Sutures in Sub-Saharan manuscripts

While condition surveying manuscripts in the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, in 2014, I encountered some intriguing repairs in a copy of a collection of Hadiths by Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, probably written in Western Africa around Timbuktu. The tears in the paper folios were repaired with funny seams made of blue or red yarns (Fig.1). Of course, I didn’t venture to pull on the tears to make sure the stitches were solid enough but, when flipping the folios, I realized that these were indeed doing the job ! Without being largely widespread in western African manuscript, this practice of sewing tears is regularly encountered and follows more or less the same pattern: the stitches are made in a staggered arrangement featuring a zipper-like seam.

Collection of Hadiths, MS.707, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar.
Fig.1: Collection of Hadiths, MS.707, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar.

In sewing language, this type of seam is called ‘Baseball stitch’ (Fig.2) which refers as to a butted joint because the edges are separated by the thread itself. Although the ‘baseball stitch’ belongs to another culture, the stitch is solid and effective enough to fit any leather equipment which is extensively used and even manhandled.  We will see in this post that the practice of seam repairing, in Africa, is part of a global social and corporative context.

Fig.2: ‘Baseball stitch’

Going back to our manuscript, several tears were mended in the same way throughout the volume. In figure 1, the stitches are arranged rather evenly, with regular intervals between each punctures. Most of the tears were repaired with the same thick red wool yarn. However, as for one tear, red wool was used at first and then a white cotton thread was used to finished off the work. In another folio a sort of yarn of blue wool helped to secure a straight tear of three centimeters long. These might indicate that several different craftsmen have worked to preserve this book through the course of the time. Someone used a red wool, someone else a white cotton thread and a third person a yarn of blue wool. We can easily imagine that in this peculiar environment of Western Africa, craftsmen used what materials they could find in their stash of supplies. Coloured wool from sheep was a basic material used for all kind of daily and domestic tasks such as weaving and clothes making. Actually this type of mending method involves making punctures with the help of a needle along each side of the tear to allow the passage of the yarn through the holes and therefore reunite both parts together with the seam. One might find disturbing to create a additional damage as the name of punctures, alongside the extant tear. Today, the standard conservation methods adhere to the three main principles of: visibility, reversibility and neutrality. As for book conservation, the current practice tends toward minimal intervention and respect of the traces of the past and the history of the objects. To mend a tear in paper, thin strip of Japanese paper is adhered with a neutral and stable adhesive to safely reunite both sides of the tear.

Collection of Hadith, 19th century, MS.707, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar.
Fig.3: Collection of Hadith, 19th century, MS.707, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar.

Here, we have to put things back into their context. Sub-Saharan manuscripts are constituted of a piles of unbound loose sheets of paper held together inside of a envelope binding made of leather (Fig.3). Unlike their western counterparts, the ‘books’ do not comprise any sewn elements such as the sewing of the quires and the endbands, so that the profession of bookbinder did not properly speaking exist. Leather bindings were made by craftsmen producing leather goods such as bags, shoes, horse and camel saddlery, travel equipment, etc. When a manuscript was damaged, either in the folios or in the binding, its owner could take it to the leather craftsman who would repaired it more or less sympathetically according to his hand skill, tools and materials. Therefore, it is most likely that our manuscript was repaired by a leather craftsman.


African objects of everyday life and musical instruments

In Africa, the deterioration of an object, and in particular of a ritual object, whatever the cause, is not considered only as a material fact. It represents and reveals a dysfunction of the society. The objective of the repair is therefore not to restore the object to its original appearance or legibility, but, in a more subtle way, to give back to the object, whether ritual or customary, a new power and a new life. Beyond the symbolic meaning of repairing, there is of course an economical reason motivated by the scarcity of material resources in these region and the limited means of the populations. This conception is an appeal to our modern society of consumption in which, when a object is broken, it is discarded. Many everyday life objects, ritual artifacts and musical instruments are repaired using a variety of materials although we can notice consistent techniques of repairs.

