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Title: Parchment  
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Central European (Northern) type of finished parchment made of goatskin stretched on a wooden frame

Parchment is a material made from animal skin; often calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. Parchment is limed, scraped and dried under tension. It is not tanned; therefore, it is very reactive to changes in relative humidity and will revert to rawhide if overly wet. Increasingly, it is called animal membrane by libraries and museums, to avoid distinguishing between "parchment" and the more restricted term vellum (see below).


  • Parchment and vellum 1
  • History 2
  • Manufacture 3
    • Flaying, soaking, and dehairing 3.1
    • Stretching 3.2
  • Parchment treatments 4
    • Reuse 4.1
  • Jewish parchment 5
  • Additional uses of the term 6
    • Plant-based parchment 6.1
  • Parchment craft 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
    • Notes 9.1
    • Bibliography 9.2
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Parchment and vellum

The term parchment refers to any animal skin, particularly goat, sheep, or cow, that has been scraped or dried under tension. Vellum (from the Old French velin or vellin, and ultimately from the Latin vitulus, meaning a calf) in theory refers exclusively to calfskin,[1] and is used to denote a finer quality of material. It is said to be only in relatively modern times that confusion between the terms has arisen: traditionally the distinction was more strictly observed, for example by lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1755, and by master calligrapher Edward Johnston in 1906.[2] However, when old books and documents are encountered it may be difficult, without scientific analysis, to determine the precise animal origin of a skin in terms of its species, let alone the age of the animal; and for this reason many conservators, librarians and archivists prefer to use either the broader term "parchment", or the neutral term "animal membrane".


German parchmenter, 1568

Parchment was developed in Pergamon, alternately Pergamo [3] from which name it is believed the word "parchment" evolved,[4] under the patronage of either Eumenes I, who ruled 263–241 BCE; or Eumenes II, who ruled 197–158, as a substitute for papyrus, which was temporarily not being exported from Alexandria, its only source.

Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, the 5th century BC; and in his Histories (v.58) he states that the Ionians of Asia Minor had been accustomed to give the name of skins (diphtherai) to books; this word was adapted by Hellenized Jews to describe scrolls.[5] Parchment, however, derives its name from Pergamon, the city where it was perfected (via the Latin pergamenum and the French parchemin). In the 2nd century BC a great library was set up in Pergamon that rivaled the famous Library of Alexandria. As prices rose for papyrus and the reed used for making it was over-harvested towards local extinction in the two nomes of the Nile delta that produced it, Pergamon adapted by increasing use of parchment.

Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however. David Diringer noted that "the first mention of Egyptian documents written on leather goes back to the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2550-2450 BC), but the earliest of such documents extant are: a fragmentary roll of leather of the Sixth Dynasty (c. 24th century BC, unrolled by Dr. H. Ibscher, and preserved in the Cairo Museum; a roll of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1990-1777 BC) now in Berlin; the mathematical text now in the British Museum (MS. 10250); and a document of the reign of Ramses II (early thirtheenth century BC).".[6] Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic literature traditionally maintains that the institution of employing parchment made of animal hides for the writing of ritual objects such as the Torah, mezuzah, and tefillin is Sinaitic in origin, with special designations for different types of parchment such as gevil and klaf.[7] Early Islamic texts are also found on parchment.

In the later Middle Ages, especially the 15th century, parchment was largely replaced by paper for most uses except luxury manuscripts, some of which were also on paper. New techniques in paper milling allowed it to be much cheaper than parchment; it was still made of textile rags and of very high quality. With the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century, the demands of printers far exceeded the supply of animal skins for parchment.

An English deed written on fine parchment or vellum with seal tag dated 1638.

There was a short period during the introduction of printing where parchment and paper were used at the same time, with parchment (in fact vellum) the more expensive luxury option, preferred by rich and conservative customers. Although most copies of the Gutenberg Bible are on paper, some were printed on parchment; 12 of the 48 surviving copies, with most incomplete. In 1490, Johannes Trithemius preferred the older methods, because "handwriting placed on parchment will be able to endure a thousand years. But how long will printing last, which is dependent on paper? For if lasts for two hundred years that is a long time."[8] In fact high quality paper from this period has survived 500 years or more very well, if kept in reasonable library conditions.

The heyday of parchment use was during the medieval period, but there has been a growing revival of its use among artists since the late 20th century. Although parchment never stopped being used (primarily for governmental documents and diplomas) it had ceased to be a primary choice for artist's supports by the end of 15th century Renaissance. This was partly due to its expense and partly due to its unusual working properties. Parchment consists mostly of collagen. When the water in paint media touches parchment's surface, the collagen melts slightly, forming a raised bed for the paint, a quality highly prized by some artists.

