Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles. The techniques used have remained the same for centuries. Remnants of tapestries woven in ancient Egypt have been dated as far back as 3000BC.
In the Middle Ages master weavers’ studios designed and wove great, colorful tapestries for wealthy clients. In the Renaissance artists such as Raphael were commissioned to produce cartoons for studios to copy, giving weavers less freedom of interpretation. Surviving tapestries from these times can still be seen, though they sometimes look rather dull and predominantly beige, blue and red. That’s because vibrant yellows, greens, purples and browns have disappeared as the dyes used have faded away.
Today, tapestry weaving is dominated by individual weavers producing their own designs, though a few studios where large tapestries are woven from artists’ cartoons still survive. Traditional fibers (wool, silk and linen) continue to be used, together with cotton and other more modern materials.
What defines a tapestry?
The following define a tapestry
||Tapestries are hand woven on a loom. Tapestry looms are either vertical (high warp) or horizontal (low warp).
||The design is formed by the weft (horizontal) threads, which are tightly packed to cover the warp (vertical) threads. The warp threads are normally completely covered so play no part in the design. This is known as ‘weft facing’.
||Each color of weft is worked only in its own section of the design, so there are many different wefts on the go at any one time. Unlike other types of weaving, it is rare for the weft to run across the entire width of the piece. This is known as ‘discontinuous weft’ as shown in the diagram.
||Tapestries are usually made to hang on a wall (though rugs, cushion covers and three-dimensional installations can also be made).
What’s not tapestry?
Fine tapestries take a long time to weave, so have long been rare and expensive. Perhaps because of this, the term ‘tapestry’ has been purloined by other techniques to produce textiles and wall hangings, often resembling tapestry but at a much lower cost. Common culprits are:
- ‘Tapestry’ chair-backs, screens, cushions etc., including those sold in kit form.
Needlepoint, canvas-work, wool-work (a design is inked onto canvas or a similar fabric, then stitched with a needle to create the patterns and pictures)
- The 11th Century Bayeux ‘Tapestry’, The Quaker ‘Tapestry’ (completed 1989) and The Great ‘Tapestry’ of Scotland (completed in 2013).
These are embroidered wall-hangings.
- Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow ‘Tapestry’ and the “The Vanity of Small Differences” series of six ‘tapestries’ – These are computer-controlled jacquard weaving (the design is formed by intricately-colored warp AND weft threads)
- Large-scale ‘tapestry’ wall hangings and installations produced by various fibre-artists – These can be a mix of any/all of (non-tapestry) weaving, threading, knotting, felting and embroidery
How to recognize a tapestry
On any tapestry you’ll see characteristic lines of ridges where the weft threads go over the warp threads. This tells you it’s a genuine woven tapestry. During weaving, and sometimes when completed and hung, these lines of ridges run vertically from the top to the bottom of the tapestry.
But the lines of ridges may run horizontally. This is because tapestries, especially large ones, are often woven so that the warps will be horizontal when hung. This distributes the weight of the tapestry better and prevents the wefts sliding down the warps with time (as happened with the Christ in Glory tapestry at Coventry Cathedral). When hung like this, the design has to be woven sideways on.