The Medieval Art of Tapestry
This is an article that I wrote several years ago to support a collegium class that I ran.
A tapestry is a woven fabric which is weft faced and is decorative. Tapestry is not to be confused with tappisserie or needlepoint which is worked with a needle on canvas, and neither should the word be used as a generic term for a wall hanging. At some point woven hangings depart from what can strictly be called tapestry – essentially a tapestry is a woven picture and medieval tapestry relied entirely upon the use of colour and texture rather than structural techniques.
For those of you not familiar with weaving here are some important terms.
- The warp
- the threads stretched lengthwise on the loom which are then crossed by the weft.
- The weft
- A weft-faced weave is one in which the weft threads are packed down so that none of the warp threads are visible in the finished fabric.
- Carry the weft threads – it looks a little like a lace bobbin except that it has a medium sharp point on one end.
- The shed
- is the opening of the warp threads, in alternate directions so that the bobbin can pass between them.
- A pick
- is the term given to each row of weaving.
Development of tapestry workshops
Tapestry weaving, being a fairly simple technique, has been around for a very long time and is found in diverse cultures, even those of the New World. It was certainly known by the Greeks and Romans and so may have made its way north during the Roman conquest of much of Europe. It is likely to have been imported into medieval Europe from the Middle East where it had flourished in the Coptic tapestry of late antiquity.
There is some documentary evidence for tapestry weaving in the early middle ages as well as surviving tools such as weighted beaters and weft-bobbins . However the first surviving examples of medieval tapestry date from the12th or 13th centuries (see Oslo tapestry The Twelve Months and tapestry of St Michael from Halberstadt, Germany). These early examples demonstrate a reliance on design structures common in manuscript illumination – as well as the use of a limited palette and bold figures, both of which continue to dominate medieval tapestry design. They also make no attempt at naturalistic shading which becomes a major feature of renaissance tapestry.
Tapestry weaving really took off in the 14th century with the establishment of major weaving centres in Arras and Tournai and other Flemish and French towns. The Arras workshops were at their peak by the second half of the thirteenth century and first half of the fifteenth century but production appears to have slowed after about 1450. The Tournai workshops were a major force by the beginning of the fifteenth century and reached their height by the sixteenth – however various factors, including war and plague, meant that they rapidly declined in the early sixteenth century. The sixteenth century saw the rise of what have been termed the Loire workshops in France. These include works by itinerant workers who simply set up looms at the location of their patron (one wonders if they wandered in groups like mercenaries or actors?). A royal workshop was established in Fontainebleau in the middle of the sixteenth century but the famous Gobelins workshop was not established until the mid seventeenth century. Flanders continued to be a major player in tapestry weaving, scoring major commissions from even French kings and major workshops were located in Brussels and Antwerp.
Of course tapestry weaving wasn’t restricted to these major workshops or just to Flanders and France. German and Swiss tapestries have survived as evidence of activity in the north: they tend to be simpler in design and smaller than the enormous products of the leading workshops. A royal workshop was established in Denmark around 1522 but the English didn’t establish an equivalent until the seventeenth century.
Many medieval tapestries were designed by professional designers or artists, not by the weavers themselves – Raphael is known to have designed a set for the Pope – so it’s not surprising that they tended to incorporate design features familiar to contemporary artworks. However the technique of tapestry weaving lends itself to certain elements: for example its very tedious to weave large areas of the same colour so most tapestries have feature many colour changes and complex patterns. Popular elements and themes include:
- Repeating patterns mimicking oriental brocades etc.
- Inscriptions, including names for figures, the names of the workshop or master weaver, mottoes etc.
- Mille fleurs and verdures – thousand flowers used as a background design especially in the fifteenth century but also just as a pattern. Example
- Borders – sometimes decorative ‘frames’ around the main image or even woven structures such as pillars
- Heraldry: sometimes in all over repeating designs, later on a single figure carrying the heraldic banner or the achievement of arms. Example
- Biblical themes: many tapestries were ordered for churches and wealthy monasteries.
- Historical / Mythical / Romance themes: heroes and heroines whether Greek or Arthurian were always popular and a number of famous battles were commemorated in tapestry
- Courtly or Pastoral themes: these include numerous hunting tapestries, picnics, images of the harvest, wine-making etc.
- Allegory: for example the six ‘Lady with the unicorn’ tapestries which symbolise the five senses
- and the last piece called ‘My sole desire’.
Warp. Medieval tapestry was woven on warps of linen and later cotton and even in certain circumstances, wool. It is very important that the warp stretches as little as possible. Both linen and cotton will stretch a little with variation in temperature and humidity, however cotton is less susceptible to this and is preferred. It is also more easily available. The thickness of the warp threads is related to the desired fineness of the finished fabric in much the same way as count size effects fineness in embroidery. Warp weight is defined by a) the weight of each of the plied threads and b) the number of plies in the thread, thus warp threads will be labelled 12/9 etc.
Weft. You can use most anything for your wefting threads with a few limitations. You want you weft threads to fit in between the warp threads if held along them (as opposed to across them as it will be woven). Medieval weavers used wool, silk and metal threads, modern weavers use all this and more besides. The ideal thread is fine and tighter than embroidery wool but neither as thick nor a coarse as carpet or knitting wool. Fine threads are preferred because you can wind more than one onto your bobbin as a way of creating colour blends. Medieval weavers tended to use a limited palette of colours and blending in this way can create the effect of more colour variations.
Loom. Tapestry can be woven on any standard loom, either upright or horizontal or can be woven on a simple frame. The frame shown here is quite small, therefore very portable and was used to weave the small tapestry above.
Bobbins. Bobbins are made of wood or possibly bone and need to be reasonably small if you are working fine tapestry. They are shaped like a spool with one end shaped into a long point. The wool is wound around the thin part of the bobbin and secured in a half hitch so that it doesn’t unwind.
