Sheepskin leather and it's use in bookbinding.
Sheepskin has been used in bookbinding for more than 500 years, and yet today it is maligned as
being inferior to all other leathers and thought little of, but as Matt T. Roberts and Don
Etherington say in Bookbinding and the Conservation of books. A Dictionary of Descriptive
Terminology. "Sheepskin is a reasonably durable leather if properly prepared and cared for." And so I
believe it is, I rediscovered the joys of sheepskin by accident, in my search for a lightweight, economical
leather, suitable for general quality case work.....Lets have a look at sheepskin and find out a little more about it:
Sheepskin is a soft, porous leather produced from the skins of wooled or hair sheep. It is
usually vegetable-tanned and often "grained" in imitation of other (more expensive) skins, e.g., morocco, a
process to which it lends itself very well. The term "sheepskin" always indicates an un split skin.
Sheepskin is somewhat difficult to describe because the individual skins differ so greatly in size, fat content,
and general quality of the dermal network. From the standpoint of leather, the closer a sheepskin approaches the
hair sheep, the tighter and firmer the fiber network, and, therefore, the better the skin for producing leather.
This is the case because the numerous fine wool fibers, as opposed to the lesser number of coarse fibers of the
hair sheep, cause the skin to be more open and loose in texture. In addition, the wool follicles are associated
with extensive glandular structures, consisting of sebaceous and sudoriferous glands, which also interrupt the
dense packing of the connective-tissue fiber network in the papillary layers, as well as the dermis
itself. The grain layer of sheepskin occupies more than a half of the total thickness of the skin;
furthermore, in the reticular layer, the collagen fibers are not as compact and run in more closely
The proportion of adipose tissue to collagen fibers in sheepskin varies widely according to the
feeding of the animal. There is frequently an almost continuous layer of fat cells separating the grain layer
and the reticular layer. Because much of the fatty tissues is destroyed or removed in the liming, bating, and
scudding operations, it is not unusual to find the grain layer and reticular layer of sheepskin leathers
separated, sometimes over wide areas. The tanner at times separates these two layers by splitting after
liming, and then tans the grain layer for bookbinding purposes, etc., and the reticular layer for
During the beamhouse operations. the glands in the grain layer are destroyed, leaving the grain
layer rather spongy in structure. This, together with the relatively loose and empty structure of the
reticular layer, places sheepskin leather in a class by itself. Sheepskin is a reasonably durable leather if
properly prepared and cared for, and as has been said, it has been used as a covering material for books for
more than 500 years.
The inside split (flesh split) of a lamb- or sheepskin, embossed and finished in imitation of grained leather, and
used at times for lining the spines of cheaper blank books.
The outer grain split of a sheep-, lamb-, or (occasionally) goatskin, vegetable-tanned, and usually from 0.25 to
1.0 mm thick. Skivers are finished in a wide variety of colors and embossed grains, as well as with a plain, smooth
surface. At one time skiver was used very extensively for labels of many kinds of bindings, e.g., the red and black
labels of law books.
A natural-colored, vegetable-tanned sheepskin, at one time used for covering law books, but now largely superseded
A variety, or varieties, of leather produced from a superior grade of un split sheepskin. Roan is softer than Basil
, and is often colored and finished in imitation of Morocco. The typical roan has a close, tough, long, boarded
grain, a compact structure, and is usually dyed a red color. Originally, roans were leathers tanned exclusively
with sumac (as were the morocco' s); however, in later years they were often tanned with other vegetable tannins.
They were used extensively for covering books from about 1790 until well into the 19th century, but have been
seldom used since that time.
A sheepskin, split and embossed with an imitation Morocco grain pattern.
If a simple case binding is being considered full thickness sheepskin...or goatskin for that
matter, is simply too thick for covering smaller books, by which I mean Crown 4vo and smaller, it is not practical to pare down
full thickness skins to 1mm / 1.5mm, you can get split goatskins but they are commonly grained and had a
sprayed pigment finish which resulted in a shiny hard leather, difficult to pare and rather unpleasant to
Provided you make sure that you are obtaining hair splits and not Flesher's, and if possible
that the skins are not subjected to exposure to harmful acids in the tanning process, then I have found that
the resultant leather is eminently suitable for general quality case work.
How long will this leather last? A lot depends on the treatment it receives during it's life,
but judging by similar books bound in lightweight sheepskin which we repaired or re-bound I would say
certainly good for the customers lifetime. And lets face it, the finest book, bound in the finest materials
will ultimately decay, it's not just the difference in price of this leather over say best goatskin, it's the
fact that right along the line it is easy to work with and needs the minimum of paring and working, all these
factors mean that you can make a very respectable leather case cheaply, which means that you
can attract customers to a leather bound book who otherwise might be scared off by the price.
For economical leather case work I would seriously suggest you take another look at this oft
Bookbinding and the Conservation of books. A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology
Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington
EVERY MONTH I SEND OUT THE BOOKBINDERS DIGEST. WHICH AIMS TO BRING YOU
INTERESTING ITEMS CONCERNING THE WORLD OF BOOKBINDING AND RELATED CRAFTS. IF YOU WOULD CARE TO SUBSCRIBE PLEASE
JUST MAIL ME PUTTING "EDEN" IN THE SUBJECT LINE.