What is Onionskin Paper?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Onion skin paper is a type of very light weight, almost translucent paper that somewhat resembles the outer skins of an onion. It is also relatively durable, given how lightweight it is, because it usually contains a high percentage of cotton fibers, which make for stronger paper. There are numerous practical applications for this paper, including airmail stationary, Bibles, and other situations where lightweight, strong paper is needed. Along with other specialty papers, it is available from paper supply stores and companies in varying sizes to meet differing needs.

Onion skin paper has been compared to the outer skin of an onion.
Onion skin paper has been compared to the outer skin of an onion.

The weight of onion skin paper is very light; a stack of 500 sheets of bond size weighs around 9 pounds (4 kilograms), depending on the manufacturer. Bond size is 17 inches by 22 inches (43 by 56 centimeters), meaning that it is double the size of a standard letter sized sheet. The light weight of onion skin paper makes it ideal for situations where large amounts of records are being generated, but still need to be kept manageable. For this reason, it is also often used to make duplicates, carbon copies, and records of official correspondence. While the official version may be sent out on regular paper, the records are kept compact on this specialty paper.

Airmail stationary is commonly made from onion skin paper.
Airmail stationary is commonly made from onion skin paper.

The finish of onion skin paper is usually cockled, meaning that it was air dried while it was being made. Cockled paper has a slightly wavy, hand-made feel to it, along with a mildly dimpled finish. This property means that the paper often crackles while it is being handled, as the sheets do not lie flat against each other. It also prevents the sheets from sticking to each other or other surfaces, a common problem with very light weight papers.

While onion skin paper and tracing paper are technically not the same thing, this paper can be used for art tracing. It can also be used as an interleaving material in books with color plates that have the potential to be damaged. Entire books are also printed on onion skin paper when they have a lot of material that would otherwise make them very unwieldy. When handling a large onion skin text, such as some versions of the Bible or the Oxford English Dictionary, readers should be aware that the larger pages are more subject to ripping if roughly handled than some other papers, so they should not be hasty, even when an etymological argument is vital.

Dictionaries can be made from onion skin paper.
Dictionaries can be made from onion skin paper.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Forget sewing your design onto the fabric. Trace your quilt design onto the fabric using graphite paper (or any specialized fabric tracing paper). The graphite is completely removed when you wash the quilt.


I would like to have my family tree chart put on onion paper and I don't know where I can get that done. If anyone knows of any company that can do that or on something similar to that kind of paper. I don't want it to ever fade. I want to frame it. One side of my family goes back 20 generations so it will be a good size chart. I hope to hear from someone soon. Thank you.


where can I purchase a dictionary printed on onion skin paper?


i have what appears to be onion paper copies of american civil war military letters. was the paper used as blotting material and/or copy material?

tks, roland


I am wondering if there is any photocopier (brand) that you know of that can photocopy in black and white on onion skin paper. (double sided.)


I have a question about paper types and what to use for a craft project I'm trying to do. I'm a quilter and need to use a lightweight, easily-tearable paper. What I do is print or copy a design I've drawn onto paper and lay that paper picture on top of fabric and sew along the outline of the picture to give a quilted shape design. Then after sewing the design into the fabric, I tear away the paper. My problem is that when I'm tearing the paper away, often the sewed stitches come loose or out entirely which defeats the purpose of my using the paper method to transfer a design to the fabric. Any suggestions on what type of paper would be good for this? Onion skin, tissue paper, tracing paper, vellum, parchment? Ideally, the paper might be placed into a computer printer and simply printed upon and and then taken to the sewing machine and fabric. Your suggestions would be very helpful. Thanks.

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