September 23, 2014

Making Parchment: An Ancient Craft

**This post might be upsetting for some, such as vegetarians. Parchment is made from animal skins, mainly calf, goat, and sheep; I use it for my paintings. Please do not scroll down if this will bother you.**

Before paper was invented, animal skins were used for writing and painting. The word parchment comes from Pergamon, the ancient Greek city in Asia minor; when papyrus became unavailable, in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the process of parchment making was perfected there. I attended a fascinating workshop last week, hosted by the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth College, taught by Jesse Meyer of Pergamena, which has been my source of parchment for my paintings for over 4 years. Jesse explained that his family has been in the tanning and leather business for over 400 years, since the mid 16th century in Eisenburg, Germany. The family moved to Philadelphia around 1830, then to New Jersey, where they worked with, among others, Steinway & Sons piano, and finally to upstate NY, where they continued their tannery work.

Jesse Meyer became fascinated with parchment, and because there was no one to learn from, he had to figure out much of the process by research, and by trial and error. The tool closest to us is one that Jesse made from a circular saw blade to use in scraping the stretched skin; the rounded blade is called a lunalarium from the word for moon. The long blades are used to remove hair––the wooden blade––and flesh from the animal skin. 

Jesse is holding up a goatskin that has been soaking in a lime solution, which is the traditional way to remove the hair. Now other, faster chemical and machine methods are used. The skin is fairly stinky.

The skin is placed on a beam and the hair scraped off using the wooden blade.

Then the skin is turned over and the long curved metal knife is used to remove any remaining flesh.

Jesse is holding up another cleaned goatskin that was soaking in water in preparation for stretching it. Notice how transparent it is.

Jesse designed frames for stretching the skins. Although some of the process can be done with modern chemicals or machinery, the stretching is still done in the traditional way. The wooden dowels are turned to tighten the skin on the frame.

This is the clever clamp used to hold the skin.

The next step is to scrape the skin of remaining flesh with the rounded blade you see above. As the skin is scraped it loses its translucency and becomes white.

There is still roughness on the surface of the skin after some scraping. The complete smoothing process takes some time, with wetting the skin and re-sanding or scraping so the fibers lay down. When it is finished, there is a smooth, velvety surface on the skin side. The hair side is more glassy smooth; it is the side I prefer to paint on, so when I order parchment, I get the hair––also called the grain––side finished. It is a deliciously sensuous surface to work on. I am looking forward to taking a more hands-on two day workshop at the Pergamena factory in Montgomery, NY, on November 14th and 15th. I love working with an ancient medium––egg tempera––on a very traditional surface––parchment––that have venerable histories in the making of art.


  1. Altoon, this is fascinating. I have always wondered about the process. Thanks for the tutorial. Happy New Year to you and yours.

    1. Thank you, Deborah. And I'm glad that you also found this process fascinating.

    2. I agree with Deb. this is Fascinating. I had no idea about the process. So many different stages in the process. It is a precious commodity when made this way.
      Happy New Year, have a great time with your family.

  2. That is so interesting. I only wish I could get closer to one of your pieces so I can really see the difference. When I look at your work online it is hard to tell the difference between paper and the skin. it must be wonderful to paint on. Have a lovely Rosh Hashanah.

  3. Thanks, Lisa and Roberta, for the New Year's wishes.
    The process is indeed complex, which is why parchment is quite expensive.
    Online photos do miss a lot, but it's the feel of the parchment under the brush that is so wonderful and impossible to convey unless you felt the material yourselves.

  4. Wow... super job .. do you know where i can find the clamp ', clever clamp '' thanks

    1. I forget where those clamps come from, though I think we were told. You might email Pergamena with the question, including a photo of the clamp.