Of all the high end bookbinding materials, perhaps the most intriguing for me is vellum. A type of high quality animal parchment made from very young animals, vellum is a degreased skin usually from calf, that is cleaned, bleached, stretched, and scraped in order to prepare for use. Interestingly, vellum is never tanned as is common practice for preparing leather for use and the material should be considered a distinct product from leather. Today, the prepared vellum is commonly used as a writing surface, especially valued for religious purposes, and as a binding material. Many uses for vellum other than these have been developed by clever craftsman for ages, but the focus here is exclusively as a bookbinding material.
The use of vellum dates thousands of years. However, the early uses of vellum are almost exclusively as a writing surface like animal parchment. In fact vellum and parchment exist on a continuum of sorts with vellum referring to only the highest quality of parchments. Many of the most beautiful of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages were done on vellum as were many early watercolor paintings. The use of vellum to bind expensive and highly valued books is a more recent phenomena starting with the invention of moveable type in Europe. Many incunabula are bound in vellum. Most often found in a creamy white as the title of this post suggests, vellum can also be found in many different colors including very pale blues and greens. High quality vellum bindings are a particular favorite of mine as I find the virtues of a entire row of books in pure white to be many. Such a row finely crafted books is striking in regards to beauty and also quite distinctive. In addition, I find myself fascinated by the material and its many uses including the role of vellum as an early alternative and precursor to paper.
I know vellum is not for everyone, especially those who object to the use of animal skins for decorative and other purposes, but for me, there is no other binding material that I receive so much pleasure from. I will admit though. I will choose a morocco binding over vellum simply due to the latter’s superior ware characteristics. Lover’s of vellum must contend with the fact that the material can age quite poorly in comparison to other high quality bindings. When I do find a work I value in vellum that has stood the test of time well, I will almost always jump at the opportunity to add to my collection.