In 2007, was held a fascinating exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris, entitled “Objets Blessés” which means ‘wounded objects’. The aim of the show, through an engaging narrative focused on four sections (masks and statues, life and survivance of wounded objects, calabash and tribute to the repairers) was to emphasize the significance and the meaning of the African concept of reparation. Calabash is used as kitchen container of small and large size: bowl, basin, pipe, water gourd. When it cracks or splits, women usually are in charge of the repairing job. The principle is to drill two rows of holes on each sides of the crack and tighten this one by tying and braiding bundle of vegetable fibers against the slit with a cotton of any other type of thread (Fig.4). More closely, the repairs of holes and damages in harps made by rodents or handling accidents resemble completely the seams in sub-saharan manuscripts. In the Zandé Harp from Mali, a patch of leather is added in the body of the harp, made with an animal hide, with the staggered stitches (Fig.5).

Fig. 4: Female repairer from Mali fixing a calabash bowl, 2007, Musée du Quai Branly.
Fig. 4: Female repairer from Mali fixing a calabash bowl, 2007, Musée du Quai Branly.
Fig. 5: Zandé Harp from Central Africa, Musée du Quai Branly.
Fig. 5: Zandé Harp from Central Africa, Musée du Quai Branly.

Bahima milk container from Uganda, c. 1950. Source Past Imperfect: the art of inventive repair.
Fig.6: Bahima milk container from Uganda, c. 1950. Source Past Imperfect: the art of inventive repair.

Metal staples are also used for repair purpose and became decorative ornaments on their owns. For instance, in a Bahima milk container from Uganda, the wonderfully graphic indigenous repairs, including zipper-like alternating folded tabs to mend cracks and the coin-shaped plugs to fill holes, are made of recycled aluminum. These metallic sutures recall the tears’ stitching we find in our Sub-Saharan manuscript (Fig.6).

It is interesting to pinpoint that repairers in Africa have a different approach than western conservators. Repairs in African objects are to our western eyes imbued with beauty, creativity and ingenuity but, on the other hand, look interventionist and maybe invasive. In contrast, for trained and graduated conservators, mending must be minimal, discreet while being discernible by the public. For example, if I had had a tear to repair, I would have certainly used a thread of the same color than the paper and I would certainly not have used a thick red thread ! However, the use of wool is justified because it is a soft and flexible material which shapes the paper, whereas a thread of linen or cotton is sharper and stiff and can shear the punctures.


Ethiopic manuscripts

Fig.7:  Ethiopic Manuscript, Or. 17.088, Leiden University Library.
Fig.7: Ethiopic Manuscript, Or. 17.088, Leiden University Library.

From West to East, to the Horn of Africa, the features of the book differ drastically. Unlike their western counterparts, Ethiopic codices are bound with a chain stitch sewing, the text block is secured between two wooden boards covered or not with leather (Fig.7). Another significant  difference is that the text block is made out of parchment whereas sub-Saharan books were written on paper. Besides their structural aspect, Ethiopic books are the support of Christian texts, bible, gospels and psaultiers, written in Amharic script.

These manuscripts are often housed in leather bags or satchels, fitted with a long  strap (Fig.8). Although roughly fabricated, the bags have mostly an utilitarian function: they provide a safe enclosure for the transport of the book on the owner’s shoulder during his long journeys for trade or pilgrimage, in Lalibela for instance. Sometimes the book was also housed in a handmade cloth cover in order to provide an extra protection inside of the leather satchel (Fig.9).

 Ethiopic Manuscript, interior slipcase and satchel in leather, Or. 17.088, Leiden University Library.
Fig.8: Ethiopic Manuscript, interior slipcase and satchel in leather, Or. 17.088, Leiden University Library.
Ethiopic manuscript, The St John's university and the college of St Benedict, USA, Alwan Codex 18.
Fig.9: Ethiopic manuscript, leather satchel and cloth wrapper ,The St John’s university and the college of St Benedict, USA, Alwan Codex 18.

The largest part of the Ethiopian population is of modest condition and the domestic interiors are humbly furnished. The long strap allows the bag to be simply hung on a wooden bar in the main room of the house so that the book is kept away from intruders such as rodents (Fig.10).

Fig.10: Interior of an Abyssinian library, in the Monastery of Souriani on the Natron Lakes, Curzon Robert, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, London, George Newnes, 1897.