Beater. You do a lot of beating with the bobbin point (pin beater) but a good heavy weighted beater is a god-send for packing down wider areas of the weft.
First make your pattern or cartoon. An important element here is to avoid straight lines which run in the direction of the warp – this creates gaps which must later be sewn up. You must also take into account the width between the warp threads – this will be the minimum increment in any slope running across the warp threads – the increment along the warp is dictated by the thickness of your weft threads and is usually much smaller, allowing a smoother line in that direction. Another way of thinking of this is to imagine an embroidery pattern which is based on little squares – the same pattern for a tapestry would be based on thin rectangles.
The cartoon can be hung behind the warp threads, or drawn onto the warp threads with permanent pen.
Your warp threads must be firm and evenly spaced. Spacing is achieved by marking a parallel set of ruler marks at either end of the frame. Simply tie the warp threads to one end of the frame and wrap around, keeping the spacing even, until you achieve the desired width. Make sure that you keep the warp tension fairly tight. Wrap the loose end around a couple of times and make a secure knot – if you warp goes slack at any point you are in serious trouble.
Now cut a piece of cotton a little over four times the width of the frame and double it up. Tie the centre to one side of the frame and tie one end to the other side so that it runs between the warp threads.
Take the other loose end and make a knot just before the first warp thread, now wind the loose end through and around the warp threads and the horizontal thread so that you pull the warps in and bind them firmly in place against the horizontal. When you get to the end make a knot and then tie both ends together around the far side of the frame. This spaces the warp, brings it together and gives you a strong base on which to start weaving. At the other end of the warp weave a ruler through the warp threads to create a flat plane of warp threads.
Slip the end of the weft thread loaded on a bobbin between the first and second warp threads and place in your right hand (or left if left handed) – the bobbin should stay in this hand most of the time. Use your other hand to open a shed, using you fingers so that the weft can go over and under. Pass your bobbin through the shed with a rolling motion collecting it in the same hand. It is absolutely vital that you do not draw the weft through the warp tightly. You should loop it through drawing it first upwards and then down and use the point of the bobbin to pack it down.
Work along until its time to stop that colour. Open the opposite shed and return in the opposite direction. If at this point your pattern dictates that you go past your beginning spot you will realise that you can’t. You must have a base to weave on so you will have to start another colour in order to have something to build on. Eventually you will have several bobbins of colour on the go – when you stop using one and go onto another use a half slip knot and let the bobbin hang until you need it again.
As you weave your pattern you will occasionally want to beat the whole thing down – you can buy a beater for this purpose and you want to use it quite firmly. You will notice when you do this that the loops around the two side warps want to be packed down a lot further – this is because you only go around them half as often as you go around every other warp thread. To fix this problem you should occasionally send the bobbin around the ends twice before starting a new pick.
You may also notice that when you beat it down hard your pattern ends up looking squished. You need to be aware of this as you weave and beat it down regularly otherwise you will need to un-pick it all and go back and build up the pattern better.
A more difficult problem to address is encountered when building a new colour (b) over the top of a previous colour (a) – sometimes you will find that you are in the wrong shed to do this. What this means is that where your current pick has you going under and over, the pick that you are about to build onto is also going under and over – as opposed to over and under – each pick must always go over the opposite shed so that the weft when packed down interlocks, covering all the warp thread. Fixing this usually requires that you do another pick of colour (a), thus putting that portion of your design into the correct shed for it to be woven over by colour (b). Now colour (a) is one more pick high than colour two and so must be packed down to make them even.
There are many ways that modern tapestry weavers can use to create colour changes and variations but European medieval weavers used what is called hatching or regular hatching. This involves working overlapping picks of the two colours that the weaver wants to blend. The area of overlapping may remain the same in each direction or may move across the warp or increase/decrease to indicate changing areas of shadow etc. Hatching is primarily used to create the effect of shadowing on curved areas such as skin or fabric.
At the end of your design pack the tapestry down so that the edges are straight and parallel.
Once again take a long piece of cotton and double it over. Make a firm knot at one end of the warp, leaving about 10 cm free and work along the warp making tight double knots around each thread. At the end make another firm knot and check that all is secure.
Cut the tapestry off the loom, leaving about 10cm of the warp ends free so that you have something to work with. These ends can be tidied up by working a plait from one edge of the tapestry to the other at both ends – this leaves you with a plaited rats tail and a whole lot of cut ends. You will also have the four ends of the piece that you knotted around the warps. Each of these ends should be loaded onto a thick needle and drawn into the weave at the back.
Turn the tapestry over and look at the back. Most of the weft ends can just be trimmed back to about 2 cm from the fabric. However some will be close to openings caused by straight lines along the warp direction and these may fall through the crack onto the front of the fabric. Take a needle and pull these ends into the fabric so that they are invisible and secure.
If you have any long gaps in the fabric you can sew these up at the back of the fabric.
You may also want to carefully skim the facing surface of the tapestry with a pair of sharp scissors to remove any wool fluff created in the weaving process. This fluff will smudge the design if not removed.
- Jarry, Madeleine. World Tapestry, (G. P. Putnum’s Sons, New York, 1968).
- Pearson, Alec. The Complete Book of Tapestry Weaving, (St Martin’s, New York, 1984).
- Phillips, Barty. Tapestry, (Phaidon, London, 1994).
- Stauffer, Annemarie. Textiles of Late Antiquity, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995
- Verlet, Pierre et al. The Book of Tapestry, (Octopus).
- Rodgers P.W. Textile Production at 16 – 22 Coppergate, York Archaeological Trust for Excavation and Research, 1997
- Weigert, R.A. French Tapestry, Faber & Faber, London 1962.