Gosling has revived the use of vellum in its furniture designs, using its exceptional properties to give an aura of glamour, softness and enduring luxury. Vellum is an extremely hard-wearing material traditionally prepared from the fine-grained, unsplit skins of a goat, calf, or sheep which, due to its pale colour and attractive appearance, was used for the writing, painting and gilding of many of the earliest books.
Specialist hardware scissors used to cut vellum. A craftsman soaking the vellum with a special solution, so it can be wrapped around the sycamore panel.
Since the Middle Ages the terms vellum and parchment have become almost interchangeable. There is, however, a definite if subtle difference between the two. Vellum is made from far superior skins to those used for parchment, and some of the processes – particularly the shaving or scraping of the skins to remove skin grain – takes much longer and requires much greater care and skill. By contemporary definition, parchment is prepared from sheep or goat skin whereas vellum (thinner and smoother) is made from the skins of young calves. This, however, is a very modern distinction: historically, animal vellum could be made from the hide of any young mammal, including antelope calves, fawns and even foals, although the latter were generally far too valuable as working animals. Whatever the accepted definitions, vellum has always denoted a higher quality, and a far superior material, than parchment.
A craftsman applying vellum to a sycamore panel using a bone scraper. A craftsman applying vellum to a sycamore panel using a bone scraper.
Vellum continues to be highly regarded as superlative quality stationery, not only due to its luxurious appearance, but also because of its durability. It owes its long-lasting nature in part to the alkalinizing, ‘liming’ process it undergoes while being prepared, which neutralizes and protects against the atmospheric nitric and sulphuric acid, largely responsible for the slow decay of papers and leathers. Vellum’s worth was championed less than a decade ago in November 1999 when the UK Parliament voted 121 to 53 in favour of maintaining the practice, dating back to 1497, of printing British Acts of Parliament on vellum for archival purposes.
Sheets of calf vellum - cleaned, limed and ready for commercial use.
The process of creating vellum today does not differ significantly from that recorded in monastic accounts from the twelfth century. It is the skill of the craftsman that determines the quality, making the difference between a soft, flexible skin and a stiff, brittle one. The sheep, goat and calf skins which arrive at the vellum maker from cattle farmers and abattoirs are carefully sorted through to ensure that they are free from blemishes and scars – an estimated ninety per cent of skins are discarded as unsuitable at this stage. The initial step is to remove all of the hair with a knife, traditionally moon-shaped to ensure an even pressure all along the blade. The skins then undergo a process to remove the fat and oil with alkalis known as liming, which involves being alternately immersed in clear water and a strong lime solution. This stage can take up to four weeks until the vellum is sufficiently clean and flexible for use.
Although an eggshell or matt surface can be obtained by varying the process, vellums are usually prepared with a semi-shiny grain surface for which the skin is stretched to an even tension and rubbed with pumice to smooth it. The final step is a long-tensioned drying which must be slow and gradual in order to give a flat opaque skin, after which the skins are selected for their commercial requirement according to the type, size, colour, finish and thickness required. Vellum’s strength is apparent, with specialist hardware scissors used by craftsmen to cut required sizes from the prepared sheets.
Desk by Carlo Bugatti (Italian, 1856-1940) in walnut, copper, pewter and vellum, Italy, c. 1902.
The fundamental difference between vellum and leather is that leather is tanned in acid (an irreversible process), whereas the liming the vellum undergoes is both alkalinizing and reversible, as the lime can be removed in water. Also unlike leather, vellum shows its true surface as the skin is not denatured in any way by the preparation process.
Unsurprisingly, given its hardy but attractive nature, vellum was also used for making luggage, a tradition encouraged by the increase in travel during the nineteenth century and the arrival of the motor car into mainstream society. A recent and interesting exponent of vellum in furniture was Carlo Bugatti (father of the celebrated designer of the Buggatti cars, Ettore Bugatti) who began designing furniture around 1880. The first international show of his work was at the Italian Exhibition in London in 1888, where his signature style began to attract admirers, and where he was subsequently awarded an honorary prize. Later in his career the Turkish Salon in New York’s Waldorf Astoria was furnished with his pieces – a collection for which he was awarded the Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.
A commode inlaid with varnished vellum (Parchemin); bronze gilding on the marble top, Paris, c. 1740-50.
Strikingly original and luxuriantly exotic, Bugatti used vellum to upholster chairs, cover tabletops and inlay desks in his furniture making. Initially he merely inlaid relatively undecorated vellum panels surrounded by decorative borders of metalwork and woods into his pieces; however he soon progressed to covering the entire wooden frame of his furniture with vellum. These pieces were often decorated with stylized patterns and motifs hand-painted directly onto the vellum with gold leaf and watercolours or dye. One interesting example is a writing desk designed by Bugatti. The writing surface is covered in vellum, held in place with punched copper strapping and the walnut legs inlaid with pewter, imitating calligraphic brush painting. The unusual profile of the desk suggests the jaws and teeth of an alligator. This desk was part of one of Bugatti’s few completed interiors: a bedroom designed for the London residence of Lord Battersea.