Cut out and keep

Making it: parchment design is an addictive occupation, and the skills are surprisingly easy to learn. Sally Staples gets scissor-happy with the joys of creating a good old-fashioned greetings card
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On Tuesday mornings Marian Perrett's dining-room turns into a cosy studio for six women who have all become devotees of parchment craft. Few people will recognise the name, but most would know the product. Parchment craft is the art of producing those embossed and decorated cards that were popular in the Victorian era. They look intricate and complex to make. But, as Marian's students testify, anyone can do it.

The art of making these cards dates back to the 15th century, when it was taught by nuns in Colombia. As an eminently suitable pastime for young ladies, parchment craft thrived in Victorian times and is now slowly enjoying a resurgence as craft shops are offering lessons.

The students begin by tracing a design on to a waxy, shiny sheet of paper that feels a little like plastic and gives the effect of parchment. The attraction here is that though not everyone can draw, we all learned to trace things at school. Nor is there any need to be creative in design, as there are numerous pattern books offering a huge variety of themes - Christmas and Easter motifs, fruit, flowers, animals, birds, abstract styles.

Once the tracing is complete there is the opportunity to colour the parchment- like paper to any hue. Using oil pastel crayons, Marian simply scribbles a few lines of colour on the back of the parchment and then wipes surgical spirit over the colour to stain the paper.

At this stage there is the option to use colour on the design itself. So if you want the flowers to be yellow, the birds blue and the butterflies red you simply paint inside the traced lines - as easy as painting by numbers.

"I always encourage people to start painting with a felt tip because they feel safer with something that is familiar," says Marian. "With many people, if you put a brush into their hands they freeze."

But if you don't freeze with a brush the painting can be done with acrylic paints or even water-soluble pencils. Not everyone chooses to use colour; some prefer what is called a white-work effect.

The next stage is embossing. Marian provides each student with a pad to rest on and a set of embossing pens of different thicknesses, and they simply fill in the design with the embossing tool to raise it slightly from the parchment. Different sizes of tool will give varying effects.

The parchment design can either be mounted on a card, or made so that it encloses an insert where messages can be written. At the end of a couple of hours even the most hesitant beginner will have produced a greetings card that looks utterly professional. It is not arduous, nor do you need artistic flair.

The women, who regularly have a five-hour session with Marian, take great pride in their handiwork and have an impressive portfolio of cards, Christmas tags, bookmarks, table seating cards, photograph mounts and even some three-dimensional work.

Margaret Gidley, a retired civil servant from Bordon in Hampshire, says: "You can have such fun with this if you like painting, or the intricate lacework - done with a four-needle tool followed by some deft hand movements with a pair of scissors - or you just want to experiment with the embossing to get different textures and effects. There is something for everyone. And it is amazing how good children are at this craft. My grandsons, aged seven and 10, will sit with me at the kitchen table for hours working on cards. It makes a good contrast to dashing about on a skateboard.

"It's the first craft I've ever done where you can take home something good enough to give someone after just one lesson. And if you want to progress, the advanced techniques show how to make 3-D designs and parchment flowers."

Irene Mason, from Farnham in Hampshire, has been working on the craft for a year and has sent her cards all over the world. So keen is she to spread the word that on a recent visit to the Dolly Parton theme park in Tennessee she spoke to sponsors about setting up a parchment craft stall in the park. "Very few people seem to know about it in America, although it is a popular craft in Australia," she says.

Pam Clisman, from Farnborough, says that parchment craft was a joy to find after failing at painting. "I tried watercolours and wasn't any good. I think you can either draw or you can't. But I like doing things with my hands, and this is marvellous. I can copy exactly from the pattern books. Other people can draw in their own designs, but I don't have to worry about that."

To set yourself up to learn parchment craft at home costs only pounds 20, as there are few tools needed. Marian's sessions, where all materials are provided, cost around pounds 10. She teaches children at a local school in Liphook and adults in Hampshire craft shops. For details, call 01428- 713049.

Her colleague, Wendy Stone, teaches at craft shops in Surrey (01372-453452). Together they are holding a demonstration day to raise funds for motor neurone disease on 17 October at The Old Barn Hall, Church Road, Bookham, Surrey. Entry costs pounds 2. Details from Marian or Wendy.