The Glory Days of Tapestries

The Glory Days of Tapestries

Last week I attended really interesting lecture at the Bard Graduate Center by Tristan Weddigen. The talk was entitled “The Warp and Weft of History: Raphael and Le Brun Reflecting on the Textile Medium” and explored the ways tapestries from early modern Europe expressed and reflected the early modern artists intentions, in the same way that painting and sculpture did.

The starting point of the talk was the fact that tapestries were amongst the most expensive and valued works of art on Europe during Renaissance, but that importance isn’t reflected in art theory, either from that time or today. Several examples of tapestries with cartoons from Raphael and Charles LeBrun were discussed, highlighting how tapestries were start mimicking reality, in such a detailed way as paintings. The first examples of a tapestry depicting water reflections, and perspective, and facial expressions come from the 16th century and it is really mesmerizing to think how that result was achieved by weaving with colorful threads.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, part of the 10 tapestries series commissioned by     Leo X for the Sistine Chapel, cartoons by Raphael, 1519

However, what really got my attention was learning that it was around this time too that tapestries started depicting textiles, and clothing, and other tapestries in extreme detail. Take a look, for instance, in this tapestry commissioned by Louis XIV and made at Gobelins, following a cartoon of Charles LeBrun. This tapestry depicts Louis XIV visiting the Gobelins workshop in Paris, and you can see represented another tapestry in the background, draped brocade textiles and voluptuous clothing.

Louis XIV visiting the Gobelins Factory, cartoon by Charles LeBrun, 1673

Imagine the work involved on the creation of these tapestries and it’s not hard to understand why their were so valuable. Also, the fact that a tapestry workshop and the work-in-progress was represented in a tapestry (and the fact the Louis XIV commissioned this work and is represented in it) only reinforces how important tapestries were in the society.  Another good example are the early mentioned Sistine Chapel tapestries, commissioned by Leo X (with cartoons by Raphael), which costed at least 16,000 ducats, and that amount was around five times what Michelangelo was paid for the work in the ceiling. (More on the process of creating a tapestry from the cartoon in this video about the Raphael’s Sistine Tapestries)

What happened since then though? At what moment did we stop acknowledging the creativity, the mastership and all the work involved on the creation of fiber art? What made fiber art lose its status as art, and be sent to the complicated-to-define craft concept?

This lecture made me feel overwhelmed with knowledge (I didn’t even attempt to make a summary of it, knowing that I probably missed great part of the art theory discussion about tapestries and their role in the society and art at that time), but also made me feel that I need to study more, much more.

Tapestry art


Tapestry is different from all other forms of patterned weaving in that no weft threads are taken the full width of the fabric web. Each unit of the pattern is woven with a weft, or thread, of the required colour, that is carried back and forth only over the section where that particular colour appears in the design or cartoon. Like in the weaving of ordinary cloth, the weft threads pass over and under the warp threads alternately, and on the return go under where before it was over and vice versa. Each passage is called a pick, and when finished the wefts are pushed tightly together by a variety of methods or devices (all, read, batten, comb, serated finger nails).

The thickness of the warp determines the thickness of the tapestry fabric. In Medieval Europe, the thickness of the wool tapestry fabric in works like the 14th century ‘Angers Apocalypse’ tapestry was roughly 10 to 12 threads to the inch (5 to the cm). By the 16th century the tapestry grain had become finer as tapestry began to imitate painting. In the 17th century, the Royal Gobelins Tapestry factory in Paris used 15 to 18 threads per inch and 18 to 20 in the 18th century. The other royal tapestry workshop at Beauvais had as many as 25 or even 40 threads per inch in the 19th century. These exceptionally fine grains make the fabric very flat, like the surface of a painting. In comparison, the grain of 20th century tapestry approximates to that used in 14th and 15th century tapestry. The Gobelins factory for instance now uses 12 or 15 threads per inch. The grain of silk, of course, is much finer than those made of wool. Some Chinese silk tapestries have as many as 60 warp threads per inch.

