I’ve been working with parchment and vellum for over 35 years.
I started as a hand bookbinder and then pivoted to working on custom furniture and architectural elements for the interior design trade. I now design and produce furniture and objects that incorporate surface finishes of parchment, water gilding, and leatherwork. I also teach the techniques I work with to emerging and professional creatives.
This article offers insight into the particulars of how parchment and vellum is made and the specifications associated with each type of skin. I hope you find this information useful for sourcing and using this luxury material in your prospective projects.
Parchment & Vellum Defined
Parchment and Vellum Defined
Parchment and vellum are prepared from the skin of an animal: typically goat, calf, and sheep; less typically deer, ostrich, horse, pig, alligator, rabbit, squirrel or fish, (among others).
The mammalian skins are processed in a lime bath and (usually) dehaired. The pelt is then stretched and held under tension on a frame, and dried at room temperature. In some cultures, this frame is called a herse (old English spelling).
This mechanical process, stretching the wet pelt while it is drying, is what distinguishes parchment and vellum from leather. During stretching, some of the fibers are broken under the tension, allowing the remaining fibers to become aligned into layers, parallel to the grain and flesh surfaces. While the pelt dries the fibers are set into the stretched alignment by a pelt fluid, endemic to the skin, which acts as an adhesive. Once dry, the fibers do not revert to their soft relaxed state, but instead create a highly taut sheet which is smooth, strong and semi-elastic (Reed, Ronald. The Nature and Making of Parchment. Leeds: The Elmete Press, 1975. Print. pg. 44).
Sourcing & Specifications of Animal Type
Sourcing and Specifications of Animal Type
Today parchment and vellum are manufactured on every continent except Antarctica. In the Americas, it is typically sourced either domestically or from Europe--available from both tannery manufacturers and wholesale/retail businesses. I have included sources in the vendor list.
Parchment and vellum are utilized by a wide range of craftspeople and professions: furniture designers like myself; bookbinders; calligraphers and lettering artists; illustrators; letterpress printers; lampshade makers; visual artists; jewelers; sculptors; conservators; and makers of string and percussion instruments.
When purchasing the material, I prefer to support tannery manufacturers, as they have knowledge and experiential understanding and can be specific about their sourcing and their process. They also have a greater handle on what their inventory is so they can credibly assist with custom orders.
It’s of huge benefit to develop good relationships with the businesses that actually produce the parchment. These relationships allow you to be more involved with selecting the skins, giving you more control over the quality and size needed for your project. Developing strong relationships with tanneries also allows you to gather more insight into the business and craft of parchment making.
The best way to obtain skins is to do so in person. Some tanneries and retailers will allow you to cull through inventory and select skins by appointment. This is also a great way to pick up anomaly skins -- one-of-a-kind pieces that can be particularly good for a single use project such as a design binding, botanical drawing or small object.
If you are not able to select skins in person and have to order a shipment, I would suggest ordering a percentage of extra skins to assure that you will end up with enough selection for your project. When I bid for jobs I include 10% - 25% for extra skins. The range reflects the type of skin specified (some skin types have more consistency than others) and how discerning the client is.
All vellum and parchment varies in shade and markings - both from skin to skin and within an individual skin. This variation tells the story of an animal’s life. Species, gender, age, nutrition, health, and geography all affect the grain pattern and visual appeal of each skin. This is where it gets interesting. That said, there are characteristics that distinguish each species of animal skin. The three most available types of parchment and vellum are calfskin, goatskin and sheepskin.
Calfskin vellum is characterized by a smooth surface, a subtly dense and random follicle pattern, and faint veining patterns. Calfskin is the only animal type that is always considered vellum. It is typically produced as Manuscript Vellum, Classic Calfskin Vellum, and Natural Calfskin Vellum. Manuscript and Classic Vellum are known to have a soft creamy white color and vary the least skin to skin. Natural Calfskin Vellum varies the most in tone and color pattern due to its melanin characteristics. Think of a beautiful cow out in a field with a coat of brown or black and white areas of the hair and skin; that pattern and coloration shows up on a natural skin.
