Introduction to Tapestry

The Three Fates; The Triumph of Death, tapestry, unknown maker, early 16th century. Museum no. 65&A-1866. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Three Fates; The Triumph of Death, tapestry, unknown maker, early 16th century. Museum no. 65&A-1866. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tapestry is an ancient technique of weaving. The pattern is woven in blocks of coloured weft thread which are then beaten down very tightly on the warp threads, producing a picture or pattern.

In Europe the great period of tapestry weaving ran from the second half of the 14th to the end of the 18th century. The requirements of the Church and the many wealthy people at European courts ensured that demand for all kinds of tapestry work was strong. Wallhangings, bed and table coverings and church decorations all served to demonstrate their owners' wealth. King Henry VIII is recorded as having 2,000 tapestries amongst his various palaces.

Large wall tapestries added vibrant colour to a room. They kept out draughts and provided both entertainment and food for thought through their dramatic depiction of stories from the Bible, mythology and the classics, or their revealing portrayal of and commentary on contemporary fashionable life.

Cartoons

A tapestry workshop that had a popular set of designs which it could weave and sell several times was assured of financial success. Many of the busiest companies retained professional artists to produce the full-size designs that the weavers reproduced. These are known as 'cartoons', from cartone, an Italian word meaning paper. The ten enormous cartoons by the artist Raphael on the theme of the Acts of the Apostles were commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel in 1515 and sent to one of the best tapestry workshops of the time in Brussels. The cartoons were cut into strips and the tapestries woven, but after the commission was completed the cartoons were sold on to other workshops. In 1623 they were bought by the future King Charles I for use at the tapestry workshop in Mortlake.

Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra, 1515-16 Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas (tapestry cartoon), 350 x 560cm Lent by H.M. The Queen
Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra, 1515-16 Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas (tapestry cartoon), 350 x 560cm Lent by H.M. The Queen
Raphael, Christ's Charge to Peter, 1515-16 Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas (tapestry cartoon), 340 x 530 cm Lent by H.M. The Queen
Raphael, Christ's Charge to Peter, 1515-16 Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas (tapestry cartoon), 340 x 530 cm Lent by H.M. The Queen

Weaving technique

Professional tapestry workers used large looms and developed ways that enabled them to work fast, but they still had to overcome considerable obstacles to produce works the size of wall hangings. For instance, tapestries were woven from the back, because this made it easier for the weaver to deal with the ends of the different coloured wefts. Thus weavers could not usually see the complete design or image until the work was finished. On low-warp looms, the warp threads were stretched horizontally and the cartoons placed directly underneath.Weaving from the back meant that the woven image was reversed. High-warp looms, which hold the warp threads vertically, enabled weavers to produce a design the right way round. This was achieved not by re-drawing the cartoon, but by looking through the warp threads at the reflection of the cartoon in a mirror.. It is virtually impossible to tell from looking at a tapestry whether it was woven on a high-warp or a low-warp loom.

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