Parchment Project

Most people don't know what parchment is and if they know, they couldn't identify whether a book's pages are paper or parchment- even with a magnifying glass!

Is it parchment, paper, parchment paper, vellum, transparent vellum.... And isn't parchment a form of paper? Give me a break. Misunderstandings abound!

I could and over the years have spent hours correcting the most common assumptions about parchment and vellum. However, often just touching and smelling a full piece of untrimmed parchment quickly debunks the most common assumptions.

Let's start with basics: paper, paryrus and parchment are all writing surfaces, however, Papyrus and Parchment are NOT Paper.

Paper is felted cellulose fibers.  Rag paper is made of small, lint-like fibers created by beating natural fabric (most often cotton or hemp) into a pulp. The small cellulose fibers are put into a vat of water and scooped up with a framed screen or deckle. As water drains from the fibers they become a cohesive, felted sheet. Once dried it is paper.

Traditional Papyrus is made from strips of the inner core of papyrus reeds. The wet strips are arranged in at least three layers with the middle layer perpendicular to the outer layers. After being arranged into this sandwich, all three layers are hammered together with a mallet. This binds the three layers into a cohesive sheet.

Parchment is very different. Parchment is made from animal skins. Parchment is not leather. Leather is tanned. Parchment is not raw hide. The major difference between raw hide and parchment is that parchment must be stretched and dried under tension. This is what gives parchment its exceptional durability and flexibility.

Walking into a room and seeing parchment stretched on a frame can be startling. It is visually riveting. And once seen it cannot be unseen. You will never forget that parchment is animal skin.

Seeing a full, untrimmed stretched sheet of parchment is both impressive and instructive. The details of the skin are there in plain sight- the spine, pelvis, neck, whiter and thinner stomach, etcetera.

Most people never have a chance to see a piece of real animal skin parchment, and if they do, it is under glass where they can neither touch not smell it! This is where I have to give a shout out to Jesse Meyer at Pergamena. Jesse is one of the few living parchmenters in the United States. He sells his skins to artists, educators, conservators, museums and educational institutions. And I have been fortunate to both hire him and collaborate with him.

In 2010 Jesse made a piece of parchment for an exhibit that I curated at the 42nd Street New York Public Library. People were invited to touch and smell the parchment. And a couple of years ago The Mystic Seaport Museum had an exhibit on the Vinland Maps. Jesse made a framed piece of goat skin parchment and I wrote and illuminated a brief description of how parchment is made onto the skin.

Enter William Minter, head book conservator at Penn State University's new Libraries Conservation Center. This stat of the art conservation center is developing a teaching collection. We created a similar illuminated stretched parchment.

It was installed just this year in mid September for a for a ribbon cutting/opening ceremony and conference.