The manuscript Or. 17.088 from the special collections of Leiden University Library gives us a great insight into the materiality of an Ethiopic book. The first folio features a long tear within the parchment substrate which has been repaired with the same kind of stitches that we have seen in the sub-Saharan books. Since the parchment is a plastic material, the thread used to repair was pulled out in order to make both sides of the tear meet again (Fig.11). As a result, the holes left by the needle are slightly enlarged. However, the repair is somehow efficient and has survived until today.

Ethiopic manuscript, Or. 17.088 from the special collections of Leiden University Library, repairs of tears with a seam at the recto and verso of the folio.
Fig.11: Ethiopic manuscript, Or. 17.088 from the special collections of Leiden University Library, repairs of tears with a seam at the recto and verso of the folio.

The St John’s university and the college of St Benedict in Minnesota are great repositories of Ethiopian manuscripts. Many volumes features similar type of suture-like repairs which sometimes run from one side of the bifolio straight to the opposite edge (Fig.12). Again, economic reasons are responsible for such practice. The sponsors of manuscripts, as raised before, have limited financial means and could not afford to purchase the best quality skins with no inherent flaws such as moles, scars of ulcers, wounds and insect bites. These accidents were often accentuated during the parchment manufacturing process such as the scraping the skin with the knife and the stretching on the wooden stretcher. The uneven shape of the manufactured parchment is due to the former areas of the spine, the tail and the four legs of the beast. Therefore, bookbinders had to mend the blemishes and accidents in the skins before proceeding to the fabrication of the book. To fill in losses and missing part of parchment support, pieces of other parchment were crudely stitched along the edges of the lacunae. Then the text was naturally written above these additional elements (Fig.13).

Ethiopic manuscript, two long tears due to skin blemishes, repaired with 'baseball stitches'. The St John's university and the college of St Benedict, USA, Alwan Codex 18.
Fig.12: Ethiopic manuscript, two long tears due to skin blemishes, repaired with ‘baseball stitches’. The St John’s university and the college of St Benedict, USA, Alwan Codex 18.
Fig.13: Ethiopic manuscript, the missing parts of the skin are filled in with large patches of parchment attached with running stitches. The St John's university and the college of St Benedict, USA,
Marwick Codex 11
Fig.13: Ethiopic manuscript, the missing parts of the skin are filled in with large patches of parchment attached with running stitches. The St John’s university and the college of St Benedict, USA,
Marwick Codex 11

Fig.14: Repair of the wooden board with sutures, Ethiopian psaultier W-836, Waters Museum, Baltimore, USA.

Wooden boards used for the binding also show similar mending. Note that lots of manuscripts were not covered with leather since the material was too pricey for their patrons. That is why, the exposed wooden boards were more vulnerable to external factors of deterioration and to breakage. However, the splits in the wood were fixed with ligature of cords or other robust threads (Fig.14). Some holes were manually drilled on each side of the split and a cord was passed and tied on the inner side of the board. This method seems to be a more practical, faster and cheaper way of repairing than gluing, joining and letting dry both pieces of board.

If we enlarge the scope of this paper, we find that similar repairs are encountered in other book culture such as in the Hebrew manuscripts. Again, parchment is the support of holy texts and sutures with silk threads are naturally used to repair tears in the folios such as in a 13th century Hebrew Miscellany from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. However, in this precise example, the type of stitch is more simple here: it is a sort of ladder stitch which reunites both sides of the tear (Fig.15).

Hebrew miscellany, 13th century, Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK.
Fig. 15: Hebrew miscellany, 13th century, Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK.

What about western illuminated manuscripts?

Book conservators often find unsympathetic, awkward or horrible repairs within volumes. These, most of the time, represent of a real challenge to the conservator who has to find inventive solutions to take them off with minimal interference with the rest of the volume, support and surface. On the other hand, some striking repairs are encountered in western medieval manuscripts. Scribes and owners have sometimes competed in ingenuity and creativity to conceal, adorn and, in the meantime, to mend tears, holes, losses or skin flaws present in the illuminated pages of a book. Philologists have documented and interpreted these historical repairs which became works of art in their own right and illustrate a sense of aesthetic from previous owners. Regarding the exquisite quality of the needlework made of fine colourful silk threads, which undoubtedly recalls embroidery, Christine Sciacca wrote a fascinating article which delves into special types of embroidery and their role and meaning in the embellishment of medieval manuscripts.

