History & European Wall Tapestries

History & European Wall Tapestries
by Stacy Mar

One of the oldest types of woven textiles is the tapestry, which became well known during the Middle Ages. The tapestry is best defined as a thick material that has colored threads woven throughout it in order to create a picture or design. This is completely different than embroidery work.

During the Middle Ages, people used tapestries as curtains and around doors to keep out the cold. They were also used decoratively around the house and as bed canopies that would stop falling objects from dropping directly onto the bed. If the tapestry was large enough, it would cascade down the sides of the bed as well, providing additional privacy.

The rich and wealthy with mansions and palaces used the tapestry as a partition to divide a large hall into smaller quarters. It was also used as one medium to portray religious and Bible stories and other tales of war victories. Kings and other noble men used to carry tapestries with them when they traveled, as a display of their wealth. The intricate and detailed designs woven in the tapestries made them an excellent work-of-art in high demand.

Making a tapestry is a long, tedious process. Following the painting of a design, weavers would locate the ingredients necessary for dyeing the threads into a variety of colors. When the threads were all prepared, a large group of weavers would start working on the intricate design of the tapestry. Just a square foot of fabric could often take months to complete, and some of the larger tapestries measured up to 80 feet wide. These weavers were highly trained and would pass down their expertise to future generations.

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Fighting, hunting and landscapes scenes were most common among the designs. Some kings used to take artists along with them in wars and on hunts to make sketches that could be later used for the design in the tapestries. As the designs became more detail oriented and complex the desired amount of colors to be dyed for the threads rose to 300 different colors. This is when the tapestries began to look like paintings with frames.

The best tapestries were produced in Paris until 1337. During the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453) weavers had to flee from Paris and many of the beautiful tapestries were damaged or lost. After things calmed down from the war, the hand woven tapestry business continued flourishing in France until 1789, when the French Revolution broke out. During the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) many tapestries were burned to take the gold and silver threads used in many of these fine woven goods.

In 1801, weaver Joseph Jacquard revolutionized the production of tapestries with the invention of the Jacquard loom, which utilized a process involving punch cards. These cards allowed textile looms to operate more efficiently by controlling the weaving process. This allowed even less skilled workers to create some of the most intricate designs ever seen. While trained personnel were still needed to operate the looms, the process became much easier, and ordinary people were finally able to own tapestries of their own.

Our museums from around the world house these famous works-of-art of the hand-woven tapestry wall hangings. It is believed the Medieval tapestries are the largest group on display, today. The price for a hand-woven tapestry wall hanging is immense. There is still much work involved in making these fine woven goods with the Jacquard loom, however the time involved is not nearly what it once was and therefore making them quite affordable.

For inventing such a labor saving device, Joseph Jacquard should be applauded. His invention let weavers continue to make beautiful tapestries, but at a price that could be afforded by a greater portion of the population. These lower prices are letting the average person be able to display these fine works in their homes and enjoy something once reserved for only the rich.

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