Imagine myth, legend and art that lasts centuries with the simple positioning of wool, cotton, silk and threads of gold and silver. These woven murals are tapestry: colorful creations that were functional and decorative that last lifetimes.
The art of weaving fabrics to form clothing and other decorative items can be traced to linen examples in ancient Egypt in the 15th century B.C. and throughout the area of the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq. Fragments of Greek tapestry have been found in China as far back as the third century B.C., and tapestry was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey about the eighth century B.C. Weaving has been found in cultures around the world throughout ancient times, but many examples of early tapestry were woven into clothing, rugs and upholstery. Today, tapestry is defined as an art form specific to wall hangings.
Flemish tapestry, 18th century, depicting Cupid and Psyche, within a floral foliate border, 103in x 98in. Sold for $32,000 + buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auctions Galleries and LiveAuctioneers
The need for tapestry
Cold, dark and dank. Life inside castle battlements was anything but comfortable. Stone walls, while excellent for protection, did little to provide warmth or color. From the 11th to the 16th centuries a castle was first and foremost meant for defense, a classic ‘form following function’ in architectural engineering. It wasn’t much different in a large palace either.
From the 14th to the middle of the 18th century, weaving techniques allowed large “nomadic murals,” as 20th century painter and architect Le Corbusier once described them, to be created and hung along castle stone walls mostly as insulation against the cold. Being visible required ornamentation and so an elaborate Biblical story, commemorative event, personal coat-of-arms, or hunting scene (the most popular subjects) was ordered specifically for the great rooms throughout the castle or palace with each taking at least a year to weave. For this reason, only the wealthiest could afford them.
Detail of a 16th century Flemish wool tapestry depicting a royal procession featuring griffins, maidens and mythological vignettes that sold for $200,000 + buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy: Skinner and LiveAuctioneers.com
Because tapestry was so expensive to own, each became a status symbol of sorts. When the royal or wealthy household traveled to another of their properties, the tapestries were taken down, rolled up and moved to the next location with them, thus the nomadic description. King Henry VIII is said to have at least 2,000 woven tapestries at any one time.
Weaving one line at a time
The reason tapestry was only for the wealthy was that each tapestry, no matter the size, was done by hand, one thread at a time.
First a detailed, life-size drawing or painting of the subject was created, called a cartoon. If the tapestry was a series of panels or just one large tapestry, a complete cartoon was required. Once completed, a cartoon is placed behind the weaver with a mirror in front of the loom so that each strand corresponds exactly to the pattern of the cartoon. The weaver sits at a loom (there is a high-warp and low-warp loom depending on size) with warp threads (vertical ones that form a grid for the pattern) stretched tight at the top and bottom on rollers. This keeps the grid tight with the rollers adding additional warp threads as needed.
Closeup of the weft lines of a 17th century Flemish tapestry that sold for $4,000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. The dyed colors are uneven and have faded over time, indicative of its age. Image courtesy: Material Culture and LiveAuctioneers
Weft threads (horizontal ones that the weaver moves from “weft to wight” as weavers like to say) are dyed wool that placed strategically form the design of the cartoon, one weft thread at a time, one segment at a time using a smooth wooden bobbin. Weavers pass the bobbin through one or several warp threads and build up the pattern over time, perhaps a square meter a month.
As soon as one weft line is completed, it is tamped down with a comb, awl, or even long fingernails to compact the threads and disguise the warp threads. With several weavers working on one tapestry, depending on the complexity of the pattern, it can be completed in about a year or longer.
A smaller version of the high-warp loom used for smaller tapestries. The rollers at top and bottom provide new warp as the weft is added rolling up as each weft line is completed. Gregors Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Industrial Revolution and technology have revolutionized tapestry allowing it to be first mechanized and now computerized. The cost is still high, about $35,000 a yard, and depending on the complexity of the design, still more than a year to produce, but the colors are more vivid “… with more life to them …,” said Noami Robertson, a weaver at Dovecot, a British tapestry studio.
In fact, there is a new resurgence in tapestry as an art form. Abstracts from artists such as Henri-Georges Adam, Jean Arp and Salvador Dali as well as artwork by Henri Matisse and Picasso have been woven into tapestry. Still, there are companies such as Gobelins Manufactory in Paris, France, that still handcrafts tapestry the same way it has been done since at least 1602.
A Salvador Dali design titled ‘Burning Giraffe’ is an example of a highly woven, vividly colorful modern type of tapestry that sold for $400,000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy GWS Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers
What Collectors Need to Know
Identifying an early medieval or Renaissance-era tapestry is usually by the type of thread used throughout. Wool was most common, but cotton and linen were used as well. Any other type of thread suggests it is more modern. The use of silver or gold thread interwoven with other thread suggests a royal commission.
Each weft thread should not be completely even throughout. Since the tapestry was hand sewn a certain unevenness along each weft line should be expected. The colors of the weft threads were usually dyed, and some fading is expected over time, especially on the front since that side was exposed (the reverse should be more vibrant). If the design is shown only on the front, then it is definitely more modern. Always check with an expert for a complete examination.
Design is important, too. Biblical stories, hunting scenes, important events, personal coats-of-arms were the themes most reproduced in detailed, colorful tapestry during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Late 15th/early 16th century Franco-Flemish Gothic Biblical tapestry fragment, possibly depicting the life of David. Sold for $24,000 + buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Gray’s Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers
And finding tapestry of this period should be easier because the cost of acquiring Renaissance-era tapestries has fallen in recent years, according to a New York Times article in 2018. “[N]ow these historic hangings sell for much less than they originally cost, and sometimes for less than they were selling even 40 years ago,” wrote Scott Reyburn.
With new techniques, colors, designs and collectibility, tapestry is no longer intended as only insulation for a drafty castle or a status symbol that is rolled up and moved from place to place, although the originals are still appreciated for their history.
Instead, tapestry has evolved as an expression of individual artistic personality finally freed from the confines of the earthly necessity of existing solely for warmth and status. Tapestry, whether old or new, still makes your home a castle.