Calfskins average in size from 5 to 10 square feet (0.4 sq. M – 0.9 sq. M). The average maximum usable area is 22″ x 32″ (560 mm X 813 mm). As an animal type, calfskins tend to run slightly larger than goat or sheepskins.
Goatskin Vellum or Parchment
Goatskin vellum and parchment
Goatskin vellum and parchment is characterized by its prominent grain structure and a follicle pattern consisting of rows of hair pores which are (for the most part) predominantly parallel. The grain surface is smooth and dense. Depending on the country of origin, goatskin may be referred to as parchment or vellum, but more typically it is referred to as goatskin parchment. It is produced as White Goatskin, Creamy White Goatskin and Natural Goatskin. The grain structure is unique to each skin, with the variations in color, texture and pattern being more noticeable in the Natural Goatskin than in the White and Creamy White versions.
Goatskins average in size from 5 to 9 square feet (0.4 sq. M – 0.85 sq. M). The average maximum usable area is 22″ x 30″ (560 mm X 760 mm).
Sheepskin parchment is characterized by a finer grain pattern than goatskin, and is generally lighter, thinner and more pliable. Sheepskin is always referred to as parchment. It is produced as White Sheepskin Parchment, Creamy White Sheepskin Parchment and Natural Sheepskin Parchment.
Sheepskins average in size from 4 to 7 square feet (0.37 sq. M – 0.65 sq. M). The average maximum usable area is 15″ x 22″ (381 mm X 560 mm)
Pricing for Skins of Parchment and Vellum
Pricing for skins
Pricing for skins typically ranges from $15 to $40 per square foot or $105 - $280 per skin. Price is determined by type and grade of skin and the origin of manufacture. For example, Manuscript Vellum is very labor intensive to make and requires a premium select skin, and therefore it is more expensive than sheepskin, which is easily sourced and less complex to produce. Cost is also influenced by where the skin comes from. Skins sourced from overseas are subject to fluctuating currency exchange and customs fees, both of which add to the cost.
Dyed Parchment and Vellum
Dyed Parchment and Vellum
Vellum and Parchment can be dyed to a custom color. Using dyed skins offers an unusual design opportunity to enhance the individual qualities of parchment and vellum for a distinct project. The process and results for a custom dyed order vary based on the type of animal skin and the manufacturer's dyeing and production techniques.
Dyed parchment and vellum skins are best suited for projects where variation from skin to skin, and within the area of each skin, is considered in the scope of the design. The process isn’t for someone who wants even and consistent color from skin to skin, such as what is more typical with leather. Instead, dyeing parchment and vellum produces more variation. This is due to the molecular structure of the skin: some areas are made up of a variety of dense, tightly bound fiber structures while others have more open fiber structures. For instance, at the spine the structure is dense and so the color tends to be darker. At the periphery, around the area of the belly, the fibers are more open and therefore the color tends to be lighter. This variety of fiber structures results in the skin taking on the dye color in random, natural variations of shades and tones. The dying process introduces not only color, but also texture and visual complexity.
For custom dyed parchment and vellum all the costs are borne by the customer. This includes time, materials, and shipping for color testing and approval, as well as the final production and shipping. There is usually an extended time frame for production depending on the tannery’s schedule. Often the lead time for an order of custom dyed skins can be several weeks.
Below are the businesses I have worked with or those whose parchment and vellum I have seen in person. If you know of other parchment tanneries or vendors that are not on this list, I’d love to know about them. Please feel free to contact me and share!
I would like to thank the businesses and individual employees who manufacture these materials. Making parchment and vellum is a messy, smelly, and laborious artisanry. Every time I purchase skins I am grateful there are businesses that continue to make this rare and exquisite material.