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Weaving the History of Medieval Tapestry

Tapestry is among one of the oldest and most beautiful forms of woven textiles. The art of weaving tapestry has been practiced for hundreds of years in many cultures worldwide such as those of the ancient Egyptians and the Inca. However, it is European medieval weavers who are thought to have brought the craft to its height.

It is believed that tapestry production in the Middle Ages was brought to Europe through Spain when the Moors established themselves there. By the 11th century, the hub of tapestry production was located in France. Since the Church had begun to recognize the value of presenting Bible stories to the common people through the use of hanging tapestries, early tapestries were produced in monasteries and convents. By the 13th century, however, tapestries had become a status symbol for the wealthy and powerful and the art spread to the secular community, particularly in Paris. Tapestry guilds were organized and from that time on, tapestry weaving became an established industry. It has been estimated that 15,000 craftsmen were employed in the craft during this time period, passing the art from father to son. It typically took 12 years of experience to become a master tapestry weaver. Women were not allowed to participate in the production of tapestries except for the spinning of the yarn. With the advent of the Hundred Years War, however, many of these skilled craftspeople migrated to Flanders, an area that is today known as Holland and Belgium.

On a practical level, tapestries commissioned by lay people were used not only to decorate walls but also to provide privacy around beds, partition rooms, prevent drafts, and insulate from the cold. In addition to Biblical stories, popular subjects for tapestries were battles, legends or sports as well as allegories, myths and landscapes.

The tapestry craftsman not only had to be an expert weaver but also needed to be skilled in the art of dying. Medieval weavers produced dyes from plants and other natural materials in a range of less than twenty colors. As an example, red dye was produced with pigments from the madder plant, poppies or pomegranates. Yarn used in the weaving of tapestries was typically wool or silk. Silver and gold threads were often used for embellishment. Tapestry production was a slow process, taking about two months to weave a square foot of tapestry. Large tapestries were typically a group effort, each worker having his own particular section of a tapestry to weave, which would be joined with other sections at a later date.

Medieval weavers used sketches or manuscripts that they freely adapted, based on their own personal perception and creativity, to create the designs in the tapestry. This is in contrast to the practice during the Renaissance, of using full-size drawings made by artists as templates for exact reproduction of a design.

Defined, tapestry is a thick fabric in which colored weft threads are woven into fixed warp threads to form pictures or designs. Two basic types of looms were used in the Middle Ages: a high warp (haute-lisse) loom and a low warp (basse-lisse) loom. The haute-lisse loom is composed of an upper and lower support between which the warp threads are fixed. Weaving is thus made vertically. With the basse-lisse loom, a later improvement, the warp is stretched on a horizontal plane, requiring the weaver to lean over the tapestry. For large tapestries, the warp yarns are stretched between two rollers so that the woven section of the tapestry can be rolled up, exposing more unwoven warp for weaving.

Sitting at the loom, the weaver inserts a shuttle, to which colored thread is attached, over the first warp thread, under the second warp thread, over the third thread, and so on across the width of the warp. The space through which the weft yarns are passed or “shot” is called a shed. To expedite weaving, the warp yarns are fastened to one of two bars – even number threads to one bar and odd number threads to the other. In this way, by manipulating one or the other bar, a shed can be created easily. In a haute-lisse loom, the alternate threads to make the shed are lifted by hand; in a basse-lisse loom, the threads are lifted with the use of a foot treadle. Tapestries were woven with the reverse side to the weaver, who saw nothing of his work during the weaving process.

To create the design in the tapestry, the weft threads are woven between the warp threads only as far as each particular color is required. The weft threads are pressed down firmly after each row of weaving is completed, hiding the warp threads completely. Various methods were used to avoid the slits that occurred where colors changed, but most often these slits were just sewn up by hand on the reverse side of the tapestry.

It is important that tapestry not be confused with embroidery or appliqué. In embroidery, a needle is used to stitch a design onto the surface of a fabric. An appliqué is a shaped piece of fabric that is sewn onto a cloth to make a design. It is interesting to note that the famous Bayeaux Tapestry that depicts William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066, is not actually a tapestry, but an embroidery.

The Cloisters Museum, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, has in its collection two famous tapestries from the Middle Ages: The Unicorn Tapestries and the Nine Heroes Tapestries. For more information, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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