Eve Makes Parchment at the Pergamena Tannery

Warning:  Some may be squeamish about the subject matter of this post!

Scroll down at your own peril.

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Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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Parchment has been around for thousands of years and was used in many ancient civilizations in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Traditionally, it was believed that parchment was invented in the Kingdom of Pergamon (modern-day Turkey) around 300 BCE as an alternative to the Egyptian-made papyrus. Generally, parchment was made from the skins of calf, goat, sheep, or deer. Although the term is often misused, the “vellum” often referred to high quality calf-skins. Parchment remained an important writing material in the West until the introduction paper in 10th century Iberia and its wider-spread adoption in the 13th century.

Drying Racks

Parchment is a versatile material that can exhibit a variety of characteristics depending on its function. I wanted to learn more about how it was made and what caused the visual differences that I had observed. I decided to sign up for a two-day workshop in parchment-making lead by Jesse Meyer at the Pergamena Tannery in Montgomery, NY.

Stacks of leather and parchment

As a life-long vegetarian, my classmates were a little surprised at my enthusiasm to work with flayed animal skins. Any reservations I might have felt going into the workshop were quickly put aside as I became engaged in the process. The calf and goat skins were obtained from butcher shops or farms in the area. Deer skins came from local hunters. These animals would have died regardless.

Fresh deer skins

There were a total of five participants coming from as far away as New Zealand to partake in this experience. During this workshop, we worked with goat and calf skins. On the first morning, we were put right to work to prepare goat skins (47 skins, or a total of about 250 pounds) for “wetwork.” Heads, legs, tails, nipples, etc. were cut off with a hunting knife and put into a rotating drum. The skins needed to be as cut open as possible so the chemical would react evenly with the surface.

Goats pelts before removing excess material

Ready with hunting knife

Water and a weight-based percentage of sodium sulfide (a de-hairing agent) were put into the drum. Later, lime was added to swell the skins to increase effectiveness of hair removal. The drum rotates for a period of time (as little as one day to several weeks), agitating the skins and chemical solution. When the skins are ready, they are removed from the gray hair-flesh slurry in the drum. The slurry is then poured out and channeled into the floor drain. Thank goodness for rubber boots (although they did nothing to help the pungent aroma) !

Skins in the drum with gray slurry

Goat skins after de-hairing

A goat leg that was accidently put into the drum

The gray skins then need to be fleshed to remove the extra fat that was still attached to the flesh-side. Traditionally, this was down with a lunarium or band fleshing knife over a half barrel. After we all had the experience of hand fleshing one skin, the rest of the goat skins were fleshed on a modern machine.

Jesse Meyer demonstrating how to de-flesh by hand

The skins were then de-limed to bring the pH down closer to 7. Bates/enzymes were then added to tweak the fiber structure and remove certain skin proteins and collagens. A small amount of bleach was added to lighten up the skins before they were thoroughly washed.

Prepared to remove skins from drum

As part of this workshop, we each were allowed to prepare and take home one goat and one calf skin. I decided to dye my goat skin blue and stretch it on a frame. One of the crucial steps in parchment-making is to make sure that the skin is dried under tension otherwise it is susceptible to degradation. Although it will always fluctuate with its climate, parchment that is properly cared for should not experience drastic planar deformations.

Dyed goat skin on last stretch

The calf skin was left un-dyed and taken upstairs for the remaining drywork. The skin was put on an adjustable stretcher and repeatedly re-tensioned. A two-handled crescent knife with significant pressure was used to further stretch the skin. The toggles were constantly being tightened and adjusted. Certain physical characteristics of the animal were always visible: The dense spine area looked different from the stretchy skin around the hip bones or ribs and underside. Any small nicks or cuts became large holes in the final product as the stretching greatly increased the size of the skin. Translucent areas resulted from insufficient stretching, as the air failed to enter and create the opaque surface that was desired for writing.

Streching the skin with two-handled knife

The final step was sanding to create a smooth and uniform surface. Depending on the final use of the skin, both sides of the skin could be sanded.  The skins were then ready to be rolled and taken home. I cannot even begin to describe the faces of my fellow commuters as I rode the train back intoto the city, covered in dried animal flesh and carrying my finished skins.

Calf skin on last stretch

Parchment can be made of any type of skin although those of more “greasy” animals (sheep) are more difficult to process. We were shown some interesting examples of non-traditional skins such as ostrich and bear that have interesting follicle patterns. Because parchment is made from skin, the life of the animal can be read on each and every skin from scars to bug bites to bullet holes. It is clear that each piece of parchment is unique and has its own history.

Parchment Marking Group

I want to thank the other workshop participants, Karl Meyer, Stephen Meyer, and especially Jesse Meyer for a fantastic hands-on experience. I would recommend this workshop for anyone who is interested in learning more about parchment. Thanks for reading.

-Eve Mayberger

Links:

Pergamena Tannery

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