Tucked away in the supply drawers of the ISU Library Conservation Lab is a striking, green stingray skin.  The reason for the Conservation Lab’s acquisition of this curious bookbinding leather has been lost in the mists of time.  My only prior experience with stingray leather has been as hilt-wrapping for swords, such as the Japanese iaito pictured below.

The leather protects the hilt of the sword, and its nubbly texture prevents the sword from slipping when being wielded by sweaty hands.  The decorative black wrapping is silk, and also helps the grip by absorbing sweat.

The term shagreen (from the French chagrin) first emerged in the late 17th century, and refers to both sharkskin and stingray leather.  The most characteristic color to dye the leather is green, but it was also commonly left undyed, or dyed red or black.  The leather was traditionally used to cover pocketbooks, small cases, and to bind books.  During the Art Deco period, shagreen became a popular material in furniture design as well.  The calcified “scales” in the leather create a unique tactile experience, in addition to catching the light in a visually appealing way.

UPDATE (December, 2010): I ended up purchasing a wine-colored stingray skin from Talas for a personal art binding, pictured below.  For this half-style binding, I covered the spine and corners with gelatin-size, flax CavePaper, which I waxed and buffed to a slight, leathery sheen.  The boards are covered with the stingray leather, which is onlaid.  Now that I have worked with this type of leather, I would inlay it next time.

Half-style binding with CavePaper spine and corners, and stingray leather board-covering.

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