carried out using the same technique with an unheated awl. Winslow, Ethiopian, 213 The two holes that travel through the face of the board are pierced first [Fig. 4], followed by the angled holes. Once an initial set of holes has been pierced, it is confirmed that the thread and needle are able to pass through easily, and then the holes for the remaining stations are made. After this, the second board is prepared using the first as a guide. Fekade, Ancient, 207–208
Fig. 3. A scribe piercing holes for sewing into a board using an awl.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 3. Piercing Holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow
Fig. 3. Detail of face-to-face holes pierced into board, before (or excluding) the carving of the channel between holes.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 4. Board holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

In order to recess the thread that will be exposed on the faces of the boards, after piercing is complete, channels are carved on the inner and outer faces of the boards, connecting the two face-to-face holes. The channels are made to a depth and width equal to the thread so that it will rest below the surface of the board. This practice is used to prevent premature wear of the thread from abrasion, which would result in potential detachment, and unattractive lumps in the case of a leather-covered volume. Fekade, Ancient, 208

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the explanation and the diagram for board holes. Do you know if the copta use the same pattern? Thanks again!