Tag Archives: William Cowley Parchment Works

Vellum and Acts of Parliament II


Great news! There was a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday 20th April 2016, on whether to continue to print Acts of Parliament on vellum or not. This is the record of the debate in Hansard. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of continuing to print Acts of Parliament on vellum. This was a wonderful reward to all the hard work many people had done in writing to their MPs and publicising the campaign. However, this decision lasts only for this parliament, so the question may well be raised again.

February 16th 2016: I had started to write this blog with a heavy heart. On Saturday 7th February 2016, we heard that the printers of Acts of Parliament on vellum had been given 30 days’ notice, and that printing was due to stop on April 1st (what an appropriate date I thought!). This was a surprise as we understood from James Gray MP’s Point of Order last November that there would be a debate in the House of Commons. This was what happened in 1999 when the Lords decided to stop using vellum and a debate and vote in the House of Commons decided to continue, so vellum was still used. So this time there was no debate and the decision had been taken.

35910.jpgI contacted the great Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Minister for Children, and she raised a Point of Order on Tuesday 9th February and the Speaker advised her to look into an Early Day Motion so that MPs could register their views on this.

However, the decision had clearly been made. Sir Paul Beresford is the Chair of the Commons Administration Committee, and Lord Laming is the Chair of the equivalent in the House of Lords. James Gray is a member of the Commons committee and he, and two other MP members who said that they had been ‘misled’ were not in favour of using paper instead of vellum. So who took the decision, when and where?

_88273692_vellum-making-lovettFollowing Sharon’s Point of Order there was a bit of a media circus and I was interviewed by Radio 5 Live, Radio Scotland, and was on BBC News at 10. I was also interviewed for a piece on the BBC website. They used my photo of Lee Mapley (right) scraping a skin, which is featured in my Illumination – Gold and Colour book.

Sharon was on a number of programmes too and Paul Wright of William Cowley on even more.

We made the case as well as we could but knew it was bolting the stable door …!

Then on Monday 15th March we all woke up to the news that Matt Hancock MP has stated that the Cabinet Office would cover the cost of vellum. Hurray! He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘Recording our laws on vellum is a millennium long tradition, and surprisingly cost effective. While the world around us constantly changes, we should safeguard some of our great traditions and not let the use of vellum die out.’

There were many newspaper articles as a result – the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail being but some.

The campaign has been run by the Heritage Crafts Association; this is their press release.

As I write this all is not quite safely delivered in that the process still has to be gone through, the decision reversed, as many MPs as possible to sign the Early Day Motion which James Gray is leading. I am positive but also know that ‘there’s many a slip …’!

I’ll update this blog when everything has been confirmed – in the way we hope it will be!


Vellum and Parchment, and a special offer

IMG_1600 - Version 2Most people are not aware that there is a difference between vellum and parchment – both being animal skin (not pretend ‘parchment’ paper). The names of skins are often used interchangeably and it can be quite difficult when looking at mediæval manuscripts to determine whether the substrate is vellum or parchment. The clue is often the crispness of the letter-forms, but if a sharpened quill is not used in the first place, then this can be even more challenging! I prefer the terms that the makers of vellum and parchment use and so regard vellum as calfskin; it is a dream surface to work on when prepared properly. Parchment is sheepskin and, in many people’s opinion, is inferior to vellum for calligraphy. Goatskin can also be used but its surface is often very bumpy. The skins are a by-product of the meat industry, and as far more skins are produced than can be used by the leatherworkers, many skins end up in land fill.

IMG_2351To see more about vellum and parchment and the qualities of the skin, what to look for, types of skins and the best to use, see my Calligraphy Clip, vellum and parchment.




vellum making

Skins for both parchment and vellum are selected carefully, washed and soaked in lime to slightly swell the hair follicles so that the hair can be removed more easily. The skins are washed again and then stretched out on a ‘frame’ or ‘herse’. Whilst on the frames they are kept under constant tension and scraped with a semi-circular razor-sharp knife. Lee Mapley of William Cowley Parchment Works, finalist in the Craft Skills Awards, is shown on the right; he produces skins of excellent quality. The skins are then allowed to dry and when ready, cut from the frames and rolled, stored and then sent out.

FullSizeRender******SPECIAL OFFER!! Three pieces of skin for £12 (+ p+p), usually £16 (+p+p). I always use skins from William Cowley, the only parchment and vellum maker in the UK, and I highly recommend their products. They have kindly agreed to a special trial offer for subscribers to my newsletter. A whole skin is very expensive, so why not try manuscript calfskin vellum, classic vellum and sheepskin parchment (*see next but one paragraph). All three pieces are about 5 x 3 inches (approximately 13 x 8 cm) which will be big enough to write out a verse of a short poem, piece of prose or paint a mediæval miniature (and without the hole as in those shown here!). To get this offer, please email me at the address on my website. I will then give you a personal code and the website link to William Cowley. They will give details of payment and ask where to send the offer. This offer is available to all my subscribers, and William Cowley will advise on postage for non-UK addresses.

