In December 2021, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a week at NEWA, Hawarden, learning how to do parchment repairs with Mark Allen, the Conservator, working on some Flintshire mortgages and quitclaims dating from the 1300s to 1600s.
The first phase of the practical work was to clean the documents with a smoke sponge, using circular motions to lift as much of the dirt as possible. The structure of parchment is different to that of paper, so it can really grab onto any dirt, especially if moisture has been involved.
Once the documents were free of surface dirt, they were ready to be humidified gently, using a sandwich of Perspex, capillary matting and Gore-Tex. They were then dried, being laid on a blotter with Perspex placed on top, along with a weight. Folds on the document, such as dog-eared corners, were flattened before laying the Perspex on top of it. The document can take days to dry and needs to be checked on at regular intervals.
Once cleaned and dried, we then moved on to repairing any tears or missing areas. Parchment repairs are carried out with gelatin, repairing like-with-like. The texture, colour, thickness, area of skin and any vein patterns need to be considered when matching with the right piece of parchment to make a repair. To repair a hole with strong edges, a patch can be traced to slightly overlap the edge and the edges will be pared to blend it in to the document. If the document is more damaged with thin, dry, and flaky parchment surrounding a loss, or is simply very weak in some areas due to the damage, a large patch can be pared to support this area.
Gelatin is applied to anchor the repair in place and ensure that it will stay in position after it has been lined up correctly to the area. Once dry, the gelatin is again applied in small increments along the edge of the repair, working along and making sure that it all will be fully stuck down.
After all repairs are complete, the right housing situation needs to be made for it to be comfortable and safe in storage. The choice of housing depends on whether the document has a seal, is a multi- membrane document, or is of particular importance.
By the final day of my week learning how to work with parchment documents of all sorts, I felt both confident and content with everything I had taken in throughout the week. Parchment is one of those materials with a reputation that can make a number of conservators and bookbinders nervous about working on, but with my research into its history, I find it very interesting and so was very excited to learn how to work with it.
This new experience benefitted me greatly as a budding conservator, and gave me a greater understanding of the material itself. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn all that I did during this week and my experience of spending time at NEWA with Mark and the rest of the archives team there has been overwhelmingly positive.
Emily MacMillan, Conservation Trainee,
North East Wales Archives (NEWA)