The earliest instances appear, in the mid-12th century, in a group of manuscripts produced at the scriptorium of the Benedictine monastery of Engelberg in the mountains of central Switzerland, and  at the Benedictine abbey of Weingarten in southwestern Germany. Sciacca pinpoints two main types of repairs: the ‘sawtooth stitch’ used to mend the tears, the buckled parts or to attach additional pieces of parchment (Fig.16) and the woven darned stitch made to fill in the hole which are inherent to the skins and were enlarged during the stretching process of the parchment. The latter blemishes feature many kinds of intricate woven network of threads, from the simple openwork embroidery to the more elaborate pattern of the bull’s eye or the cross (Fig.17). Sciacca describes the sawtooth stitch as follows: “In these seams, the stitches extend from each side of the break in the parchment in a series of graduated lengths, creating a row of triangles like the teeth of a saw. These repairs are divided into sections of alternating contrasting colors. The overall effect is that of delicate foliate vines that climb through the text or along the margins of the page” .

ENGLEBERG ABBEY LIBRARY/ COD 37 AND COD 4.
Fig.16: example of sawtooth stitch to mend a tear and attach a new piece of parchment (right)
A example of bull’s eye woven work to fill in a hole. Engleberg Abbey Library. Source.

14th-century manuscript at the Uppsala University Library
Fig.17: elaborated patterns of woven motives to fill in holes in the parchment. 14th century Manuscript at the Uppsala university Library. Source.

As for woven darned repairs, these developed throughout the 13th and 14th century and reached new heights of embellishment at the Augustinian convent of Interlaken in Central Switzerland at the middle of the 15th century. However, this practice seems to have been restricted to the geographical area of central Switzerland and southwestern Germany. An important point is that these repairs were made before the books were bound, as they sometimes extend in the gutter of the volume. Some were even fixed while the skin was still in tension on the stretcher. However, Sciacca raises that nuns or laywomen were probably responsible for these delicate needlework’s. She also emphasizes the role of female monastic patrons in the production of illuminated manuscripts embellished with embroideries.

Usually best materials and skins were reserved for the production of luxury codices, whereas lower quality parchments with blemishes and accidents were conceded to manuscripts of second range for less prestigious patrons. However, it seems that the demand for parchment at that time exceeded the available supply, and thus the scriptoria were forced to use the materials available at hand. However, Behind the practicality or the need of these delightful embroidered repairs, there is a real aesthetic intention motivated by the abbots, the monks and the nuns themselves.


Humans were very much sensible to accidents of life, for themselves but also for the books they cherished. African scholars or believers owned a sole copy of a book in their entire life which were one of their most precious belongings. Copying a manuscript was costly. The price did not only comprise the materials, paper, leather, inks but also the labor of the scribe. In addition, if illuminations and colours were added, the resulting price was of course higher. So, preserving a book for its longevity was therefore a necessity and an deliberate intention from the owner. Similar repairs are also found in few Greek and Latin ancient parchment manuscripts (which I haven’t shown here). I would dare to talk about globalization of practices through the spectrum of material culture. Leather craftsmen have similar thinking process from Ethiopia to America: if something is efficient and sustainable, it is reproduced in different parts of the world for the same purpose.


Further reading

Burgess A. The Artful Imperfection of Medieval Manuscript Repair Old parchment is full of creative Fixes, May 9, 2018.

 Kropf E. Historical Repair, Recycling, and Recovering Phenomena in the Islamic Bindings of the University of Michigan Library: Exploring the Codicological Evidence, in Suave Mechanicals I, Ed. Miller J., The Legacy Press, 2013.

Objets blessés: la réparation en Afrique, exhibition catalogue. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly, 2007.

Sciacca C. 2010. Stitches, Sutures, and Seams: “Embroidered” Parchment Repairs in Medieval Manuscripts, in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Ed. by Netherton R. and Owen-Crocker G.R. The Boydell Press, vol.6: 57-92.

Online exhibits: Ethiopic Manuscript Production

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