Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. Its most common use is as the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is not tanned, but stretched, scraped, and dried under tension, creating a stiff white, yellowish or translucent animal skin. The finer qualities of parchment are called vellum. It is very reactive with changes in relative humidity and is not waterproof.
Plant-based parchment or parchment paper is used in baking and other applications as a substitute for parchment.
Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, the 5th century BC; and in his Histories (v.58) he states that the Ionians of Asia Minor had been accustomed to give the name of skins — diphtherai — to books; this word was adapted by Hellenized Jews to describe scrolls Parchment (pergamenum in Latin), however, is named after the city where it was perfected. In the 2nd century B.C. a great library was set up in Pergamon that rivaled the famous Library of Alexandria. As prices rose for papyrus and the reed used for making it was overharvested towards local extinction in the two nomes of the Nile delta that produced it, Pergamon adapted by increasing use of parchment.
Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however. Some Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts were written on parchment. Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic culture equated a "book" with a parchment scroll. Early Islamic texts are also found on parchment.
One sort of parchment is vellum, a word that is used loosely to mean parchment, and especially to mean fine parchment, but more strictly refers to parchment made from calf skin (although goat skin can be as fine in quality). The words "vellum" and "veal" come from Latin vitulus, "calf", or its diminutive vitellus. In the Middle Ages calfskin and split sheepskin were the most common materials for making parchment in England and France, while goatskin was more common in Italy. Other skins such as those from large animals such as horse and smaller animals such as squirrel and rabbit were also used. Whether uterine vellum (vellum made from aborted calf fetuses) was ever really used during the medieval period is still a matter of great controversy.
There was a short period during the introduction of printing where parchment and paper were used interchangeably: although most copies of the Gutenberg Bible are on paper, some were printed on parchment. In 1490, Johannes Trithemius preferred the older methods, because "handwriting placed on parchment will be able to endure a thousand years. But how long will printing last, which is dependent on paper? For if ...it lasts for two hundred years that is a long time."
The heyday of parchment use was during the medieval period, but there has been a growing revival of its use among contemporary artists since the late 20th century. Although parchment never stopped being used (primarily for governmental documents and diplomas) it had ceased to be a primary choice for artist’s supports by the end of 15th century Renaissance. This was partly due to its expense and partly due to its unusual working properties. Parchment consists mostly of collagen. When the water in paint media touches parchment’s surface, the collagen melts slightly, forming a raised bed for the paint, a quality highly prized by some artists. Parchment is also extremely affected by its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause buckling. Some contemporary artists also prize this quality, noting that the parchment seems alive and like an active participant in making artwork. To support the needs of the revival of use by artists, a revival in the art of making individual skins is also underway. Handmade skins are usually better prepared for artists and have fewer oily spots which can cause long-term cracking of paint than mass-produced parchment. Mass-produced parchment is usually made for lamp shades, furniture, or other interior design purposes.
The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus can be applied to parchment as well. They do not date the age of the writing but the preparation of the parchment itself. However, radiocarbon dating can often be used on the inks that make up the writing, since many of them contain organic compounds such as plant leachings, soot, and wine.
In early days the liquor bath was fermented vegetable matter but by the Middle Ages a lime bath was used to soften the epidermal layer thus allowing the hair to be removed more easily. It is possible that urine was sometimes used as a lime alternative.
The liquor bath would have been in wooden or stone vats and the hides stirred with a long wooden pole to avoid getting the lime on human skin. The skins would stay in the bath for 8 or more days (longer in winter) being stirred two or three times a day.
After being rinsed the skins would be given a second lime bath but care would be taken to not leave the skins in too long or they would be weakened and not able to stand the stretching required for parchment.
The stretching allowed the fibres to become aligned running parallel to the grain. Cords were attached and the skin was stretched on a wooden frame with both sides open so they could be scraped with a sharp, curved knife to remove the last of the hair and get the skin to the right thickness.
The skins, which were made almost entirely of collagen, would form a natural glue while drying and once taken off the frame they would keep their form.
According to Reed there were a variety of these treatments. Rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth so inks would penetrate deep into the fibres.
Powders and pastes of calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run.
To make the parchment smooth and white, thin pastes (starchgrain) of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins.
Meliora di Curci in her paper "The History and Technology of Parchment Making" notes that parchment was not always white. "Cennini, a 15th century craftsman provides recipes to tint parchment a variety of colours including purple, indigo, green, red and peach." The Early medieval Codex Argenteus and Codex Vercellensis, the Stockholm Codex Aureus and the Codex Brixianus give a range of luxuriously produced manuscripts all on purple vellum, in imitation of Byzantine examples, like the Rossano Gospels, Sinope Gospels and the Vienna Genesis, which at least at one time are believed to have been reserved for Imperial commissions.
Parchment is still the only medium used by religious Jews for Torah scrolls or Tefilin and Mezuzahs, and is produced by large companies in Israel. For those uses, only hides of kosher animals are permitted. Since there are many requirements for it being fit for the religious use, the liming is usually processed under supervision of a qualified Rabbi.
In the Indian civilisation, the use of parchment was extremely limited and plant-based materials such as birch bark and palm leaves, as well as paper after the 10th century were used as the common media for codexes, religious and cultural texts.
A common use is to eliminate the need to grease baking sheets and the like, allowing very rapid turn-around of batches of cookies in a commercial bakery. It can also be folded to make moisture-proof packages in which food items are cooked or steamed en papillote.
Standard waxed grease-proof paperwax paper can't be used for cooking as wax will melt.
Historians believe that parchment craft originated as an art form in Europe during the 15th or 16th century. Parchment craft at that time occurred principally in Catholic communities, where crafts persons created lace-like items such as devotional pictures and communion cards. The craft developed over time, with new techniques and refinements being added.
Although the invention of the printing press lead to a reduced interest in hand made cards and items, by the 18th century, people were regaining interest in detailed handwork. Parchment cards became larger in size and crafters began adding wavy borders and perforations.
In the 19th century, influenced by French romanticism, parchment crafters began adding floral themes and cherubs and hand embossing.
Until the 16th century, parchment craft was a European art form. However, missionaries and other settlers relocated to South America, taking parchment craft with them. As before, the craft appeared largely among the Catholic communities. Often, young girls receiving their First Communion received gifts of handmade parchment crafts.
In 1986, Martha Ospina, a Columbian parchment crafter moved to The Neverlands and introduced the craft to that country. In 1988, she created the Pergamano brand of parchment craft supplies and tools. Pergamano International owns the Pergamano brand and continues to supply parchment craft items internationally, as well as offering instruction and registration to people wanting to teach Pergamano parchment craft worldwide.
Parchment craft today involves various techniques, including tracing a pattern with white or colored ink, embossing to create a raised effect, stippling, perforating, coloring and cutting.
Parchment craft appears in hand made cards, as scrapbook embellishments, as bookmarks, lampshades, decorative small boxes, wall hangings and more.