What's the difference between parchment, vellum, and paper?
The term parchment is a general term for an animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing. Parchment has been made for centuries, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin. The manufacture of parchment is quite involved. After the skin is removed from the animal and any hair or flesh is cleaned away, it is stretched on a wooden frame. While it is stretched, the parchment maker or parchminer scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife. In order to create tension in the skin, scraping is alternated by wetting and drying the skin. The parchment is scraped, wetted, and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tautness. Sometimes a final finish is achieved using pumice as an abrasive followed by chalk in order to prepare the surface of the skin to accept ink.
Parchment has traditionally been used instead of paper for important documents such as religious texts, public laws, indentures, and land records as it has always been considered a strong and stable material. The five pages of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation are written on parchment.
The terms parchment and vellum are also used in the paper making industry. Parchment paper is made from cellulose fibers prepared from fir trees or plants such as cotton or flax. Paper can be made which mimics the thickness and smooth surface of parchment. The terms refer to the finish of the paper and should not be relied upon as an indicator of its long term stability.