Lee Mapley, the only Master Parchmenter in the UK, scraping a vellum skin © 2013 Patricia Lovett MBE
The Heritage Crafts Association is delighted to report that one of the seventeen critically endangered crafts identified in the Radcliffe Red List for Endangered Crafts is looking for a new trainee. William Cowley Ltd., maker of high quality parchment and vellum, is looking for an additional employee to ensure that craft skills which have been passed down through the generations are continued into the future.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants to learn one of the oldest crafts making a top quality luxury product,” said Patricia Lovett MBE, Vice-Chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. She added: “This affects me personally in my work as a scribe and illuminator as the skins from William Cowley are the best in the world”.
William Cowley is the one remaining maker of vellum and parchment in the UK; vellum and parchment are luxury products used for the highest quality documents, drums and book bindings. Lee Mapley is the only fully qualified master parchmenter in Britain and he will be training the successful applicant.
William Cowley is looking for someone who is not only willing to put in the hard work and dedication to learn the craft but who also has social media experience and IT skills and can help to develop the business.
For information about how to apply, go to www.williamcowley.co.uk/news/an-exciting-and-rare-opportunity.
Heritage crafts have received royal recognition and high honour with three craftspeople included in The Queen’s Birthday Honours Lists this year.
Vellum maker Wim Visscher has been awarded an MBE. Wim is owner of William Cowley, producers of hand-crafted parchment and vellum since 1870, and the last parchment and vellum makers left in the UK. Wim said:
It is a great honour and privilege to be recognised in this way. My father, grandfather and great grandfather, all parchment makers before me, would be amazed if they were here. I am particularly grateful to the Heritage Crafts Association for putting my name forward as a potential recipient for an honour of which I was entirely ignorant until now!
The Association do great work in supporting skilled craftsmen and women. They recognise the long-term environmental and economic benefits of historic crafts which make things that last and look good for life; inspiringly different to the products of our “throw away” society.
Rush worker Felicity Irons has been awarded a BEM. Owner of Rush Matters and supplier of traditional rush flooring to the National Trust as well as creator of a wide range of contemporary work, Felicity has given new life to the ancient craft of rushweaving. Felicity said:
When I first read the letter from the Cabinet Office I thought it must be a hoax. I had to ask my Mum to read it several times for me. She had known about it for ages as she had been working with the Heritage Crafts Association on the nomination! I am just so stunned and still really trying to take it all in. I keep thinking why me; I just go to work every day. It is pretty emotional but wow, it’s amazing.
Photo by Matthew Usher
A BEM has also been awarded to John Lord, master of the ancient craft of flint knapping. He said:
I would like to thank the Heritage Crafts Association for putting my name forward for this National Honour. I accept this award only on behalf of all skilled flint knappers both past and present, and in particular on behalf of our ancient ancestors whose skills will never be equalled.
All three were nominated for their awards by the Heritage Crafts Association. Vice Chair Patricia Lovett MBE, said:
This is tremendous recognition for the skills and expertise of traditional craftspeople. These honours show the very real value of heritage crafts to people’s lives today.
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.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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.
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
Public awareness: 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 £37,000 pa than the £80,000 pa proposed) and launched a campaign to overturn this decision and save the craft. The proposal was rejected by Parliament but the administration of Acts is controlled by the Clerk of Parliament in the House of Lords who stated they did not need a vote to change the material they used for Acts. This was not challenged so only the covers of Acts are now made from vellum. The pages are paper. The 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).
Market issues: Some vellum scrolls at Buckingham Palace and vellum letters of patent (certificates that grant titles to new lords) have been replaced with cheaper paper versions.
Craftspeople currently known
- William Cowley Parchment Makers, 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.