Parchment vs Vellum: What's the Difference?

As a parchment maker, this is a question I have to contend with frequently. These terms seem to be used interchangeably, depending on who's talking. While one person will insist doggedly on one set of definitions, another will insist just as doggedly on a different and incompatible set.

Before delving into descriptions of the various types of parchment products that are available, a little backround might be useful (henceforth, I will use the term 'parchment' generically to refer to parchment, vellum,etc.). Parchment is a paper-like material made from (typically) raw, untreated animal skins that have been un-haired and dried under tension. This is not to be confused with parchment-paper. Although, in theory, almost any animal skin can be made into parchment, sheep, calf, and goatskins are those most commonly used. Parchment is relatively inelastic and has a firm handle when compared to leather. The 'hair' side of the skin is that side where the hair was attached, and the 'flesh' side is the side facing the flesh of the animal. If the parchment is prepared from the full thickness of the hide, it will have a 'grain' layer on the hair side, with a distinct follicle pattern, as is the case with a full-grain leather. The flesh side will typically have a smooth, silky surface corresponding to the boundary between the skin and the underlying layers of connective tissue.

In recent decades, within the trade, the term 'parchment' has often been used in reference to a lower grade product made from sheepskin splits. The skin is split into two layers by machine, and the lower layer or 'flesh-split' is made into parchment. Like suede products, it does not have a grain (the grain remains on the upper layer or 'grain-split'). Manufacturers have tended to use 'vellum' in reference to better grades of product regardless of the animal species involved, and regardless of whether or not that product has the grain layer removed. (ie. everything that is not made from a sheepskin flesh-split falls under the name 'vellum')

Others have tended to use 'parchment' as a generic term for all products except those made from calfskin, for which they reserve the term 'vellum'. They often justify this on linguistic grounds since it would appear that the word vellum (and the french 'velin') derives from the latin 'vitellus', meaning calf. Authorities in the field aren't quite as dogmatic in their approach. Reed (_The_Nature_and_Making_of_Parchment_, 1975) presents evidence that, as far back as the middle ages, both terms were being used to refer to any sort of parchment, without regard to the species involved. Furthermore, he argues that the word 'vellum' may actually derive from the latin 'pellis', simply meaning 'skin'.

The impression I get is that in academic circles, this controversy over the usage of the two terms is regarded as rather tedious, and I tend to agree. My impression is that conservators and codicologists tend to use the term 'parchment' generically, and avoid the term 'vellum' since it seems to mean different things to different people.

Parchment is by no means a uniform product. The look, feel, and behaviour of the finished product can be affected by such factors as:

1) The species, breed, age, and sex of the animal that provided the skin
2) The general health of the animal and the time of year of slaughter
3) Care taken in flaying and handling the hide before it reaches the parchmenter
4) The parchmenter's treatment of the hide at all stages of manufacture

There is considerable latitude in how a skin can be converted into parchment. Considering the many variations on the manufacturing process that have been used over the centuries, and in different places, any rigid categorization based on the method of manufacture is of questionable validity. While some variations in the procedure may only lead to subtle differences in the finished product, others can yield differences that are quite marked.

My own feeling is that, the differences between animal species aside, there are two broad categories of parchment. On the one hand are parchments that might be termed 'Full-grain', where the grain layer has been left more or less intact on the hair side. On the other, we have skins where the grain layer has been partly or wholly removed (either by splitting or by shaving). Removal of the grain layer will make the two sides of the parchment more similar in appearance and texture, will make the hair side more receptive to inks and paints, and will obviously make the parchment thinner and somewhat weaker. Since this was, and still is, often done for parchment that is intended for inclusion in books and will therefore be used on both sides, this second category might be designated 'manuscript' parchments. Historically, there probably hasn't been a clear dicotomy, but rather a continuous spectrum between the two extremes.

In addition, the surfaces of these different parchments might be further modified in terms of texture and opacity by the use of various abrasives (eg. pumice) and/or the application of various coatings (eg. size, chalk, gessoe, etc.).

Whether a particular type of parchment is best suited to the needs of the binder or the calligrapher is, to some extent, a matter of taste. While a full-grain parchment would typically be prefered for binding since the grain provides an abrasion resistant surface and an interesting texture for a book cover, a parchment whose grain layer had been removed could also be used. A thin, shaved parchment might be desireable as a spine liner or endpaper reinforcement. Strips of either sort can serve as sewing supports or endband cores (alone, or in combination with leather/tawed skin).

Similarly, a calligrapher may wish to use a manuscript (ie. shaved) parchment for folios in a book, but be content to use the flesh side of an unshaved parchment for a framed piece that will only be worked on the one side. Or, they may wish to use the hair side of a full-grain parchment to take advantage of the texture and pigmentation for a particular effect.

It is unfortunate that the terms parchment and vellum have been used inconsistently and that such ambiguity with regard to their definitions persists. In the absence of any standardized descriptive nomenclature, the prospective user must seek out full descriptions of every product and examine samples to determine exactly what they are getting. One person's parchment is another's vellum, and vice versa.


Cains, Anthony. 1992 "The Vellum of the Book of Kells" The Paper Conservator. vol 16: 50-61.

Clarkson, Christopher. 1992 "Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast" The Paper Conservator. vol 16: 5-26.

Reed, R. 1972. Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers. New York: Seminar Press.

Reed, Ronald. 1975. The Nature and Making of Parchment. Leeds, England: The Elmete Press.

Ryder, Michael L. 1964. "Parchment -- Its history, manufacture and composition" Journal of the Society of Archivists. vol 2: 9, April, 1964.

Thompson, Daniel V. 1936. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. NY: Constable, 1936.

Visscher, W.P. 1986. "Trends in Vellum and Parchment Making Past and Present" The New Bookbinder: Journal of Designer Bookbinders. vol. 6: 41-81.



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