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Tapestry Start to Finish

The American Heritage dictionary defines a tapestry as “a heavy cloth woven with rich, often varicolored designs or scenes, usually hung on walls for decoration and sometimes used to cover furniture”. Another statement, from a craft book, is that a Tapestry is Art in a Plain Weave. Occasionally, nowadays, one hears people refer to a needlepoint wall hanging as a tapestry, but this is not correct – needlepoint is stitched on canvas. A tapestry is woven on a loom.

Weaving actually has its roots in ancient basketry, which requires stiff fibers. The invention of a loom allowed the use of flexible fibers, which holds the lengthwise warp strands taut while the crosswise weft strands are woven in.

In a tomb in Egypt, a pottery dish, dated 4400 BC, was found. On this dish was a picture of a loom that appeared to be based on pegs in the ground that held the rods to which the warp threads were harnessed. A loom, not too unlike today’s tapestry loom, appeared in Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty, 1567 to 1320 BC. The Navajo Indians still use a similar loom.

Looms changed little until the eighteenth century, when different inventions, mostly by Englishmen, gradually introduced mechanization. During the Industrial Revolution, hand weaving almost became a lost art, but in some parts of the world it remained an artisan craft. With the revival of interest in hand crafts, people sought out weavers in Scandinavia, the mountains of Tennessee and rural districts of the British Isles to learn the ancient art. Hand weaving is nowadays pursued more for pleasure than profit.

Through the ages, weaving principles have remained the same, from those early pegs in the ground to the mechanized looms of today. The three elements are making the shed, picking and beating. The warp is the basis of the cloth and the weft is woven in to form the weave and the design of the piece. Alternately, the warp threads are raised to pass the shuttle with the weft threads through. The gap created is called the shed. A row of weft is known as the pick. Beating is making sure that the pick is even and pushed down against the previous pick.

The warp takes a lot of stress, so it should be of a strong fiber. When planning the dimensions, at least ten per cent extra should be allowed on the width to allow for the pulling in on the selvedges, which are formed by the turn of the weft around the outside warp ends. Warp threads must be carefully prepared and correctly placed on the loom.

Tapestry weaving requires special techniques. The weaver fills in color areas one at a time, leaving slits in the fabric, which are then stitched afterwards. If the tapestry is to be hung vertically, the slits are sometimes left open.

The pattern or the picture for the tapestry is done by an artist on card – this is sometimes called the cartoon. The weaver uses this as the “blueprint”. Nowadays, in mechanized tapestry production, the artist creates a painting the size of the final tapestry. Then a technical design is made showing each stitch of the weft and card is punched by electronic equipment to fit the jacquard loom.

The very beautiful tapestries in old cathedrals, places and art museums were painstakingly woven by hand. Some were commissioned by royalty, some were made by the artists and some by lowly paid workers. Decorative tapestry was portable – noblemen could transport it to different residences and churches could bring it out to hang for special occasions.

Modern tapestries can be used on cushions or as wall hangings. However it was designed to be used, a piece of tapestry can become come a family heirloom.



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