Liv­ing Na­tional Trea­sure

Parch­ment and vel­lum maker

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graph by Richard Can­non

Parch­ment and vel­lum maker

Paul Wright and lee Map­ley (above) are Bri­tain’s sole re­main­ing mas­ter parch­menters. lit­tle won­der, you might think, that the craft of turn­ing an­i­mal skins into a writ­ing ma­te­rial is en­dan­gered, when so many peo­ple to­day have never even penned a let­ter onto pa­per. how­ever, cer­tainly un­til very re­cently, acts of Par­lia­ment were still recorded on vel­lum, just as the Magna Carta was in 1215. (the house of lords voted to end this prac­tice, but a ma­jor­ity of MPS dis­agree, so it’s cur­rently the sub­ject of an on­go­ing de­bate.)

Cer­tainly, vel­lum does pos­sess su­pe­rior strength, sup­ple­ness and longevity—com­pare the Bri­tish li­brary’s 4th-cen­tury Codex

Si­naiti­cus with the BBC’S 1986 Domes­day Project, the lat­ter stored on laser-discs that were soon out­moded and in­ac­ces­si­ble.

Wil­liam Cow­ley Parch­ment Works is the craft’s sole sur­vivor: a fourth-gen­er­a­tion fam­ily busi­ness that has been based in New­port Pag­nell, Buck­ing­hamshire, since 1850. ‘Both lee and i were men­tored by the founder’s great-great-grand­son and we’re now pass­ing on the skills to our ap­pren­tice,’ says Mr Wright, who man­ages the firm and has just re­turned from choos­ing skins at the abat­toir.

these he will soak in lime-wa­ter, be­fore eas­ing the hair out with a ‘scud­der’, then scrap­ing off the ex­cess and rais­ing the nap with a heavy, half-moon-shaped knife called a luna. Once stretched out, the skins are dried ac­cord­ing to type: calf or goatskin for vel­lum; much more fatty sheep­skin for parch­ment. rolls of the ma­te­rial are sold not only for im­por­tant doc­u­ments, but for drum tops, lamp­shades and wall and fur­ni­ture cov­er­ings, as well as for book­bind­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy.

us­ing a nat­u­ral by-prod­uct, the craft is com­mend­ably ‘green’; un­like pa­per, parch­ment and vel­lum re­quire no chem­i­cals that are harm­ful to the en­vi­ron­ment or the felling of trees. MM

www.william­cow­ley.co.uk; http://her­itage­crafts.org.uk

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