Parchment! Making Manuscript Material from Animal Skin

Parchmenters’ selfie.

We made parchment! We lucked out and got some warm weather into October this year – just enough to get outside and make parchment with students in my Material Analysis: Manuscripts Across Cultures course. A fresh goat skin was procured from the talented Jesse Meyer, a parchment maker who runs Pergamena in upstate New York, and with the help of Bill Voss [UI Book Conservation Tech] we managed to get the job done.


Parchment is a high tension sheet material, used across cultures as a substrate for writing sacred and secular texts – as well as for binding and covering books. Certain religious traditions still dictate the use of parchment for sacred books – such as the Torah scroll. In the Islamic tradition, it was early on superseded by paper, which was introduced through trade and cultural contact with communities in east Asia via the Silk Road. Europeans used parchment until paper became readily available, an increase that was fueled by adoption of the printing press in the mid 15th century. Parchment was difficult to print on – early printers tried this [15th-c. examples exist in most Special Collections]! It was also too expensive, considering the volume that was required to meet the demands of the new printing press.

Hair sheep – the original sheep.

Parchment can be made out of any animal skin [yes, any], but the parchment found in manuscripts is generally from sheep, hair sheep [an old variety of sheep used for meat, not wool], goat, calf, and wild hoofed animal [such as deer, gazelle, etc.]. The term ‘vellum’ shares its root with the word ‘veal’ and, strictly speaking, only refers to parchment made from calf skin. Parchment made from unborn or uterine calf, called slunk, was rare but prized because it was quite smooth and could be made very thin.

It was long believed that the tissue thin parchment used to make thousands of popular pocket bibles in medieval France was uterine calf or sheep. However, a fascinating 2015 study debunked this notion [see Fiddyment et al.,  ‘Animal Origin of 13th-century Uterine Vellum Revealed Using Noninvasive Peptide Fingerprinting’]. A team of researchers extracted parchment proteins from over 500 manuscript leaves [including samples from 72 bibles from France, England, and Italy] to determine that the parchment used was not uterine. Instead, the researchers concluded that the thinness was achieved by the parchmenter, not through a selection of unborn animals – a practice that would have been unsustainable for obvious reasons. The research methods used are revolutionary, since previous studies had to rely on taking small clippings of manuscripts and conducting tests that were destructive. The new technique extracts proteins by rubbing a small white [PVC] eraser on the parchment surface – a process that electrostatically transfers a fine layer of membrane onto the eraser for testing. Part [or all?] of the team of conservators, scientists, historians, and art historians who completed this study are continuing with their studies of parchment animal origin, testing each leaf of an entire manuscript instead of a sampling of leaves. In a recent study, they have been able to non-destructively analyze the animal origin of all the parchment skins used in on single medieval manuscript, a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Luke. Testing revealed that the manuscript was comprised of not one animal type, but a mix of animal skins – including sheep, goat and calf [as well as deer leather on the covers]. Their next step is to build a genealogical tree, linking the DNA evidence to the individual animals and tracing their relationships within the herd or herds. This type of analysis has wide-reaching implications for economic, social and cultural history, since it reveals information about animal husbandry, trade patterns, and a range factors affecting the production of texts. And it’s pretty cool to see what can be accomplished when a team of scholars and scientists gets together to work on a problem – a little zooarchaeology and mass spectrometry and bam – a longstanding controversy in manuscript studies is solved!

I could go on and on about parchment – but I’ll share just one more anecdote. I remember my first experience with parchment was in Florence, Italy, where I was an art history graduate student at Syracuse University. Working in the Florentine archives and libraries was an eye-opening experience, and I saw manuscripts and documents written on parchment [and paper] that were hundreds of years old – most of which had held up well. I worked on a research project on parchment in our Intro to Art Conservation course and discovered Christopher Clarkson’s 1992 essay on parchment, a piece that was foundational for my understanding of the material. ‘Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast’ in The Paper Conservator, Vol. 16, Issue 1. pp. 5-26. Takeaways are – parchment is a high tension sheet material that is hygroscopic, sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Also, it used to be on an animal and different parts of the skin stretch and expand more than others [neck, hips, around the legs] – look for these differences the next time you look at a manuscript [waves and curling at the top and bottom, foredge, etc.]. Even after it is dry, parchment wants to stretch, shrink and move – and the job of book covers, straps, and clasps is to keep it flat!

