Vellum is essentially calfskin binding. The word is derived from the Latin “vitulinum” meaning “made from calf”, leading to Old French “vélin” (“calfskin”).
In terms of antique books, vellum refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals. It was prepared for writing or printing on, to produce bindings for books, pages, or scrolls. Vellum became dominant as a book binding material in the 4th century and was also used for official documents such as indentures. Parchment also comes from animal skin, heavily worked with and treated to remove hair and fat and to create a paper-like finished product suitable for printing.
This material is very rarely used now for book binding but is still used on occasion for limited and special editions of various classic works.
Vellum is known to be very hard to work with. When it is new, it is smooth and waxy to the touch, and although it is thin it also tends to be quite stiff and doesn’t bend very easily. Can you imagine the difficulties early book binders had when using a stubborn material like vellum?
How to tell the difference between leather and vellum
Many people often confuse a leather binding with a vellum binding when examining antique books. To make things more confusing, all vellum is considered parchment, but not all parchment is actually vellum.
Here’s how to tell the difference between leather and vellum: While leather is animal skin, the skin has been chemically treated to protect it from rot. Tanning the skin produces lots of variations in leather, and as such it can be tinted or colored in the familiar hues we’ve all seen. A gorgeous leather cover in a bold color is stereotypically one of the first things that comes to mind when someone says “antique books.”
Vellum, on the other hand, is somewhat easy to spot as it always retains its original milky white coloring (often with gray undertones) and is never tinted or colored as leather can be. Vellum of considerable age, however, can sometimes deepen in color and take on a yellowish or light tan hue, as seen in the image of a 15th century vellum binding here.