Decorative papers for bookbinding

By Helen Hunter of Aqua Handmade Books

As a colour and pattern lover, the traditional use of decorative papers for bookbinding means I get to indulge my passion every day. In fact, I fell into bookbinding purely by chance after discovering the exquisite designs of Japanese chiyogami papers. I’ve been a decorative paper addict ever since.

Nowadays, colourful book designs are standard stuff. But up until the mid-17th century most book covers were plain leather, with the fancier ones decorated mainly with gold tooling. And, typically, the end papers were the same plain white as the pages.

So when, and why, did this change? It was around the 1670’s that decorative papers on cover boards first appeared in England and by the 1730’s the practice was commonplace, with patterned endpapers inside the book as well.

‘Stone’ marbled paper made around 1750-60 in London Image via

As to the ‘why’, one theory is that early bookbinders found that contact between the leather binding and a book’s pale endpapers would, over time, damage and discolour the paper. But brightly coloured, hand-decorated paper easily disguised the problem. Binders also realised they could use less leather – and save money – by using patterned papers on the outer covers too.  So, for practical as much as aesthetic reasons, new bookbinding styles were born.

Decorative papers for bookbinding including marbled papers, chiyogami papers and Curwen Press pattern papers

The wide range of decorative papers for bookbinding is often bewildering. Luckily, we don’t need to be experts to appreciate the craftsmanship behind them or enjoy their vibrant colours and patterns. Here are just three of my favourites, along with a tiny bit of their history.

Marbled decorative paper for bookbinding

Marbling is the design people associate most with bookbinding, and I think everything about it is utterly magical. Even the pattern names have their own mystique –  Antique Spot, Gloster, French Curl, Ripple, Spanish Wave, Bouquet, Snail, Zebra, Nonpareil – to name just a few.

It’s believed that paper marbling originated in Japan around the 12th century. By the 15th century it had spread across East and Central Asia and into Europe, probably via Venice which was already famous for book crafts. Italian marbled papers are now world-famous, and produced predominantly in Florence. I bought several sheets of Florentine marbled paper during a trip to Venice a few years ago – the orange and purple designs above were particularly special.

Spanish Waves pattern by Pahyembury Marbled Papers

Pictured above is the extraordinary 3D effect of the Spanish Wave pattern. The story goes that a drunk Spanish marbler accidentally invented the design in the 1800’s. His hands shook so much as he handled the paper that he ‘spoiled’ every sheet. Luckily for him customers snapped up the new pattern!

Douglas Cockerell marbled designs Image via

For many years English binders had to import marbled papers from Europe as the craft only really took off here around the end of the 18th century. Happily, despite its slow start, it looks like it’s now here to stay. Fast forward to more recent times – above are two machine-printed patterns from the 1920’s designed and produced by renowned English bookbinder Douglas Cockerell. Produced initially for in-house book restoration, the company later exported their beautiful papers commercially around the world.

Below is a wonderful short video from the 1970’s about the Cockerell business and shows their then head marbler William Chapman demonstrating his spellbinding skills (it’s a slow start but well worth watching until the end – check out the 1970’s colour palettes!).

Marbled paper by Tirzah Garwood Image via

An exciting recent discovery for me is the unusual, ethereal marbling work from the 1930’s of Tirzah Garwood, a brilliant artist and engraver whose work was sadly overshadowed by that of her husband Eric Ravilious (more of him later).

Marbled designs by Payhembury Papers Image via Instagram @payhemburypapers

English marblers working today include Katherine Brett of Payhembury Marbled Papers who has been marbling for nearly 40 years. She specialises in recreating historic designs using traditional techniques and her Instagram feed is a real treat.

Jemma Lewis marbled papers on Japanese stab-bound sketchbooks

Another contemporary marbling artist is Jemma Lewis who produces classical patterns as well as modern designs in vibrant contemporary colour palettes. The books that I’ve been making recently (above and below) using her printed designs are always hugely popular.


English decorative papers for bookbinding

Curwen Press pattern papers Images via Shepherds Bookbinders

Here’s something completely different as we move from marbled swirls to the graphic, printed patterns of 20th century English decorative papers. Probably the best-known were those produced by the Curwen Press who led a publishing design revolution in the 1920’s and commissioned work from up-and-coming artists of the day including Edward Bawden, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Enid Marx.

Pattern paper design by Eric Ravilious for the Curwen Press

Based on the repeat-pattern style of classical Italian decorative papers, Curwen Press Pattern Papers became a popular sideline for the company. They fell out of production for a while, then in the 1980’s Judd Street Gallery revived the the tradition and still produce some of the designs today.

colourful patterned papers by Cambridge Imprint used as covers for stab-bound handmade books
Cambridge Imprint pattern papers covering stab-bound journal/sketchbooks

As with marbling, the tradition of English pattern papers continues to flourish and contemporary decorative papers I use regularly are by Cambridge Imprint, above, and Esme Winter, below.

Concertina books covered with Esme Winter pattern papers

Japanese chiyogami decorative papers

I obviously couldn’t finish without mentioning the exquisitely patterned chiyogami papers that kickstarted my obsession. This traditional Japanese paper is made from mulberry tree bark which has very long fibres and creates a paper that’s soft yet very strong, even when wet. (Which makes it the perfect paper for bookbinding). Skilled artisans screen-print the intricate designs by hand onto the prepared mulberry paper sheets. A typical chiyogami pattern, which often include elegant metallic accents, may require up to 6 different screens to produce its complex design.

“Bamboozle” chiyogami paper journal
Chiyogami covered journals featuring cherry blossom and cranes

Chiyogami paper designs were traditionally based on the patterns seen during the Edo period (1603-1868) by rural paper makers who observed the fashionable kimonos of the beautiful city ladies visiting the countryside from Kyoto. They produced papers which adorned small household items such as tea boxes, and featured classical Japanese motifs: cherry blossom, bamboo, mountains, cranes, waves and many types of flowers, all of which have their own symbolism in Japanese culture.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this briefest of tours around the colourful world of decorative papers for bookbinding. Of course, they can be used for many other purposes as well so in case you’d like to explore further I’ve provided links to the artisans and suppliers featured above. You’ll also find nearly all the papers I’ve mentioned (plus many more besides) at Shepherds Bookbinders whose magical, Aladdin’s cave of a shop is where my adventures in bookbinding first began.

Images: © Aqua Handmade Books unless otherwise stated. See more of Helen’s work and shop online at Aqua Handmade Books













Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *