History Of Tapestries

September 03, 2019


What is Tapestry

Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles. The word tapestry is defined as 'a thick textile fabric in which colored weft threads are woven (originally by hand) into fixed warp threads to form pictures or designs.

The weft threads are pressed down firmly row-on-row, thereby hiding the warp threads completely. The difference is determined by the closeness of the warp threads; the closer together and finer the threads, the more detail can be worked into the cloth including Plain Weave, Dovetailing and Interlocking.

The Differences

The unique tapestry technique should not be confused with embroidery where a needle is used to stitch a design onto the surface of fabric nor with appliqué where pieces of fabric are superimposed onto a cloth background. Most will know of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The original was not tapestry, in fact, but appliqué in which 72 narrative scenes, woven into one piece of fabric, depicted William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066. Reproductions of various individual scenes have since been woven, particularly those of Bayeux, Bayeux Horsemen, and Bayeux Longboat.

The design of the tapestry is created as the weaver copies from a cartoon (drawing or painting). The early cartoons were hardly more than sketches and it was quite common for the weavers to exercise their own flair by adding a small animal or a particular expression to a face so giving each tapestry its individuality.

However, by the Renaissance period the cartoons were very sophisticated; drawn or painted in great detail with specific instructions to the weaver about colors and tones to be used.

Tapestry Through Civilisations

The Latin name for tapestry (tapetium) is taken from the Greek. The earliest written records of woven cloth appear in the biblical text Exodus, Chapter 26 and it is reasonable to assume that the woven fabric referred to was a tapestry-type.

Egyptian tomb paintings from circa 3000 BC clearly depict weavers working on a tapestry-type loom and vase illustrations by the Greeks dating back to circa 500 BC show women weavers working at looms. Evidence of tiled and mosaic floors would suggest that their works of art were wall hangings and predated rugs made to adorn the floor.

The Greeks obviously regarded tapestry as an important aspect of interior decoration for affluent homes and civic buildings and it is thought that the walls of Parthenon were covered in tapestries.

The Romans also valued tapestry and, although they did not appear to have woven tapestries themselves, there is evidence that they imported tapestry hangings from Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and India.

European Mastery

However, the use of tapestries died out in the West and was not reintroduced until the Moors established a civilization in Spain during the eighth century. The industry spread from Spain to France and by the eleventh century Poitiers, Arras and, later, Tournai were renowned in Europe for the tapestries produced there.

Flanders had all the ingredients needed for textile production; a wealth of fuller's earth, plants suitable for dyestuffs, access to superior English wool and a plentiful water supply from the surrounding rivers.

Gradually, the craft became established in Ghent, Bruges, Ypres, and Valenciennes also. Flanders became regarded as the chief tapestry weaving area for three centuries with Antwerp serving as the European tapestry market.


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