Parchment and vellum making
The making of a writing material from processed animal skin. Vellum refers specifically to calf skin, and parchment to sheep and goat skin.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire|
|Origin in the UK||Roman|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||1-5|
|Current no. of trainees||1 (As of August 2016, Cowleys are advertising for a second)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||2|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||3 (in one business)|
Parchment, which is sheep and goatskin, and vellum, calfskin, have been used for manuscripts for thousands of years. The Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth-century vellum bible now in the British Library, and its pages are flexible and can still be turned easily. As a writing medium, when it is properly prepared, it surpasses any paper, and lasts far longer. Animal skin is also used for drums, book binding and in conservation.
There used to be a parchmenter near most larger towns, using the skins which were a by-product, but now there is only one manufacturer of vellum and parchment, William Cowley or Newport Pagnell. There are two skilled masters and one apprentice.
Lee Mapley, Parchmenter, at William Cowley Parchment Works. Photo: Patricia Lovett MBE
The skins are a by-product of the meat and dairy industry and are prepared by first being soaked in vats of lime-water. The hair is then gently eased out of the skin using a two-handled knife called a scudder. The skins are then stretched out and scraped to raise the nap and create as even a surface as possible, although an animal skin is never as evenly thick as a sheet of paper. Once dry, the skins are cut from the framed and rolled ready for use.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
A lack of understanding is the highest hurdle – so few people even know what vellum is that its significance in documenting mankind’s time on planet Earth has been lost. The recent debate between the House of Commons and The House of Lords is a classic example of ‘short-term thinking’. This attitude is not good for parchment and vellum.
Market issues: In late 2015 it was proposed that vellum would no longer be used for printing Acts of Parliament (this was seen as a potential cost-saving measure), which would have meant the end of business for William Cowley Parchment Makers, the only parchment makers in the UK, and the loss of the craft. However, the HCA analysed the figures and realised the savings would not nearly be as significant as claimed (closer to £37,000pa than the £80,000pa proposed) and launched a campaign to overturn this decision and save the craft. The decision was overturned by the House of Lords in February 2016. The advantages of vellum include: long lasting (2,000 years at least, compared with 200 years for paper); green (skins are a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, and forests aren’t cut down to produce it, nor harsh chemicals used); part of the UK’s heritage (with traditions and practices held in high esteem by other countries). Further details about the campaign can be found here.
Market issues: Vellum scrolls at Buckingham Palace and vellum letters of patent (certificates that grant titles to new lords) have been replaced with cheaper paper versions.
- Association of Gilders
Craftspeople currently known
- William Cowley Parchment Makers – based in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. The only producers of parchment in the UK. William Cowley began in 1850 and was established in 1870, and the firm still uses the same techniques today.