Vellum and Parchment Conservation and Care

What is the Difference Between Vellum and Parchment?

Vellum and parchment are two types of materials that have been used for centuries to create written documents and works of art. Both are made from animal hides, but the process of creating them differs slightly.
Vellum is made from the skin of a calf or young animal and is considered to be the highest quality of animal skin for writing. It is smooth, durable, and possesses a fine grain, making it perfect for creating detailed illustrations and calligraphy. Vellum has been used for centuries as the substrate for illuminated manuscripts such as religious texts, as well as diplomas, legal documents, and works of art.
Parchment, on the other hand, is made from the skin of older animals such as sheep or goats. It is less expensive than vellum, but still durable and suitable for writing. Parchment was widely used for creating books and documents during the Middle Ages, and it was also used for creating maps and charters.

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The process of creating vellum and parchment is known as parchment making. The first step is to remove any hair or fat from the animal hide, then it is soaked in a lime bath to soften the skin. The skin is subsequently stretched and scraped to remove any remaining fat or tissue. Afterward, the skin is dried and stretched again to ensure it is smooth and even. Once the skin is dry, it can be used to create documents or works of art.
One of the most significant challenges in preserving vellum and parchment documents is the delicate nature of the materials. Over time, exposure to light, humidity, and other environmental factors can cause the skin to become brittle, discolored and cockled.  Losses due to insect damage are not uncommon.  Additionally, the ink used to write on the skin can also fade, bleed or deteriorate.

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What is the Best Way to Store Vellum & Parchment?

Many of our clients come to us for help preserving their historic vellum and parchment documents. One of the questions almost all clients ask is how they can care for their documents to preserve them for many generations to come, whether they are manuscripts or scrolls. Our first recommendation is to be certain your vellum is stored in a climate-controlled environment. It is worthwhile to invest in a hygrometer and monitor the relative humidity of the environment. Since vellum and parchment are hygroscopic, meaning they will easily absorb moisture from the air, it is very important to keep the relative humidity within the 25-40% range. Maintaining a steady relative humidity is helpful as well, as this will help prevent expansion and contraction of the vellum, which can result in warping and cockling. Keeping the relative humidity below 40% also prevents potential mold growth. 

If you are having your vellum manuscript framed, it is advised to locate a framer who will use the Chicago String Method, or related specialized framing methods, to help prevent warping and distortion of the vellum in the framing package over time. It is worthwhile to shop around and find a framer who is well-versed in handling vellum materials. 

Lastly, we also recommend avoiding direct light or UV exposure. If you choose to place your document on display, please consider placing it in a room that does not have direct sunlight exposure. LED lighting is ideal, as it has the least impact on the vellum, but will still allow the needed light to view your historic artifact. 

Conservation and restoration of these documents is a delicate process and should be left to professional conservators. If you require assistance preserving your document, feel free to submit an inquiry for a complimentary estimate.


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At Kelsey National Book and Paper Conservation, we offer a full range of services to assist our clients with preserving their works of art on paper, manuscript & document collections, vellum & parchment artifacts, and bound volumes.  These may include lithographs, serigraphs, mezzotint, aquatint, engravings, acrylic paintings, watercolor paintings, gouache paintings, pencil & ink drawings, historical documents, vellum scrolls & manuscripts, rare antique & vintage books, family bibles, and more.

We serve clients nationwide, including areas such as:

Asheville, North Carolina – Atlanta, Georgia – Chapel Hill, North Carolina – Charleston, South Carolina – Charlotte, North Carolina – Chattanooga, Tennessee – Columbia, South Carolina – Durham, North Carolina – Fayetteville, North Carolina – Louisville, Kentucky – Nashville, Tennessee – Raleigh, North Carolina – Richmond,  Virginia – Roanoke, Virginia – Savannah, Georgia – Virginia Beach, Virginia – Washington, DC

Contact us today for an estimate!

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