A 1385 copy of the Sachsenspiegel, a German legal code, written on parchment with straps and clasps on the binding

Parchment is also extremely affected by its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause buckling. Books with parchment pages were bound with strong wooden boards and clamped tightly shut by metal (often brass) clasps or leather straps;[9] this acted to keep the pages pressed flat despite humidity changes. Such metal fittings continued to be found on books as decorative features even after the use of paper made them unnecessary.[9]

Some contemporary artists prize the changeability of parchment, noting that the material seems alive and like an active participant in making artwork. To support the needs of the revival of use by artists, a revival in the art of making individual skins is also underway. Handmade skins are usually better prepared for artists and have fewer oily spots which can cause long-term cracking of paint than mass-produced parchment. Mass-produced parchment is usually made for lamp shades, furniture, or other interior design purposes.[10]

The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus can be applied to parchment as well. They do not date the age of the writing but the preparation of the parchment itself. However, radiocarbon dating can often be used on the inks that make up the writing, since many of them contain organic compounds such as plant leachings, soot, and wine.


Parchment is prepared from pelt, i.e., wet, unhaired, and limed skin, by drying at ordinary temperatures under tension, most commonly on a wooden frame known as a stretching frame.[11]

Flaying, soaking, and dehairing

After being flayed, the skin is soaked in water for about a day. This removes blood and grime from the skin and prepares it for a dehairing liquor.[12] The dehairing liquor was originally made of rotted, or fermented, vegetable matter, like beer or other liquors, but by the Middle Ages an unhairing bath included lime. Today, the lime solution is occasionally sharpened by the use of sodium sulfide. The liquor bath would have been in wooden or stone vats and the hides stirred with a long wooden pole to avoid human contact with the alkaline solution. Sometimes the skins would stay in the unhairing bath for eight or more days depending how concentrated and how warm the solution was kept—unhairing could take up to twice as long in winter. The vat was stirred two or three times a day to ensure the solution's deep and uniform penetration. Replacing the lime water bath also sped the process up. However, if the skins were soaked in the liquor too long, they would be weakened and not able to stand the stretching required for parchment.[12]


After soaking in water to make the skins workable, the skins were placed on a stretching frame. A simple frame with nails would work well in stretching the pelts. The skins could be attached by wrapping small, smooth rocks in the skins with rope or leather strips. Both sides would be left open to the air so they could be scraped with a sharp, semi-lunar knife to remove the last of the hair and get the skin to the right thickness. The skins, which were made almost entirely of collagen, would form a natural glue while drying and once taken off the frame they would keep their form. The stretching aligned the fibres to be more nearly parallel to the surface.

Parchment treatments

To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more suitable for the scribes, special treatments were used. According to Reed there were a variety of these treatments. Rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth and to modify the surface to enable inks to penetrate more deeply. Powders and pastes of calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run. To make the parchment smooth and white, thin pastes (starchgrain or staunchgrain) of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins.[13]

Meliora di Curci in her paper "The History and Technology of Parchment Making" notes that parchment was not always white. "Cennini, a 15th century craftsman provides recipes to tint parchment a variety of colours including purple, indigo, green, red and peach." The Early medieval Codex Argenteus and Codex Vercellensis, the Stockholm Codex Aureus and the Codex Brixianus give a range of luxuriously produced manuscripts all on purple vellum, in imitation of Byzantine examples, like the Rossano Gospels, Sinope Gospels and the Vienna Genesis, which at least at one time are believed to have been reserved for Imperial commissions.

Many techniques for parchment repair exist, to restore creased, torn, or incomplete parchments.


During the seventh through the ninth centuries, many earlier parchment manuscripts were scrubbed and scoured to be ready for rewriting, and often the earlier writing can still be read. These recycled parchments are called palimpsests. Later, more thorough techniques of scouring the surface irretrievably lost the earlier text.

Jewish parchment

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment.

The way in which parchment was processed (from hide to parchment) has undergone a tremendous evolution based on time and location. Parchment and vellum are not the sole methods of preparing animal skins for writing. In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14B) Moses writes the first Torah Scroll on the unsplit cow-hide called gevil.

Parchment is still the only medium used by traditional religious Jews for Torah scrolls or tefilin and mezuzahs, and is produced by large companies in Israel. For those uses, only hides of kosher animals are permitted. Since there are many requirements for it being fit for the religious use, the liming is usually processed under supervision of a qualified Rabbi.[14]

Additional uses of the term

In some universities, the word parchment is still used to refer to the certificate (scroll) presented at graduation ceremonies, even though the modern document is printed on paper or thin card; although doctoral graduands may be given the option of having their scroll written by a calligrapher on vellum. The University of Notre Dame still uses animal parchment for its diplomas. Similarly, University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University use goat skin parchment paper for their degrees.

Plant-based parchment

Vegetable (paper) parchment is made by passing a waterleaf (an unsized paper like blotters) made of pulp fibers into sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid hydrolyses and solubilises the main natural organic polymer, cellulose, present in the pulp wood fibers. The paper web is then washed in water, which stops the hydrolysis of the cellulose and causes a kind of cellulose coating to form on the waterleaf. The final paper is dried. This coating is a natural non-porous cement, that gives to the vegetable parchment paper its resistance to grease and its semi-translucency.

