Parchment Making with Jesse Meyer

Parchment Making with Jesse Meyer
A Field Trip to the Richard E. Meyer & Sons Tannery in Montgomery, NY
September 19-20, 2003
Jesse Meyer sanding vellum

A weekend at the Meyer Tannery by the River Walker in Montgomery, New York, working surrounded by sunny forests, was an instructive and enjoyable experience – even if the workshop itself was reminiscent of hometown Brooklyn with its rancid smells and crashing machinery. The participants brought an interesting variety of backgrounds in book-making to the workshop, but all were curious to try their hand at a new craft.

Our instructor, Jesse Meyer, has taken the helm of his family’s 150 year old tannery, and is trying to find a new relevance for the trade as demand decreases for leather for piano padding, business ledgers and bowling shoes. Now Jesse is making parchment for calligraphers and bookbinders, as well as continuing to help his father Carl produce a stunning range of leather. It takes a person with great insight and patience to bow to the demands of a family business, and adapt their skills within an industry, particularly in an era when most people plot their lives under the illusion that they choose their own careers. Those of us who work with books owe Jesse a debt of gratitude for continuing to provide the materials we need.

Tools play a large part in the appeal of the book arts to any initiate.  Jesse introduced us to a new range: the 90-year-old wooden drying drum (soon to be replaced with a fiberglass model); the ‘scudding knife’ which removes hair follicles; the deflesher; and a ‘staking machine’ which softens dried cow skin from its initial surfboard rigidity.

Jesse explained how to differentiate between goat, deer, calf, and sheepskin by texture and the arrangement of hair follicles. We were shown how the life, and death, of an animal may affect the character of the finished vellum. We were alerted to possible variations between skins in pigmentation, greasiness, and scarring, and how to work around these. And we discovered for ourselves universal problems, such as ‘kidney spots’ – transparent marks on the stretched vellum caused by looser skin over the pelvis and vertebrae.

Over the weekend we followed the progress of our chosen goatskin, from trimming the ears and tails off salted (yet maggoty) raw skins to rolling up a smooth, richly colored piece of vellum to take home. The finished article was earned by dehairing the skins in sodium sulphide and lime, scudding remaining hair follicles away with a knife, standing back and watching Jesse operate the sinister defleshing machine, immersing the skins in vats of dye and finally stretching them on a drying rack.

We also had the opportunity to prepare parchment from ‘slunk’ (foetal calfskin). A wet skin of peculiarly amphibian texture is pulled taut across a frame until it becomes translucent in the late summer sunlight.  It is worked with the curved blade of a kale chopper to stretch and refine it, and then sanded to a still finer texture. We learnt that the process can be repeated to produce a very fine parchment, although only one of us had the energy to start the enterprise over again to achieve this. We began to appreciate how much work is invested in the production of these materials.

As well as learning the history and techniques of parchment preparation, working with the skins at this initial stage is to be highly recommended to anyone who is interested in using leather or parchment. The workshop was a great introduction to assessing the quality of materials, and what is required for specific purposes, e.g. the different ways of preparing parchment for binding, calligraphy, and printing, each of which requires a finer surface. It was invaluable to go back to the rawest stage of the raw materials, and an unforgettable experience to work in this rare trade.

Many thanks are due to Jesse Meyer for his time and expertise, and to Barry Spence for organizing the workshop.

Submitted by Nancy Campbell, Woodside Press

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