What is Parchment Paper? Made from Animal Skin for Centuries!

What is Parchment Paper? Made from Animal Skin for Centuries! Parchment paper, though its name might suggest otherwise, is actually made from specially treated animal skins!

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Have you ever wondered what those beautiful, aged documents in historical movies are written on? Or perhaps you’ve stumbled upon a recipe that calls for baking on parchment paper?

Parchment paper, though its name might suggest otherwise, is actually made from specially treated animal skins! Used for millennia as a writing surface, parchment played a pivotal role in preserving knowledge and history.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of parchment paper, exploring its history, creation process, and modern-day uses. We’ll also answer some frequently asked questions to quench your curiosity about this remarkable material.

What is Parchment Paper?

Definition and Uses

Parchment paper is a writing surface made from the processed skins of animals, primarily sheep, goats, and calves. Unlike paper, which is derived from plant pulp, parchment undergoes a meticulous cleaning, stretching, and drying process that results in a smooth, durable surface ideal for writing and drawing.

Parchment is often confused with vellum, a finer grade of parchment made specifically from calfskin. Historically, parchment was used for important documents, religious texts, and illuminated manuscripts. Today, it’s still used for specialty applications like drumheads, lampshades, and even high-end bookbinding.

Materials Used in Parchment Paper

The traditional method of making parchment paper relies on the skins of animals like:

  • Sheep: Sheepskin is the most common material used for parchment due to its availability and affordability.
  • Goats: Goatskin parchment offers a slightly smoother and more durable surface compared to sheepskin.
  • Calves: Vellum, the premium type of parchment, is crafted from calfskin, known for its exceptional smoothness and thinness.

These animal skins are chosen for their:

  • Strength and durability: The thick hides of these animals provide a sturdy base for writing and withstand the passage of time.
  • Smoothness: After processing, the skins are meticulously scraped and polished to create a surface suitable for writing with quill pens or other writing instruments.
  • Availability: In the past, sheep, goats, and calves were readily available livestock, making their hides a practical choice for parchment production.

The Process of Making Parchment Paper

What Is Parchment Paper
What is Parchment Paper

The creation of parchment paper is a multi-step process that requires skill and patience:

Preparing the Animal Skin

  1. Skinning: The first step involves carefully removing the hide from the animal.
  2. Cleaning: Any remaining flesh, hair, or fat is meticulously removed from the skin through soaking and scraping.

Stretching and Scraping the Skin

  1. Stretching: The cleaned hide is stretched taut on a wooden frame to achieve a uniform thickness.
  2. Scraping: Using a special curved knife, the artisan meticulously scrapes both sides of the stretched skin to remove any irregularities and create a smooth writing surface.

Wetting and Drying the Skin

  1. Wetting and Drying: The stretched and scraped hide is repeatedly wetted and dried under tension. This process shrinks the collagen fibers in the skin, further enhancing its strength and stability.
  2. Final Polishing: After several rounds of wetting and drying, the parchment is finally polished with pumice stone or chalk to achieve its final smooth texture.

The Use of Parchment Paper in History

For over two millennia, parchment paper reigned supreme as the preferred writing material. Its durability and smooth surface made it ideal for recording and preserving important information. Here are some notable examples:

  • Historical Documents: The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights were all penned on parchment paper, a testament to its longevity and significance.
  • Religious Texts: From the Dead Sea Scrolls to medieval Bibles, countless religious texts were inscribed on parchment, ensuring their survival for generations.
  • Illuminated Manuscripts: The exquisite artwork and calligraphy found in illuminated manuscripts were often created on parchment, showcasing its beauty and versatility.

Modern Uses of Parchment Paper

While paper has largely replaced parchment for everyday writing, parchment paper still finds uses in the modern world:

  • Culinary Arts: Parchment paper is a popular choice for baking due to its heat resistance and non-stick properties.
  • Musical Instruments: Parchment is traditionally used as the head for certain drums, such as the bodhrán and djembe.
  • Luxury Crafts: Parchment can be used for bookbinding, lampshades, and other decorative items where a unique, natural aesthetic is desired.

People Also Asked

1. Is parchment paper the same as vellum?

Parchment and vellum are both made from animal skin, but vellum is a finer grade of parchment specifically crafted from calfskin. Vellum is known for its exceptional smoothness and thinness, making it ideal for highly detailed artwork and calligraphy.

2. Can you still buy parchment paper made from animal skin?

Yes, although less common than its paper counterpart, traditional parchment paper made from animal skin can still be purchased from specialty craft stores or online retailers. However, due to the time and skill involved in its production, it tends to be more expensive than regular paper.

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3. Are there any alternatives to parchment paper for baking?

If you don’t have parchment paper on hand, there are several alternatives suitable for baking:

  • Silicone baking mats: Reusable and non-stick, silicone baking mats offer a convenient and eco-friendly alternative to parchment paper.
  • Aluminum foil: While not ideal for delicate pastries, aluminum foil can be used for baking cookies, roasting vegetables, or lining baking sheets for easier cleanup.
  • Lightly greased baking sheet: In a pinch, you can lightly grease a baking sheet with butter or cooking spray to prevent sticking. However, this method may not be suitable for all baking applications.


Parchment paper, with its rich history and unique properties, has played a significant role in communication, art, and record-keeping for centuries. While modern paper has taken over for everyday writing, parchment continues to be valued for its beauty, durability, and specialized uses.

We hope this comprehensive guide has enlightened you about the fascinating world of parchment paper! Whether you’re a history buff, a curious cook, or simply appreciate the finer things, there’s something to be learned and admired about this timeless material.

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Richard Charpentier is the CEO of Baking Innovation, a leading provider of baking solutions. He has over 20 years of experience in the baking industry and has been a driving force behind the company's success.