FullSizeRender*******The Private Library, the journal of the Private Libraries Association, has produced a whole edition on vellum, featuring a fascinating, detailed article about many aspects of skin written by James Freemantle. It costs £6 for UK residents (£5 + appropriate p+p for non-UK) and is available from Jim Maslen at maslen@maslen.karoo.co.uk





vellum skinVellum skins are not the same thickness all over as is paper; this can be seen from the picture on the right. This was the skin that I produced for the British Library’s major Genius of Illumination exhibition. The haunches, spine and shoulders are thicker and the ribs thinner. Care must be taken when selecting the part of the skin to use as parts will move and buckle or cockle in heat or when damp.




*There are also different types of vellum skin. Calfskin manuscript vellum is prepared on both sides and so can be used in books or where you want to use the back of the skin. Classic vellum is bleached but prepared on only one side – useful if you want to create a broadsheet. Natural vellum is not bleached, shows the character of the skin, and again prepared on only one side. Kelmscott vellum has a surface coating which makes it ideal for printing; it was made originally for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. It’s good for painting, but you need to use a dry-ish mix of gouache to avoid lifting the special finish. Slunk vellum is from the skins of stillborn or uterine calves and is quite thin but still strong. You can see the thinness in the picture as the handle of the paintbrush shows through much more in the skin on the far left.
Lovett P 6 copyThe skin needs to be prepared before use for writing and painting, and this information is in my book Illumination – Gold and Colour – and the accompanying (and stand alone) DVD Illumination, which is over 3 hours long. Both include how to stretch vellum over board to avoid it buckling and cockling and how to gild and paint a mediæval miniature in the traditional way. There’s lots of information about tools and materials for Illumination, as well as projects which are very simple to make.

CIMG2164Vellum skin does, though, give the most wonderful surface for writing and painting, and if you’ve never tried it then you are missing a rare treat!

Marking the Magna Carta

Magna CartaThe original Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of the Liberties of England, was sealed (but not signed) under oath by King John in 1215 on the bank of the River Thames at Runnymede in Surrey. It limited the powers of the king and accepted that no-one could be punished except through the law of the land; this is a right that still exists. The themes of the Magna Carta have led to just laws in countries throughout the world.

Plans for this great charter were made at St Albans two years beforehand when a Council met in the Abbey on 4th August 1213. To commemorate this event, 800 years later, a new ‘Charter’ has been created in St Albans.

A whole skin of parchment was donated by William Cowley Parchment Works, and the work began. Fairness, Justice, Equality and Human Rights are the essence of the first Magna Carta and these words head the 2013 version.

mayor signingThe 1215 great charter was witnessed by a wide representation of the Barons of England. The new 2013 charter has been witnessed by a representation of the citizens of St Albans and its surrounds as was possible. The Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire with her husband head the columns of signatures, followed by Lord and Lady Salisbury. The High Sherriff of the county also signed, as did the Mayor, Annie Brewster (right).




Cecil ParkinsonThe former Cabinet Minister, Cecil Parkinson was a signatory.







Police chief signingThe Chief Inspector of Police of St Albans, right, also added his signature.







St Albans Street sweeperThe street sweeper made his contribution too. Here he is with his cart.






photo copy 8And the person who donated the skin from William Cowley also added his signature.





photo copy 12Representatives of the Anglican Church and of the Abbey – including the Ringing Master and members of the Choir – of Parliament, the City and District Council have signed.

This huge administrative task was masterminded by Rosemary Stevens.

Included too are a butcher, miller and baker, plumber, electrician, goldsmith, tailor, market stallholder, rugmaker, landscape gardener, a street sweeper (see above) and a street musician. A local garden centre, newspaper and radio are represented, also local socities. Judges from the Crown Court, an architect, archaeologists, sports representative, a famous pub, St Albans School, a bank manager, supermarket manager and the manager of a shop selling the latest technological gadgets – which today may seem rather futuristic, but no doubt by 2114 will seem very quaint – are all represented.

Bowman James RoseSignatures and occupations on their own may have looked a little boring, so colour was added starting with the joining of the signatures of the Bowman James Rose and his wife Liz (right) by an arrow with regal red fletching. Others were linked with suitable symbols and illustrations, including the street sweeper’s cart (see above right), making the document very lively and vibrant.


This is a terrific and significant document and all credit must go to everyone involved in such a wonderful enterprise.