Mark Furness, Senior Conservator in our Collection Care team, writes:
A rare opportunity came up recently to take a tour around William Cowley Parchment Makers, the UK’s sole remaining maker of parchment and vellum. The visit was organized by The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections (AMARC), of which The University of Manchester Library is a member. The tour was run twice in one day, each tour taking about two hours, with lunch and the AMARC AGM slotted between.
William Cowley began making parchment in the 1860s, establishing premises in 1870 next to the River Ouzel in Newport Pagnell where they continue to operate. They retain a license to draw water directly from the river for use in their production process.
The method of production has changed very little in that time, or indeed in the last 2000 years. In fact, Cowley’s is reputedly the most authentic production facility in the world, the one concession to modernisation/mechanisation being the use of motors to churn the liming vats.
Cowley’s employ half a dozen members of staff. Each is a master of a particular part of the process, but most know all aspects of the business so that they can fulfil orders throughout the year, covering illness, holidays and periods of high demand. Their most recent member of staff is an apprentice, learning all aspects of the craft to continue the tradition. Although it is not a job that would appeal to everyone, competition for the post was fierce.
A quick note on smell: it’s not bad, a bit peculiar perhaps, but not assaulting the senses; similar to a butcher’s shop, but milder. Considering this was on a hot day in June, it would be unlikely to get any worse.
The process begins with the selection of skins. Calf, goat and sheep are used and sourced from a local abattoir. Several staff make the selection, looking for skins that are unblemished by scars or cuts. The skins would otherwise be discarded as a waste product: no animal is reared exclusively for its skin.
The skins must first be de-haired. They are first salted to draw out moisture, and then washed and soaked in a lime solution for about two weeks. This loosens the hair which can easily be scraped clear with a blunted draw knife, removing excess fat and sinew.
The skins are then put on a frame and stretched while being kept wet. The frames are stout wooden constructions with pegs arrayed around the perimeter. Cord is wrapped around the pegs with the other end attached by a slip-knot to spaced points around the skin. In monastic production, a small pebble, a pippin, was pressed into the edges of the skin and it is around this that the knotted cord was cinched; a small ball of crumpled newspaper is used in place of a pippin these days. The pegs are then tightened with a specialised spanner, a rounded rectangular socket to turn the pegs at one end, at the other a notch to keep the slip-knot tight.
Specialised tool to tighten the skin.
It is important to keep the skin moist as it is stretched; stretching and drying set the nature of the parchment. The stresses and strains that once existed in the skin when it was wrapped around an animal’s body are transformed and set into new orientations to create a flat surface. If the skin gets wet once released from the frame, those stresses will be released and try to form back towards their original place and shape.
The stretching also reduces the thicker areas of the skin that were once at the shoulders, neck, haunches and spine of the animal. If left untreated these areas would become transparent and ruin the finished product.
With the skin in the frame, the first round of scraping occurs; the parchment maker will run a lunar across the surface of the skin about three times, removing any deposits of fat and sinew that will mar the surface when finished. The cords staking the skin out will need to be re-tightened throughout the process and the pressure of the scraping will stretch out the skin more.
A lunar is a specialised tool for parchment making, named after the half-moon shaped blade that is the central piece of the tool. Perpendicular to the blade, a handle protrudes above and below, and it is held with one hand beneath, the other on top, with the thumbs of both hands on the handles toward the blade, so the top hand will feel upside down.
The blade has wooden pegs that wedge between handle and blade to keep the blade secure; it also serves to indicate the orientation of the blade with the pegs on the bottom of the blade. The blade of the lunar in the first scraping is blunt. For the next operation it needs to be sharp, though instead of being sharp along the outward facing curve of the blade a burr extends along the lower edge of the blade and will act like a scoop to remove successive layers of scraped parchment rather than simply slicing into the surface.
The pegged and framed skin is like a sheet of elastic, more so when damp; push on it and the skin will stretch against that pressure, pushed away by the parchment maker. Scraping a straight blade across such a surface means the ends of the blade would catch, nicking or slicing the skin. The lunar’s curved blade avoids this, allowing the edge to run across the skin’s surface as it bends along the curve of the blade. The lunar does have curved ends but the skin should be kept taut enough that it won’t stretch over more than half the blade’s length.
After the initial scraping the skin is left to dry in a heated room for 24 hours. Once dry, the individual patterns of the skin can be seen. Cows today typically have a mottled black and white coat. This patterning extends into the skin, and whilst it has its own appeal, customers tend to require smooth, clear sheets and so the pattern must be removed. This is achieved through the scraping: successive layers of the parchment are peeled away, the individual skin guiding the amount of pressure and speed used to best effect.
Other patterns in the skin cannot be removed. Although most skins are sourced from the abattoir, Cowley’s also obtain skins from local farmers who, inevitably, have livestock die on the farm. Because these animals have died without the blood being immediately drained, the pressure of the carcass lying on one side causes the blood to stain the pattern of veins into the skin. This cannot be removed as it penetrates throughout the skin, but it does provide an interesting and unique pattern that appeals to some clients.
Once scraped to the correct thickness, the skin is left to dry fully. The end use for the skin may require further processes. For instance, if the product is intended to be used for calligraphy, manuscript production or some similar purpose, then the surface needs to be perfectly smooth and is prepared using a substance called Kelmscott, presumably named after William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. This substance is prepared from the shavings of the parchment making, powdered and mixed with… something (presumably water but Cowley’s must retain some of its secrets) to create a white paste that is applied to the skin, allowed to dry and then buffed smooth.
The entire process from raw skin to parchment sheet usually takes 4-6 weeks. Once complete, the skins are graded and stored, unless they were created for a specific order. Cowley’s can also colour the parchment for specific requirements. Using vegetable dyes the staff at Cowley’s record every recipe they create to achieve a colour. If there’s nothing suitable, they will try and make something to meet your needs. Each skin has its own patterning and individuality; dyeing will not result in an even colour across the surface but adds a depth to the skin’s characteristics.
After that, it depends on the customer’s needs. Each order is treated with an unusual level of attention to detail, understandable given the cost of parchment and vellum, but it also shows the level of interest and pride the company takes in meeting an order. The price itself is a reflection of the skill, time and quality of the product. Skins can be sold whole or cut to size and specification of grade. All orders are looked at under natural light to get a correct sense of the parchment’s individual qualities, and it may not be until the finished product is so scrutinised that a flaw is discovered, perhaps a small insect bite, pin prick, or the mark of a knife during the scraping process.
Interestingly, one of Cowley’s main sources of business now is the creation of parchment panels for interior decoration or customised orders for covering and decorating furniture.