A 17th century Embroidered Binding

A few months ago, a box of miniature bookbindings was rediscovered in our archives.  The box proved to be a veritable treasure trove of fine bindings donated to the Grolier Club in April of 1918 by none other than Samuel P. Avery, one of the Club’s greatest benefactors. Among them a book of fables in shorthand, bound by Pagnant; mother-of-pearl and carved ivory wallets; a silver filigree binding set with purple faceted stones and painted medallions; and a handful of embroidered bindings reflecting all styles and skills, including one attributed to the Nuns of Little Gidding.

Upper Cover

This miniature, a Book of Psalms from 1643, measures only 113x58x20mm and is in startlingly good condition. It is bound in white satin and embroidered with gold, silver, and colored silk thread embellished with spangles.  Both covers feature a central gold stem capped with an open flower, and blossoms branching from either side.  A single flower fills each compartment on the back. It is sewn on three cords with rose silk pastedowns, boards trimmed with silver cord and all edges gilt.

This discovery, and the attribution, prompted a solid round of ooh-ing and ahh-ing, but then of course raised a number of questions. Namely: was this actually a Little Gidding binding?
Little Gidding was an Anglican community founded by Nicholas Ferrar and his extended family in 1626. The Ferrars had been investors in the Virginia Company, and with the Company’s collapse in 1624 and the Second Pandemic of the plague wreaking havoc in London, the family fled to Little Gidding.  There they turned to their faith, and assumed simple lives lived according to religious doctrine, eschewing material possessions and centering their days on spiritual instruction and prayer.

Nicholas Ferrar, from a portrait by Cornelius Janssens.

The entire family – women included –  were also taught bookbinding by the daughter of a Cambridge bookbinder who was engaged at Little Gidding for this express purpose. With his nieces – particularly Mary Collett – completing the handiwork, Ferrar began creating Harmonies of the Scripture constructed out of clipped passages collaged with illustrations in a process called “pasting-printing.” The result was a parallel telling of Scripture, heavily illustrated, and bound in large folio volumes. The first Harmony took a year to produce, and was finished in 1631. Over the next decade and a half, the family finished at least a dozen more of these Concordances, in addition to a handful of other volumes.

At some point, likely due to a passage in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England in which he states that the women of Little Gidding had their “needles…employed in learned and pious work to binde Bibles,” 17th century embroidered bindings were commonly attributed to Little Gidding, regardless of the lack of concrete evidence to support the claim.  In fact, the confirmed Little Gidding bindings – those on the Harmonies – are characteristically large, cumbersome volumes sewn on an excessive number of cords and covered in gold-tooled velvet or morocco, very much unlike contemporary embroidered bindings.

Decoration on lower cover, back, and upper cover.


In his work English Embroiderd Bookbindings (1899), Cyril Davenport hypothesized that Fuller was misinterpreted, and was simply referring to the technical work of sewing leaves onto cords, and not decorative embroidery. Twenty years later, Henry Plomer reiterated this, furthering the argument with a passage from a petition to Archbishop Laud in response to the new decree of Star Chamber.  The petitioners, a group of milliners who worked in the Royal Exchange, remarked that they employed “Imbroderers” who would regularly bring “rare and curious couers of Imbrothery and needleworke, wherein the petitioners haue used to cause Bibles, Testaments & Psalme Bookes…to be richly bound up for y ͤ Nobility and gentry…” Plomer therefore suggests that the majority of 17th century embroidered bindings were produced by professional embroiderers.

And so the binding on our 1643 Book of Psalms becomes author-less, as is the fate of most of its kind. But while it must certainly be true that the women of Little Gidding did direct their needles to the creation of some embroidered bindings, there is no conclusive evidence that this is one of them. In fact, its being bound on only three cords and its decorative style being unlike other confirmed Gidding bindings serves as evidence against a Gidding attribution. Be that as it may, it is still a wonderful specimen and a treasure to be prized.

Further Reading:

Davenport, Cyril. English Embroidered Bookbindings. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1899.

Gaudio, Michael.  The Bible and the printed image in early modern England: Little Gidding and the pursuit of scriptural harmony. London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Hobson, G.D. Bindings in Cambridge Libraries: Seventy-two plates. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1929.

Plomer, Henry. “More Petitions to Archibishop Laud”. The Library, Third Series, No. 39, Vol. X, July 1919, p.129-132.

Skipton, Horace Pitt Kennedy. The life and times of Nicholas Ferrar. London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1907.

Wilkinson, Jillian. Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding.  http://www.littlegiddingchurch.org.uk/lgchtmlfiles/lgpeople1.html



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