What is a Tapestry?

30th October 2020

In Australia and the UK, when you use the term ‘tapestry,’ you may be referring to the embroidery technique of working tent stitch or basketweave stitch on a printed, stiff, open weave canvas. This technique is generally worked in wool and originated out of the tradition of Berlin wool work from the 19th Century.

Tapestry Room – Kilkenny Castle (source)

In North America and other parts of the world, this technique is called needlepoint, although the terms ‘tapestry’ and ‘needlepoint’ are now regarded as interchangeable by many.

Traditionally, tapestry is something quite different. It actually describes the enormous and intricately woven wall hangings that grace the walls of palaces across Europe, both in the past and present. For anyone who has ever toured a European chateau, castle or stately home, you may have marvelled over these historical wall hangings and wondered how they were created.

Seasons and Elements ca.1683 | On view at The Met (source)

Tapestries are woven textiles made by weaving colourful weft threads through long, plain warp threads.

In case anyone needs a reminder as to which is warp and which is weft, just recall the rhyme: ‘the weft goes right to left.’

Traditional tapestries were woven on a loom with the vertical warp threads stretched tightly between the bars. The image was then formed by weaving blocks of colour with the weft fibres. To achieve the minute colour changes, these fibres don’t go all the way from one side to the other, as in cloth weaving. Rather they are ‘discontinuous weft’ threads which are tied off each time.

L – Weft Tapestry Weave | R – View of the Back of a Tapestry (source)

As you can imagine, the process is incredibly labour intensive. It has been said that for a tapestry weaver to create one square metre of coarse tapestry, they could be looking at a month’s work. Now, just translate that to a fine tapestry, and then bring to mind the size and detail of some of the exquisite works which still hang, carefully protected, in European palaces and museums.

‘Hunters in a Landscape’, Flemish Weavers Tapestry ca. 1575–95 | On view at The Met (source)

In a high-quality tapestry, the warp threads are completely invisible. This is achieved by ‘beating down’ the weft threads so firmly that they become visible on both sides of the finished piece, hiding the warp threads completely. This meant tapestries were two-sided and allowed the artisans to do their weaving from the back of the piece. Working in teams, they usually worked from a picture or cartoon, using a mirror image of it in order to get the details correct.

It was only once the piece was completed that it would be turned over and the front could be viewed in all its glory.

Although wool was often used for both the warp and the weft threads, other fibres were incorporated in the creation of the image, including silk, cotton and rich metallics such as gold and silver threads. You wouldn’t want to make a mistake!

Detail from ‘Hunters in a Landscape’ showing the front (L) & back (R) (source

With all of the different threads, the weight of a completed tapestry would be immense. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, which now live at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, were each over 3 metres (approx. 10 feet) wide with ‘Falconry’ measuring in at a gargantuan 4.5m (approx. 15 feet) tall and over 10 metres (approx. 33 feet) wide! One can only imagine the size of the room needed to weave it, not to mention the huge task of transporting such a behemoth once completed.

Detail from ‘Falconry’ at the V&A Museum (source)

The sheer size and cost of tapestries ensured that they were a powerful status symbol. While they had the practical purpose of keeping out draughts and keeping the warmth in, especially during the cold winters experienced in many parts of Europe, they also indicated the position of the owner in a very obvious way. 

And better still, unlike many other symbols of wealth, their portability and their practicality meant that when a court moved, the tapestries could be rolled up and moved with them, ready to be hung for all to admire in a new palace or home.

‘The Unicorn Purifies Water’ 1495–1505 | On view at The Met (source)

If you’re curious as to why the term ‘tapestry’ has been appropriated to refer to needlepoint, it seems that the desire to re-create the exquisite designs of traditional woven tapestries meant designers became creative. Weaving on a loom wasn’t practical for the average person, but the needlepoint style introduced a way to reproduce the imagery using an easily accessible method. As a result, the word became synonymous for both styles. 

However, if you really want to understand what a tapestry is and to appreciate the time, care and skill involved, then try sitting down in front of a traditional tapestry. While you’re visually picking out each weft thread and seeing how it serves to make up the image, just imagine the weaver, carefully choosing the colour, identifying how many warp threads they needed to traverse to get the precise detail, and then carefully adding that thread to the piece.

René Antoine Houasse (French, 1645–1710). Boreas and Orithyia from a set of scenes from ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ | On view at The Met (source)

The patience involved was immense, and the results are undoubtedly spectacular.

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