One of the most mis-used needlework terms is “tapestry”.

In the last 30 years, it has come to mean any stitching done on canvas, or any large wall hanging that has been stitched (eg: the Bayeaux Tapestry).

This, however, is not what tapestry really is – and in this article, I’ll be looking at what historical tapestries are, and some other (more correct) terms for what we call “tapestry”.

What is a Tapestry?

Historically, Tapestries were woven wall hangings – and were also called by the name “arras”.

They served a dual purpose – to help insulate stone walls and keep the heat in, and to provide decoration.

Some of the most famous tapestry weavers were from Ghent, and their work was in great demand in the 14 and 15th centuries.

Famous tapestries from this period include the Cluny Tapestries (“The Lady and the Unicorn” series) and the “Hunting of the Unicorn” tapestry.

How were these Tapestries made?

Tapestry weaving was very much an art – and involved artists and weavers in their creation.

An artist was commissioned to create an picture (called a “cartoon”). Sometimes they were commissioned by the customer (if they wanted a specific picture), and sometimes by the tapestry weaver.

For many artists, producing tapestry cartoons was their main source of income, even though their work was never credited.

Sometimes the cartoon was in full colour, and sometimes it was merely an outline sketch – it depended on the complexity of the design to be woven.

Most of the large tapestries were woven using a vertical loom. The cartoon was attached behind the loom before it was warped up (the warp is the vertical threads). The weavers then worked the design, with the back of their work towards them. Not until they were finished did the see what they had created.

The different colours of the designs were worked in blocks, which left small slits in the design. Before the finished tapestry was lifted from the loom, the slits were sewn together.

This beautiful form of weaving has it’s roots back with Coptic Tapestries from ancient Egypt, and has spread throughout the world, with magnificent examples being woven by the Incas.

In the 19th century in England, William Morris revived this artform, and in 1893 Tapestry Looms were also setup in New York.

What is the connection with Needlepoint or Canvaswork?

Needlepoint (also called Canvaswork) is almost as old as tapestry weaving. Once again, there are Coptic examples of needlepoint, and it has also spread throughout the world.

Some wall hangings were done using Canvaswork, but for the most part, this technique was used for making Table Carpets (the forerunner of table cloths) and as embroidered slips.

Is there anything that you would particularly like to see an article on? If so, please e-mail me with your suggestions.

Happy Stitching

© 2006 Megan McConnell

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