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History of Tapestry

Hanging tapestry in your home not only brings interior beauty, warmth and ambiance but also a sense of history.  European weavers have produced these textiles for centuries, including medieval, renaissance and Arts and Crafts periods. This traces a history of tapestries from the ancient Egyptians to today – including medieval tapestry weaving, Francois Boucher, Les Gobelins workshops, and William Morris.

Tapestry weaving has been known for hundreds of years in diverse cultures.  Both ancient Egyptians and the Incas buried their dead in tapestry woven clothing.  Important civic buildings of the Greek Empire, including the Parthenon, had internal walls completely covered by them. However, it was the French medieval weavers who brought the craft into the area which we know today, decorative wall hangings.

Early Tapestries

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Church recognized the value of tapestries in illustrating Bible stories to its illiterate congregations.  Few of these original tapestries have survived but the oldest existing set is the Apocalypse of St John, six hangings at 18 foot high, totalling 471 foot in length which were woven from 1375 to 1379 in Paris.  This was the centre of production until the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) causing the weavers to flee north via Arras to Flanders (now an area covering part of Belgium and northern France along the border).

Tapestries became status symbols amongst the aristocracy in the Middle Ages. They also had much practical use, providing insulation for castle walls, covering openings and giving privacy around beds. Kings and nobles took them on their travels from castle to castle for reasons of comfort and prestige. Tapestries often changed hands after battle, and since the victor’s door and window openings might be a different size the acquired hangings might be cut up or even joined to other tapestries.


Lady with the Unicorn

Many of the best known works such as the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries were woven at the turn of the 15th century in the Loire valley.  It has been estimated that 15,000 people were employed in medieval tapestry weaving. Many were nomadic, passing their skills from father to son.  The charming ‘mille fleurs’ scenes had backgrounds of small local flowers, perhaps inspired by the practice of strewing roadways with flowers on local fete days at that time.  At this time it would take a skilled father/son team two months to weave just one square foot of tapestry.

Medieval weavers extracted their dyes from plants and insects in a range of less than twenty colours. For example, red came from madder, poppies or pomegranates and woad produced blue (a process that was so profitable in 16th century France that importing woad from the East was punishable by death).

Medieval Tapestries

The most popular medieval images were Biblical stories, myths, allegories, and contemporary scenes of peasants working or nobles hunting. Battle scenes were commissioned by victorious monarchs after the early 1500’s.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was even accompanied into battle by his court painter who made sketches at the site for later weaving.  Hunting scenes led to ‘verdure’ tapestries of lush landscapes which later became romanticized with increasing Italian influences.

Medieval weavers used working sketches which they freely adapted with imagination and sometimes humour. By the Renaissance these had become full-sized working drawings (‘cartoons’) which were rigidly copied by the weavers. Thus tapestries became copies of paintings and artworks rather than independent works of art in their own right.  In 1515, Raphael was commissioned by the Pope to paint cartoons for the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.  His introduction of perspective and composition together with the use of finer yarns dyed with up to 300 colour shades led to the subservience of tapestry to painting for over 300 years.


Gobelins Manufactory

In 1663, during the lavish reign of Louis XIV, Les Gobelins factory was founded in Paris employing over 800 artisans in the production of tapestries for the royal court. Other European countries followed, opening factories on behalf of their rulers. They employed Flemish weavers who by now had to complete a twelve year apprenticeship.  Louis XIV’s estate inventory at his death listed 2,155 Gobelins tapestries.  Henry VIII’s collection totalled over 2,000 in seventeen royal residences.

Rococco landscapes were popular in the 18th century typified by the designs of Francois Boucher (1703-70), director of the royal workshops at Beauvais for 30 years.  His cartoons produced over 400 tapestries.  

French Revolution

The history of tapestries took major twists during the French Revolution and shortly afterwards.  The social changes of the times so decimated the tapestry market that the French Directory ordered 190 be burnt in 1797 rather than retain them for their value complete. They considered the gold and silver threads to have greater value. A positive development of this period however was the invention of the Jacquard mechanical loom in Flanders in 1804.  It processed perforated cards, like pianolas or like early IBM computers, which fed the coloured yarns to the shuttle.  It enabled tapestries to become accessible to a wider market and it still forms the basis of the techniques used today.

By the late 1800’s the Gobelins dyeworks produced a colour range of 14,000 tones.  Producing tapestries with such detailing had not surprisingly become very expensive.  Furthermore little creativity existed with most pieces being based on earlier designs.


William Morris

Modern tapestry weaving owes much to the vigour and freedom bought by the Arts and Crafts Movement headed by William Morris in England. He revived many old crafts; tapestry weaving being one of the beneficiaries of his fresh vision and creative energy.  He visited French weavers in 1878 and described the workshops at Aubusson as ‘a decaying commercial industry of rubbish’.

A year later he had a high-warp loom built in his bedroom where he taught himself to weave from an 18th century French craft manual.  With colleagues and friends he designed tapestries, like the now famous Woodpecker design, based on medieval styles and techniques.  The weavers at Morris and Co. achieved commercial success and, more importantly, revived the ailing craft in England.

Tapestry weaving today

Today, most tapestries are loom-woven and almost all are reproductions of originals in museums.  Modern yarns and techniques allow us to enjoy superlative copies of works of art at affordable prices (often better value than a framed print).  Nonetheless, much work is still required to produce these, especially in the design processes prior to weaving.  The selected design and its colouring has to be transposed onto the cartoon with one square representing each single stitch.  A series of up to 36,000 Jacquard perforated cards are prepared for each tapestry: these determine the movement of each warp yarn intertwining with the weft yarns.

Fortunately some use can be made of computers to reduce the time involved but much skill and experience is still required.  The weavers match the yarn colours from a selection of about 1,000 shades.  The loom is threaded with about 12,000 horizontal warp threads which are placed in the correct order on the loom and passed through the eye of each of the corresponding 12,000 vertical loom heddles.  Smaller tapestries utilize cotton, often with viscose, for its fine detailing while larger ones sometimes introduce wool for greater fullness and richness.  Once an acceptable trial result has been achieved the weaving can commence, supervised by a fully apprenticed weaver.

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