European tapestry is woven on either a vertical loom (high-warp, or haute-lisse) or a horizontal loom (low-warp, or basse-lisse). Of the two methods, low warp is more commonly used. Among the great European tapestry factories, only the Gobelins has traditionally used high warp looms. Several weavers can weave simultaneously on either kind of loom. According to the complexity of the design and the grain or thickness of the tapestry, a weaver at the Gobelins can produce 32 to 75 square feet of woven textile a year.

Tapestry Designs & Cartoons

In European tapestry-making the Medieval cartoon, or prepartory drawing, was usually traced and coloured by a painter on a canvas roughly the size of the tapestry to be woven. By 1500, the weaver usually wove directly from a model, such as a painting, and therefore copied not a diagramatic pattern but the original finished work of the painter. By the start of the 17th century there was a clear distinction between the model and the cartoon: the model was the original reference on which the cartoon was based. Cartoons were freely used and often copied.

More than one tapestry can be woven from a cartoon. At the Parisian Gobelins factory, for example, the famous 17th century ‘Indies Tapestry’ set was woven 8 times, re-made, and slightly changed by the baroque painter Francois Desportes (1661-1743).

The border of a cartoon was frequently redesigned each time it was commissioned, as each customer would have a different personal preference for ornamental motifs. Often, borders were designed by a different artist from the one who designed the cartoon. As an element of design, however, borders or frames were important only from the 16th to the 19th century. Tapestries from the Middle Ages and the 20th century rarely used a border, as the latter merely serves to make the tapestry resemble a painting.

Because a fully painted cartoon is very time-consuming, 20th century designers have adopted a range of alternative methods. The cartoon is sometimes a photographic enlargement of a fully painted model, or merely a numbered drawing. The latter type, conceived by the famous French tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) during the Second World War, is a numbered system where each number corresponds to a precise colour and each cartoonist has his own range of colours. The weaver refers to a small colour model provided by the painter, and then makes a selection of wool samples.

Where a high warp is used, the weaver has the full size cartoon hanging beside or behind him. While the low warp weaver places the cartoon under the warps, so he can follow it from above. In both cases, the main outlines of the design are laid out with ink on the warps after they have been attached, to the loom.


Wool is the most widely used material for making the warp, or the parallel series of threads that run length-wise in the fabric of the tapestry. The width-running weft, or filling threads, are also most commonly made of wool. The advantages of wool are wide-ranging. It is more available, more workable and more durable than other materials, and in addition can be easily dyed. Wool has often been used in combination with linen, silk or cotton threads for the weft. This mixture of material is ideal for detail weaving and for the creation of delicate effects. Light coloured silks were often employed to create pictorial effects of tonal gradation and spacial recession. The glow of silk thread was often useful for highlights or to create a luminous effect when contrasted to the duller woollen threads. Silk was increasingly used during the 18th century, especially at the Beavais factory in France, in order to achieve subtle tonal effects. The majority of Chinese and Japanese tapestries have both warp and weft threads of silk. Pure silk tapestries were also made during medieval times at Byzantium (Constantinople) and in parts of the Middle East. Pure linen tapestries were woven in ancient Egypt, while Egyptian Christians and Medieval Europeans sometimes used linen for the warp. Both cotton and wool were used in Pre-Columbian art to make Peruvian tapestries as well as some Islamic tapestries during the Middle Ages. Since the 14th century, along with wool and silk, European weavers have also used gold and silver weft threads to produce a sumptuous effect.

Tapestry Dyes

Dyes commonly used in Europe included: (1) Woad, a plant similar to indigo, which yields a good range of blues. (2) Madder, a root from which reds, oranges and pinks could be obtained. (3) Weld, an English plant whose leaves produce yellow. (4) A mixture of weld (yellow) and indigo (blue) was used to concoct green. For more about colour, see: Colour Pigments.