The Making of Parchment

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

  • Many of the Apocryphal New Testament codices were found written on parchment.
  • Parchment is a thin material usually made from the skin of a goat, sheep, or calf.
  • It is not tanned, like leather, so it is not impervious to weather or water.
  • Very exquisite sheets of parchment are called vellum, usually made from the finer skin of calves.


  • Parchment was invented by the city of Pergamum, known to be a great intellectual center. Their library consisted of over 200,000 parchment rolls. The library was second only to that of Alexandria.
  • Legend has it that the king of Pergamum enticed the leading scholar of Alexandria to leave and move to Pergamum to build up their library (ca 2nd century BCE). The king of Egypt was so upset, he had the scholar imprisoned and cut off the supply of papyrus to Pergamum. Out of desperation, they invented parchment, which turned out to be vastly superior to papyrus for writing.
  • However, some scholars think the Babylonians were using a form of parchment as early as the 6th century BCE.

How It's Made

  • Parchment is derived from the skin of an animal.
  • The skin is soaked in water for a day in order to remove any dirt or blood.
  • All of the hair is then removed.
    • In antiquity, a "de-hairing liquor" was used to do this. Originally, the liquor was generally comprised of rotted and fermented vegetable matter. Later, people used lime.
  • The skins are placed in vats, and are stirred using long poles several times a day.
    • This process can take a week or more, depending on the temperature – the warmer, the better.
    • If the skins are left in the liquor bath too long, they become weak can tear.
  • The skins are then stretched on frames built for this purpose – typically, the frames are a simple, wooden frame made with nails.
    • At this point, the parchment is mostly collagen – the fibrous protein that holds everything together.
    • Both sides of the skin need to be open to the air while being stretched.
  • While the skins are stretching, each side is scraped with a sharp knife to remove any remaining hair, to get the skin to the proper thickness, and to reduce any unevenness.
  • Once dry and removed from the frames, the skins hold their shape.

Two Sides of Parchment

  • The two sides of the dried parchment skins are somewhat different.
  • The flesh side is lighter and usually smoother, which makes it preferable for writing.
    • Some scribes rubbed pumice powder on the flesh side while it was still wet for better penetration of ink.
  • The non-flesh side (the rougher side) was naturally good at holding ink.
  • When scribes formed a codex, they put the smooth sides against smooth and rough sides against rough.
  • During the 7th to 9th centuries, many earlier parchment manuscripts were scrubbed and scoured until the original text was removed. They were then ready to be re-used!

Modern Uses

  • Used primarily during the Middle Ages before paper was invented, parchment has been making a comeback among contemporary artists.
  • When water (in the paint or ink) touches parchment, the collagen melts very slightly, causing it to rise up – a highly desired effect among artists.
  • Parchment is also very sensitive to changes in humidity, causing it to buckle – another desirable effect among artists.
  • Mass-produced parchment (for lamps, wall-hangings, etc) is usually made of paper pulp that's run through a bath of sulfuric acid.

A Quick, Modern Simulation

  • It is fairly easy to replicate or simulate parchment.
  • Simply crumble up sheet of printer paper into a ball, and then flatten it out on a cookie sheet (or something flat with sides).
  • Pour cooled coffee (or tea) over the sheet, making sure the entire sheet is covered.
  • Wait five minutes.
  • Remove the paper and let it dry (or use a hair dryer).
  • Voila! The paper is ready for whatever message you'd like to write.
  • Roll it up and secure it with string.

Bible Characters