Parchment maker scudding a skin. Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwolfbrüderstiftungen [Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, MS Amb. 317b, fol. 77r]
The parchment making process begins the same as all leather tanning and tawing processes – the hair and flesh are removed from the animal skin. The skin is soaked in a lime solution and then ‘scudded’ over a board to remove the hair. The image shows the parchmenter at work, removing hair from the skin with the bowed scudding knife and board. The vat for soaking skins is to his left, below a shelf with books [with spines facing out]. This is the messy, smelly bit that requires soaking time and wet space that you don’t mind getting dirty. We started with a de-haired and de-fleshed goat skin.


A weaver’s knot.

Our skin was fresh, but you can also start with a rawhide [dehaired, defleshed skin that has been dried]. Parchment makers say that a fresh skin is more flexible and easier to stretch thin [which makes sense], but I haven’t noticed a difference in the few I’ve used. After rinsing the skin, we strung it up on a frame that I’d built out of 2x4s with holes around the perimeter to lace cord through. The ties have to pull the skin with equal tension on all sides. The skin is quite slippery, so this is the challenging part. Bill Voss and I made parchment last fall for the Mellon Sawyer Seminar and eventually found the right string [thin, strong and rough] and the right knot [slip knot or a weaver’s knot]. We cinched the cord up around gatherings of skin which were wrapped over a small stone, marble or wad of paper to form a knob [something for the rope to grab on to].


Once the skin was strung up, we drew a special blade across the surface to stretch it and reorient the fiber so the skin dries flat and taut. Bill is an extraordinary tool maker and made a beautiful lunarium – a double-handled half moon blade – for the job. It needs to be sharpened periodically.

As the skin was scraped, it stretched and continuously needed to be retightened. The goal is to reorient fibers of the skin and allow it to dry under tension. A dry parchment sheet is always under tension and this is why parchment manuscripts needed to be put into bindings with heavy wooden covers with clasp enclosures, to prevent them from popping open and moving around – which is what they’ll do left to their own devices.

img_4423.jpgWe got the skin stretched and both the hair and flesh sides scraped. The next step was to let it dry and sand it to a finished surface, which I did the following day. Traditionally scrapers could be used, or pumice cakes [ground glass baked into cakes] to sand the skin smooth. The skin has two sides – hair and flesh sides. The side the hair was on [hair side] tends to be smooth and shiny [and resistant to ink], and hair follicles are usually visible. The side facing the animal is the flesh side and tends to be soft with rough bits. It is soft and fuzzy after being scraped – so the trick is to buff the hair side up to match the flesh side, making it suitable for writing. Although if you want to use your parchment for book covers, in the limp parchment cover style, you might want to leave the hair side as is [and put it on the book hair side out].

I used a palm sander to smooth both sides of the skin, with sand paper of varying grits [rough to smooth]. The skin was then cut off the frame and was ready to be cut down for the covers or bifolia [folded sheets] of a manuscript. I divvied the sheet up between Bill and the students who helped make it.

Understanding how this material was made added to students’ understanding of why European parchment manuscripts had to be covered with heavy wooden boards and clasps to keep the books shut and keep the parchment from warping with changes in temperature and humidity. We talked about this as we were making the parchment and noticing it’s pull on the ties as it dried. In a European climate, with seasonal swings in temperature and humidity, parchment wants to move! The heavy boards and clasps keep them in place. Without these, parchment can warp, curl and crease, damaging text and image. The image below illustrates this – from a parchment manuscript in UI Collection that lost is straps and clasps long ago and has now warped, with parchment curling into quill-like spirals [xMMs.Miss1]. Early Islamic manuscripts were produced on parchment, but were more stable in the arid climate of the Middle East and North Africa [and Islamic manuscript production soon switched to paper].


It was a thrill to have made our own parchment! Having just made paper, we compared the time it took to make our 50 sheets of paper vs. 1 sheet of parchment. From papermaker Tim Barrett’s research, we know that 2,000 sheets of paper could be produced by a 3-person papermaking team in one day. I don’t know the statistics on how many sheets of parchment could be made in one day by three parchmenters [15 skins?], but it was clear that parchment making was much more labor intensive – especially considering it took several hours to process one skin – and that’s without killing and skinning the goat, scudding and de-fleshing the skin! This really brings home the economics of book production in the medieval and early modern world. Parchment books were expensive – even before they even were scribed and decorated. The shift to printed books on paper in the mid-15th century was monumental. It transformed the book market, contributed to the distribution of books to a wider audience, and dramatically increased literacy from the 16th-century onward. Parchment manuscripts continued to be produced, but printed books were on the rise, and the role of paper in this transformation should not be underestimated!

Melissa Moreton

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