Parchment. Now and Then

Everybody knows that one of the great breakthroughs which mark the beginning of culture was the possibility of writing. Allowing to record events, stories and everything associated with culture. The first revolution was done by the Babylonians who used tablets of clay to write all the information with its cuneiform calligraphy. The reason for using clay is because there was a great quantity along the river plains of Mesopotamia, from there this support was used across Europa and Egypt.

But around the 3000BC, the Egyptians provoked the second “writing” evolution with the creation of papyrus. A really smooth and flexible surface that would accept inks without blur or smudge. The Papyrus plant that grew in the riverbanks of the Nile, would be reborn in this material which would be used by every country for a lot of millennia. Below these lines, there is an extract from the article “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt” from the Metropolitan Museum of art. This paragraph will help you understand the why of something I will explain later.

In ancient Egyptian cosmology, the world was created when the first god stood on a mound that emerged from limitless and undifferentiated darkness and water, a mythical echo of the moment each year when the land began to reappear from beneath the annual floodwaters. Papyrus marshes were thus seen as fecund, fertile regions that contained the germs of creation. Ceilings in temples and tombs were frequently supported with columns in the form of papyrus plants, turning their architectural settings into models of this primaeval marsh. Papyrus thickets were seen as liminal zones at the edges of the ordered cosmos, symbols of the untamed chaos that surrounded and perpetually threatened the Egyptian world. Teeming with wild birds and fish as well as dangerous animals such as hippopotami and crocodiles, all seen as incarnations of Egypt’s enemies, these were the setting for ritual hunts. The single-handed defeat of these chaotic creatures by a king or noble, often depicted on the walls of temples and elite tombs, was emblematic of the maintenance of the ordered cosmos against the forces of entropy.

But even though the papyrus was a commodity widely used, there was a more luxurious version reserved only for the sacred manuscripts and other kinds of religious documents. It has been known that animal skins were used as a writing surface by some cultures since ancient time. These skins were cleaned, tanned and smoothed (Persians were an example of culture who used this writing method), but there was a problem, with the passing of time the skins get old and lose its natural oils, as a consequence, there is a high risk that these scriptures would disappear over time. The only ones that reached our days were those which were in dry countries, like Egypt.

It was around the second century BCE a new technique to transform animal skins into a writing surface was born. This technique allowed to create a surface that could be written on both sides. This was parchment. Below some lines written by Theodore Bernhardt in “The Papyri Pages” explaining the process to create these materials.

Parchment was produced by washing liming, stretching and scraping animal skins.  Rubbing with pumice and whitening with chalk completed the processing and produced a smooth, thin writing material.  The skins from sheep, goats, and calves were most frequently used.  The finest parchment was called vellum and was made from the skins of calves and kids.    Also, the skins of newly-born or still-born calves and goats were especially prized for use in making the finest and most delicate parchments.   Today, the terms parchment and vellum are often used interchangeably.  The word parchment is derived from the name of the Greek city of Pergamon (today’s  Bergama in Turkey) which was a main centre of production and traditionally considered to be the place where it was first made.


Parchment, like leather, was used to making scrolls, however, parchment lent itself best to the codex form of a book.  The Romans used parchment tablets and possibly small “notebooks” for writing drafts and notes.  To protect fragile papyrus scrolls while being handled,  the Romans made covers out of parchment.  These covers were called paenula and were often brightly coloured.  In addition, a small parchment strip, called a titulus or index, was attached to each scroll.  These strips carried the title of the work and were also brightly coloured.


Parchment had many advantages, especially over papyrus.  It was stronger and more durable than fragile papyrus and the raw materials for making it, animal skins, were available everywhere and not limited to one geographic location, namely Egypt.  Parchment could be written on both sides and if necessary, the writing could be erased (which could also be a disadvantage).   Parchment also made an ideal surface for painting.   The colour of parchment ranged from white and off-white to varying shades of yellow.  Expensive coloured parchments of blue, purple, and scarlet were also produced, though their use was generally limited to royal or very important and expensive manuscripts.

For a short period of time, during the introduction of paper as a printing and writing surface, with parchment (vellum) being the luxury option. The peak use of parchment was during the medieval period, but it had ceased to be a primary choice for artist’s supports by the end of the 15th century. It was in the late 20th century that parchment (paper and leather) had a revival thanks to some artist and its uses as a decorative element in furniture.

Circa 1960. Luis Barragan y Hugo Velazquez. Source:Sothebys

Why do we like it?

Firstly, it is warm to the touch and this warmness is increased when we use it for backlighting applications. We also like its versatility, as a surface which can have an incredible texture for pleasant tactile experience and the possibility of being printed with custom designs o using a mould we can give it a 3D textured surface. Would you like a plus? It can have a functional surface too, indeed some of the samples we work with can be treated to be water repellent. How neat is that?

Some of the sample we have with us.

And that is for today. If you wish to know more about this material or how it could be applied to your design concept. Do not hesitate to contact us, as always we would be more than happy to help.

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