In Singapore, an ancient Egyptian book craft comes alive

The class I took in Coptic bookbinding at Books Actually, Singapore.

Coptic binding, an ancient way of binding paper into book form attributed to early Christians in Egypt, was what I learnt last Wednesday when I signed up for a class in bookbinding.

Until then, I had forgotten how fun crafting books can be, manipulating paper and working with tools common and otherwise (waxed linen thread, curved needles and the icepick-like instrument call an awl).

So for two hours, we – 12 working adults – huddled at Books Actually, Singapore’s most beloved independent book store to learn this craft.

Books Actually at Yong Siak Road, Tiong Bahru area, Singapore.

Having been a staunch supporter of local literature and book arts, Books Actually makes the perfect venue host.

With its curated selection of books and stationery, and down-to-earth displays adorned with nostalgic memorabilia, it’s soulful retail with a capital “S” – letterpressed and set in Palatino.

“S” also for “Seduction”.

The class was conducted by Pooja, a cheery transplanted New Yorker whose instructions are clear and easy enough for any beginner to follow.

Pooja said making a book is an art, where personal expression is very much a part of the process.

“The book you are making is a creative vehicle. There is no wrong way to do it. Technical skills are important, but so is creativity,” she said.

“And you can bind anything. I want to get you away from thinking of a book as a stack of papers. It can be anything. Even license plates. I know someone who does just that!”

Class in progress.

What I learnt

A piece of paper folded is called a folio.

Gather a few folios and you get a signature.

In Coptic binding, the pages lie flat and fully opened. The spine is exposed and you can see the stitching, a regular looping pattern made up of threads going in and out of successive “stations” (holes) that are made along the fold line of a sheet of paper.

This looping pattern is most obvious when your book is thick with many signatures.

You exercise creativity by varying the number of stations, the distances between stations, the choice of paper and cover, and the number and combination of signatures.

You must use one continuous thread from beginning to end.

Linen threads treated with beeswax is best, as it is acid- and chemical-free.

But what you use is largely determined by the effects you hope to achieve.

In Coptic binding, the spine is exposed. The basic technique stays the same, but here you can (just about) see how each person can come up with a different look.

Recommended: waxed threads and an awl for making holes in the paper.

The beauty of Coptic binding – the book opens flat.

Coptic binding is a simple enough method, but, like any craft, requires the right tools and patience.

The finished result can be used as a photo album, scrapbook, calendar or anything you like.

I am thrilled with this new knowledge and will be testing it out very soon.

Reference book: Keith A. Smith, Volume 1 – Non Adhesive Binding – Books Without Paste Or Glue.

Booklovers learning to make books in a book shop.

See more Coptic binding samples at my “Bukurama” Facebook page.

Text and photos by S.T. Leng


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