For centuries, vellum has been synonymous with a high quality writing surface. Originally, "real" vellum was made from animal skin. The process of making vellum was complex and very time consuming, but it is still universally acknowledged as being the finest of all writing papers, and is still used for some official documents. While most vellum stationery today is made with cotton rag – the finest of 100% cotton fiber – the process of making vellum is fascinating.
How "Real" Vellum Sheets are Made
Vellum starts with an animal skin. The highest quality vellum – smooth, translucent and free of blemishes – is made from the skin of stillborn calves, though other animal skins are often used as well. Sheepskin, more commonly used to make parchment, is a second choice, but goat skin or deer skin can be used as well.
The process used to make vellum has survived for centuries. Once the skin is removed from the animal, it is placed in a barrel of clean water to soak for a day and a night, then removed from the water and washed to remove any debris. From there, the skin goes into a lime bath to soak for several days. The parchment maker stirs the water several times a day, but the water is not changed until the eighth day. At that point, the skin is removed from its first lime bath and rinsed in running water until the water runs clear. After that, the skin is scraped to remove any remaining hair. The scraping can take hours, and is usually done with a flat-bladed knife, but it may be done with a wooden paddle or with gloved hands. The skin may be allowed to dry, scraped and wet again and again to avoid tearing the skin during the stretching and scraping steps.
Once the skin is de-haired, it is returned to the soaking bucket with clear water to soak another day, removed and rinsed again, then put into a bucket of water to which lime has been added. Then skin will soak for another eight days in the lime solution before being removed again to be rinsed until the water runs clear. The rinsing is essential – any lime that remains in or on the skin will cloud the finished product and the beauty of the vellum is that the material is translucent and unclouded.
The skin may be soaked yet another time in clear water for a shorter period, with no stirring, before being rinsed clean yet again in clear water. After this final soak, it will be carefully stretched on a frame and scraped again. Once again, the process will take hours of careful, painstaking work with the skin being allowed to dry, then wet again, as it is stretched and completely dried in the sun. While it is drying, it will be repeatedly scraped and scrubbed with pumice to smooth the surface for writing or printing.