Other processes can be used to obtain grease-resistant paper, such as waxing the paper or using fluorine-based chemicals. Highly beating the fibers gives an even more translucent paper with the same grease resistance. Silicone and other coatings may also be applied to the parchment. A silicone-coating treatment produces a cross-linked material with high density, stability and heat resistance and low surface tension which imparts good anti-stick or release properties. Chromium salts can also be used to impart moderate anti-stick properties.

Parchment craft

Historians believe that parchment craft originated as an art form in Europe during the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Parchment craft at that time occurred principally in Catholic communities, where crafts persons created lace-like items such as devotional pictures and communion cards. The craft developed over time, with new techniques and refinements being added. Until the sixteenth century, parchment craft was a European art form. However, missionaries and other settlers relocated to South America, taking parchment craft with them. As before, the craft appeared largely among the Catholic communities. Often, young girls receiving their first communion received gifts of handmade parchment crafts.

Although the invention of the printing press led to a reduced interest in hand made cards and items, by the eighteenth century, people were regaining interest in detailed handwork. Parchment cards became larger in size and crafters began adding wavy borders and perforations. In the nineteenth century, influenced by French romanticism, parchment crafters began adding floral themes and cherubs and hand embossing.

Parchment craft today involves various techniques, including tracing a pattern with white or colored ink, embossing to create a raised effect, stippling, perforating, coloring and cutting. Parchment craft appears in hand made cards, as scrapbook embellishments, as bookmarks, lampshades, decorative small boxes, wall hangings and more.

See also



  1. ^ Thomson, Roy (2007). Conservation of leather : and related materials (Repr ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Brookes' Universal Gazetteer (1850) page 592.
  4. ^ "parchment (writing material) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". 2012. Retrieved 23 May 2012. 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ David Diringer, The Book before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental, Dover Publications, New York 1982, p. 172.
  7. ^ Maimonides, Hilkhoth Tefillin 1:3.
  8. ^ as quoted in David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order Cambridge University Press, 2003
  9. ^ a b "Clasps, Furniture, and Other Closures". Hand Bookindings. Princeton University Library. 2004. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  10. ^ For examples of current artists using parchment see:
    • Contemporary Illumination
    • The St. John's Bible,
    • More Contemporary Illumination.
    For example of current parchment makers see:
    • Parchmenter.
    • Kare Parchment.
  11. ^ Reed, Ronald (1972). Ancient Skins Parchments and Leathers. London: Seminar Press. 
  12. ^ a b Reed, 1975.
  13. ^ See for example recipes in the Secretum Philosophorum
  14. ^ Information Leaflet by Vaad Mishmereth Staam.


  • Eisenlohr, Erika (1996), "Die Kunst, Pergament zu machen", in Lindgren, Uta, Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800 bis 1400. Tradition und Innovation (4th ed.), Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, pp. 429–432,  
  • di Curci, Meliora. (2003) The History and Technology of Parchment Making.
  • Hasewint, Inden W. (2001) Tor Parchment Prepared According to Mediaeval Recipes.
  • Reed, Ronald. (1975). The Nature and Making of Parchment. Leeds, England: Elmete Press
  • Roberts, Colin H.; Skeat, T. C. (1983), The Birth of the Codex, London: Oxford University Press,  
  • Murray, Fiona, "Parchment Craft" in Australian Paper Crafts, No 23 2003, Pride Publishing, Rozelle NSW,pp 10–13

Further reading

  • Dougherty, Raymond P., 1928. "Writing upon parchment and papyrus among the Babylonians and the Assyrians", in Journal of the American Oriental Society 48, pp 109–135.
  • Reed, Ronald. 1972. Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers. Seminar Press. ISBN 0-12-903550-5
  • Reed, Ronald. The Making and Nature of Parchment. Leeds: Elmete Press, 1975
  • Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: the History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. New York: Dover Publications, 1978, c1947
  • Ryder, Michael L., 1964. Parchment: its History, Manufacture and Composition. Journal of the Society of Archivists. URL: accessed Nov 20, 2008
  • Outlines of industrial chemistry By Frank Hall Thorp, Warren Kendall Lewis
  • The Natural History of the Raw Materials of Commerce By John Yeats

External links

  • Preservation of 18th Century Parchment | "From the Stacks" at New-York Historical Society
  • On-line demonstration of the preparation of vellum from the BNF, Paris. Text in French, but mostly visual.
  • Meir Bar-Ilan, "Parchment"
  • Lacus Curtius Website: Liber: Roman book production
  • Parchment - The Online Encyclopedia
  • Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production -Parchment
  • Traditional Restoration Techniques: Parchment
  • The History and Technology of Parchment Making - Lochac College of Scribes
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