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English embroidered bookbindings

The term 'embroidered bookbinding' usually describes a book bound in textile, decorated with a design made for the book and worked in coloured and metallic threads on both covers. 

The cloth was embroidered separately before it was glued or stitched to the boards of a ready bound book; embroidered covers do not form part of the binding structure. The majority of embroidered bindings were produced by professional needleworkers.

Brief history of Embroidered Bookbindings

In the 16th and 17th centuries embroidery came into fashion in England, and embroidered bookbindings were most popular under the Tudors and Stuarts. Embroidered bindings were never mass-produced but always made for individuals by request.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1633), English embroidered binding. Shelfmark: C.17.b.11. ©The British Library Board

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Embroidered covers were mainly used on religious books such as Bibles, Psalters and Prayer Books, and on presentation copies, often for clergy or members of the royal family. Embroidered covers on small books, particularly Prayer Books meant for private use, were often made for women. As presentation copies, however, they were equally given to men, especially to kings or bishops.

The most common designs were Old Testament scenes featuring Adam and Eve, Moses and Aaron, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or David playing his harp, and New Testament scenes and figures of the saints. There were also allegorical figures, such as Peace and Plenty or Faith and Hope, flora and fauna, and heraldic subjects. The use of portraits came into fashion in the 17th century. Initials and coats of arms were added to personalise the work. Sources of many of the images came from professional embroiderers' pattern books or from manuscripts, illustrated books and paintings. The designs were frequently simplified or adapted to the size of the book and the materials to hand.

The oldest known English embroidery on a book covers a 13th-century manuscript Psalter, which belonged to Anne Felbrigge in the latter half of the 14th century and is known as the Felbrigge Psalter, now in the British Library (MS Sloane 2400). The two panels on the upper and lower covers show the Annunciation and the Crucifixion respectively and are now inlaid in an 18th-century calf leather binding.

The majority of surviving embroidered bindings date from the 16th and 17th centuries and still cover the books for which they were made. In England the vogue for embroidered bindings ended with the Civil War, but some have been produced subsequently.

Covering Materials and Decoration

Covering material included canvas, velvet, satin and silk. The embroidery provided both decoration and protection for the book. Canvas was often entirely covered in embroidery to conceal its rough texture. Velvet was regarded as one of the most suitable and durable materials for textile bindings, although it was difficult to decorate and was often used plain. The most fragile cloth used was satin and less often, silk. The stitches were worked with silk threads in different colours and with gold or silver threads. The edges of the books were often gilt, gauffered (i.e. decorated with tooling) or painted, and motifs included flowers, birds or coats of arms. Velvet covers could be fitted with clasps whereas canvas, satin and silk books usually had fabric ties. Book marks of coloured ribbon were a common addition.

Biblia Sacra and The Whole Booke of Psalmes

Biblia Sacra and The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1585, 1587), English embroidered binding. c. 1630. Shelfmark: Davis 66. © The British Library Board

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Viewing Embroidered Bindings in the British Library

Images of embroidered bindings from the Library's collection can be found in the Database of Bookbindings. Many examples on printed books can be ordered to the RB&M Reading Room; others, notably volumes with Davis shelfmarks, are restricted and applications must be made in advance to the Curator of Bookbindings. All embroidered bindings are very fragile, so please take care when handling them.

Other examples of English embroidered bookbindings can be found, for example, at the Victoria & Albert Museum and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Selected Literature on Embroidery and Embroidered Bindings

This short list of titles includes works on embroidery in general in order to provide the context in which embroidered covers were produced.

  • Bodleian Library. Textile and Embroidered Bindings. With an Introduction by Giles Barber. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1971. (667.g.17)
  • Davenport, Cyril. English Embroidered Bookbindings. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company, Ltd., 1899. (667.c.1)
    Although this is still used as a standard work on English embroidered bindings, the information provided should be treated with care.
  • Foot, Mirjam M. The Henry Davis Gift. A Collection of Bookbindings. Vol. II. A Catalogue of North-European Bindings. London: The British Library, 1983. (667.t.43; RAR686.302)
  • Foot, Mirjam M. Pictorial Bookbindings. London: The British Library, 1986. (667.u.16)
  • Hackenbroch, Yvonne. English and Other Needlework. Tapestries and Textiles in the Irwin Untermyer Collection. London: Thames and Hudson, 1960. (L.R.408.k.6)
  • Kendrick, A. F. English Embroidery. London: Batsford, 1913. (X.429/6051)
  • King, Donald and Santina Levey. The Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Collection. Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993. (LB.31.b.8502)
  • Nixon, Howard M. and Mirjam M. Foot. The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. (667.u.122; RAR686.302)
  • Schmidt-Künsemüller, Friedrich-Adolf. Bibliographie zur Geschichte der Einbandkunst von den Anfängen bis 1985. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1987. (RAR686.3009)
    This bibliography is very detailed for the period it covers, but bear in mind that it does not include anything published after 1985.
  • Wallis, Penelope. 'The Embroidered Binding of the Felbrigge Psalter'. In: The British Library Journal, vol. 13 (1), Spring 1987. London: The British Library, 1987, pp. 71-78. (RAR027.541)

Philippa Marks
Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7767
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7577

E-mail: philippa.marks@bl.uk