It’s a bit furry!

There’s been a bit of a fuss lately about the time ink takes to dry on goatskin parchment; hence the alleged delay to the Queen’s Speech.  But, did you know that goatskin parchment is neither skin nor made of goats? And it isn’t even parchment.

In the archive world we use goatskin parchment, which is actually acid-free paper, for wrapping and protecting centuries old documents. In the photo it is the white material at the bottom right. The roll is parchment and the top item is vellum. Yes, that white stripe is where the animal’s spine would have been.

We have thousands of documents which were written on parchment and a few more on vellum. So, what’s the difference? Today the terms are interchangeable; traditionally vellum was produced from the hide of a calf and parchment from a sheep. Treated with lime, then dehaired and defleshed, and in an England before the introduction of paper mills and the widespread use of paper, parchment and vellum made high quality writing material.

Being from a larger animal, vellum is more expensive and required greater skill to produce. One slip of the knife and the skin would be ruined. Vellum is also what I can describe only as furrier than parchment. Thicker and a bit like stroking a cat! This Hutchinson and Bottlier heraldic pedigree was illuminated onto vellum and certainly passes the furry touch test. This Hutchinson family included John Hutchinson who was governor of Nottingham Castle during the English Civil War and later signed the death warrant of King Charles I.

This medieval copy of the “Forest Book” from the Rufford Abbey collection was written on parchment and shows the wear and tear of a 800 year old book. One reason for its survival is the strength and durability of the parchment.

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