Here's how genuine parchment is prepared by hand

A skilled artisan at work shows how in detail.
Christopher McFadden

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Parchment, or, if made from calfskin, vellum, is one of the oldest writing mediums ever developed by human beings. Pre-dating paper, parchment has been used for writing, drawing, and otherwise visualizing human thoughts for thousands of years. 

Largely replaced by paper today, few people have either seen real parchment or have any inkling into how it is made. We can't really help with the former, but we can reveal the ancient secrets of parchment making here. 

make parchment complete
Source: Interesting Engineering

Step 1: Prepare the animal skin

The first step beyond choosing which animal skin to use, and flaying the skin from an animal, is to prepare it for the parchment-making process. This requires the skin to be soaked in lime to remove contaminants and make it soft and malleable. 

This process also makes it easier for the hair to be removed from the skin. How long the skin remains in the lime bath does vary, but can be as long as a week or more. 

parchment making dehairing
Hair needs to be removed before anything else. Source: Interesting Engineering

Once ready, the skin is removed and placed on a rigid rack. Once there, a sharp curved blade is used to scrape off the hair from the skin. 

This can be quite laborious and usually takes quite a few passes to fully remove all hair. Since the lime solution is very alkaline, gloves are usually worn throughout the process to protect the artisan's hands. 

While some force is needed to remove the hair, the artisan must also take care not to unduly stretch or rip the skin underneath. This is an acquired skill that takes years to fully master.

Step 2: Stretch the skin

The next step is to trim down the de-haired skin to remove any unnecessary or damaged excess. With that done, the skin is then carefully removed from its frame and dunk washed in a pale of clean water.

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This is to remove any excess lime from the skin that can weaken it over time if not fully cleaned off. Once done, the skin is then left to drip and air dry. 

parchment making dry
Source: Interesting Engineering

Once ready, the skins are then ready to be stretched. to do this, the skins are taken to a specially designed skin stretching rack or frame. 

Frame designs do vary widely and traditionally may have only consisted of nailing the skin to a wooden frame. More modern ones, however, make use of special clips attached to a frame to ensure as much of the skin can is left undamaged for conversion into parchment. 

The strings attached to the clips are pulled tight to the frame to stretch the skin out as much as possible without ripping or tearing it. 

parchment making stretching
The skin needs to be stretched prior to use. Source: Interesting Engineering

The skin is then left to fully dry on the rack. Since skin is primarily made of a material called collagen, this process teases out and stretches the fibers over time. 

This allows the parchment to maintain its shape once off the rack. While still on the rack, the artisan will continue to clean up the surface of the skin using a variety of sharp and curved blades. In ancient times, pumice was also used. 

parchment making cleaning
The skin is cleaned while on the stretching frame. Source: Interesting Engineering

This is to ensure the writing surface is as unblemished as possible. It also makes the surface more aesthetically pleasing but also prepares it to better "hold" ink, etc, once complete. 

Other treatments can also be applied to make the parchment remove any remaining grease like powders and pastes of calcium compounds. In yet other cases, parchment can be made smooth and white by rubbing in thin pastes of lime, flour, egg whites, and milk.

Step 3: Completing the parchment

Once the skin has completed its time on the stretching frame, it is carefully removed and rolled for storage. At this point the animal skin has changed from being soft and flexible, to dry and smooth - perfect for writing or drawing on. 

parchment making ready
The parchment is now ready for use. Source: Interesting Engineering

At this point, the parchment can now be either used as is or trimmed down to size. Since the parchment is now paper-like, it can be cut and trimmed using scissors or blades as needed. 

Once ready, it can be drawn on using pencils or pens, or even painted on just like, arguably better than, paper!

If you enjoyed this little insight into an ancient trade, you might enjoy learning about another? How about, for example, discovering how a master blacksmith turns metal ingots into beautiful axe blades

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