Parchment is a material that has been used for centuries for writing, artwork, and bookbinding. Its color can vary quite a bit, but is often described as off-white, tan, or cream. So is parchment really off-white? Let’s take a closer look.
What is parchment?
Parchment is made from animal skin that has been prepared in a way that allows it to be used as a writing surface. The most common skins used are calf, sheep, and goat. The skin is first cleaned and then stretched on a wooden frame. While stretched, the skin is scraped to remove hair, fat, and flesh. This process leaves behind the dermis layer of the skin which becomes the parchment. The skin is then treated with lime to help remove the remaining hair and flesh, making it smoother. After this, the skin can be whitened using chalk and rubbed with pumice stone. It is then allowed to dry under tension on the frame to create the final parchment sheet.
What causes the color of parchment?
The natural color of parchment comes from the animal skin it is made from. However, the preparation process can alter the color. Here are some of the factors that affect parchment color:
- Animal source – Calf, sheep, and goat parchment can vary in color. Calfskin tends to be palest.
- Condition and diet of the animal – Healthier animals produce finer, paler parchment.
- Preparation methods – The lime treatment and whitening processes will lighten the parchment. Less processing results in darker parchment.
- Drying methods – Drying parchment under tension creates lighter, more uniform parchment.
- Handling and use – Exposure to light, dirt, oils from hands, and other environmental factors can darken parchment over time.
What color is natural parchment?
Natural, untreated parchment typically ranges in color from off-white to tan or beige. Here are some examples of the colors that high quality parchement can take on:
|Cream||Pale yellowish white or pale tan|
|Beige||Light grayish yellowish brown|
|Oatmeal||Pale brownish gray|
As you can see, parchment encompasses a range of light, warm neutral tones. While not pure white, the colors are pale enough to be considered off-white.
How is whiter parchment achieved?
Parchment can be processed in ways to achieve a whiter color. Here are some methods used historically and today:
- Whitening agents – Chalk, lime, flour, milk, and sea shells were historically used to whiten parchment. Modern parchment makers may use bleaching agents.
- Extra scraping/polishing – Thoroughly scraping the skin and polishing it produces a smoother, whiter surface.
- Quality control – Selecting higher quality skins from young, healthy animals also achieves whiter results.
- Tension drying – Drying parchment under tension creates more uniform whiteness.
- Coatings – Parchment can be coated with substances like egg whites or gelatin to create smoother, whiter surfaces.
However, even with these treatments, parchment still retains some of its natural off-white color rather than becoming truly white.
How white is modern parchment?
Thanks to more advanced preparation techniques, parchment today can be made brighter and more uniform in color than historical parchment. However, most modern parchment is still not stark white.
High quality modern parchment tends to range from off-white to pale cream. Lower grade modern parchment may be darker and more uneven in tone. The whitest parchment achievable today still retains a very subtle warm, yellowish undertone compared to a pure white surface like printer paper.
Here are examples of modern parchment color names:
- Antique White
- Natural White
- Snow White (still with warm/yellow undertones)
The slightly off-white, natural color of parchment is considered part of its beauty and character by many modern consumers and artists.
While parchment can be made brighter and more uniform than its historical counterparts, the highest quality parchment today still retains an off-white, slightly yellow/tan natural color. Truly stark white parchment is not achievable or desirable, as it would lose the subtle warmth and organic characteristics that make parchment so unique and appealing for fine bookbinding, artwork, and other uses.
However, the range of off-white colors parchment can take on from pale cream to oatmeal to eggshell make it nearly white and still suitable for any application requiring a light neutral background. The delicate off-white tones are considered attractive qualities, not imperfections. So while not literally white, the light coloration and handmade origins give parchment an unmistakable beauty and depth.