While tapestries have been used since the times of ancient Greeks, their role became more significant during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Workshops which produced tapestries on a small scale were scattered throughout the medieval Europe, especially in the western part of the continent. Their new wave of popularity began in Germany and Switzerland, and with time expanded to France and Netherlands.
The newly developed weaving centers, such as the French town of Arras, whose name became a synonym for “tapestry”, thrived, enriching the local culture.
Soon, tapestries reached England, where they inspired writers such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser to include those pieces of weaving art into their own works. In the 16th century towns located in the region of Flanders, such as Oudenaarde, Brussels, Geraardsbergen and Enghien had become the heart of European tapestry production thanks to their revolutionary techniques and the intricate detail of pattern and color.
Some might be surprised to learn that tapestries were not just a mere decoration. Just like other forms of weaving art, they were a symbol of power and wealth, beloved by those of noble or royal origins. It was why the designs at that time often included coats of arms, emblems and family mottoes. It was not unusual for Churches to order a tapestry with a depiction of a saint or a Biblical scene. Besides being a symbol, tapestries also had a more practical role – during cold winter months they were used as a way of insulating the interiors of castles and mansions.
The process of creating a tapestry was a difficult albeit rewarding one – it all started with designing a pattern. It included copying it form a full-scale pattern, which was already colored. Before weaving, craftsman traced the said pattern onto the warps, serving as a base for the composition. Then, the pattern, also known as the cartoon, was hung either behind the craftsman or folded underneath the warp threads. The latter was especially popular during Renaissance, as using high-wrap looms slowed down the process, because the weaver had to manipulate the drawstrings by hand. The biggest disadvantage of the low-wrap technique was that it reversed the orientation of the pattern. Therefore, the craftsman had to design the cartoon to be specifically used for the low-warp technique. Another technique used to make the tapestries was weft-faced weaving. In this particular technique threads remain hidden, unlike in cloth weaving, as the craftsman interlaces each weft in a particular part of the pattern.
Between 1400 and 1530, the people of Flemish region developed a procedure which allowed them to reproduce astonishing amount of textures and effects just through the juxtaposition of different textiles, techniques and use of hatchings, interlocking colorful triangles. In order to achieve this, the warps were stretched vertically or horizontally, depending on the orientation of the loom. Next the weaver arranged a small space between the wraps, through which a weft was passed and wrapped around the shuttle, a device which carried the weft. Other parts of the warps were attached to the drawstrings, so the craftsman could pull them backward or forward in order to create another space and pass the weft between them once again. By doing it, the weft is inserted over one wrap and under another, first in one direction and then in the opposite.
In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the cost of a tapestry was tremendously high, making it a considerable expense even for the richest. Not only its production used costly materials, such as dyes, wool and silk, but also required work of sometimes over 30 people. Even using the low-wrap technique, the group of talented weavers could spent more than half a year on a single tapestry. The ones using finer wraps could take even a year! What’s more, some pieces had silver- and gilt-metal-wrapped silk thread incorporated in them, multiplying their value up to four times! Some researchers and historians theorize that during the Elizabethan era tapestries were among the most precious possessions of England.
Nowadays, tapestries made during the Middle Ages and Renaissance still astonish with their beauty and quality of design. They are a proof that weaving has not only practical, but also artistic purposes, never ceasing to amaze contemporary weavers and art aficionados.