Parchment has been used throughout history to make book covers, lampshades, musical instruments and various other items. The use of parchment as a writing material dates back to the ancient civilisations.

It is made of dried raw hides which have not been tanned, just oiled. Different types of skins can be used to make parchment - from the most common ones like sheep, goat or calf, to pig, buffalo or even donkey hides. As long as the parchment is still wet, it can easily be shaped and stretched. Once dried, it will be too rigid and unworkable.

 

                                  Interwoven parchment     Parchment stitching

The term ‘parchment’ or in latin ‘pergamenum’ comes from the old Greek city of Pergamon. In ancient times this was a thriving city which possessed the second largest library in the known world, after Alexandria. 

Over the centuries, parchment gradually replaced papyrus for writing text. Since the 4th century texts from the papyrus rolls were transferred to parchment. An advantage of this material is its re-usability - content can be deleted by grinding the parchment with rough stones to be re-used again. These are called palimpsest, from the Greek palimpsestos which means ‘scraped again’.  

At the end of the Middle Ages the development of paper-making reduced costs. With the new printing technologies, paper provided a more adequate writing material than parchment which is highly absorbent and not suitable for printing purposes.

Uses of parchment

Parchment was used mostly for lampshades, but this has long been out of fashion. It is still common for upholstery, drums and similar musical instruments.

                                Parchment lampshades     Parchment drums

In Asia, mostly China, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Turkey, shadow plays were very widespread using figures made of parchment and sometimes painted. 

Another surprising use of parchment is for dog chewing bones. These parchment bones do not splinter like real bones and are therefore safe for the dog to chew on. Most chewing bones are made from split leather from cow or buffalo hides, and pressed into shape. 

The oldest vellum record in the British Archives is an Act of Parliament from 1497. Also, one of the most famous documents in the world, the Magna Carta, was written on parchment in England in 1215. Magna Carta is written in calfskin vellum. The House of Lords have recently announced they will be replacing old parchment documents, with the contents transferred onto modern high-quality archival paper. 

This decision has caused something of a stir. Those in favour of parchment say it lasts about 5,000 years, compared to high-quality archival paper which has a 250-year life expectancy. They also argue that the Magna Carta would have been long gone had it been written in paper. And while some animal rights activists challenge using animal skin as unnecessarily cruel when paper is readily available, it should be noted that skins used for parchment come from animals that have already been slaughtered for meat. 

But this is not the first time proposals to get rid of vellum have spurred anger. Back in 1999, when the House of Lords voted to abolish vellum, the move was defeated by the House of Commons.

Care recommendation for parchment

Parchment is a very durable material, but almost impossible to repair if it gets damaged, stained or becomes deformed.

Dust down with a dry cloth or brush to clean it. Do not clean with water as it will soften the parchment.

Normally parchment does not require any maintenance, but if it is extremely dry, apply an oil spray directly on to the surface or with a cloth. It is important with parchment not to over apply the product as it is very sensitive when wet.

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Top tips!

  • Don’t get parchment wet as it will soften.
  • The UK Parliament have published this article recently about this changes.
  • The NY Times also wrote about parchment - you can read the article here.