The Art of Making a Tapestry


Tapestry weaving
is a living art, and an art with a long history. To see a tapestry up close is
to experience the hand-on nature of its making. The art of tapestry weaving
reached new heights in France in the 17th century,
when Louis the XIV set up the Royal Tapestry Manufactory
at the Gobelins, a place that still exists today, in Paris. There, tradition still informs
the making of contemporary art: knowledge and
creative inspiration handed down, at the
exact same site. It’s enclosed, a bit
beyond the reach of time. It can seem anachronistic in
the world in which we live, when everything has
to do with speed. Here, we take the time to do
things with humanity and soul. In Louis XIV’s time,
designing a tapestry began with a single artist who
often planned an entire series and may have delivered
early sketches. Other draftsmen
honed the design. Today, similarly, a
contemporary artist creates an original work
with a tapestry in mind. But it’s the weaver
who interprets it. A weaver needs to love
drawing, above all. You have to have a
lot of imagination. And you have to be creative. From a copy of
the artist’s work, the weaver has drawn
essential lines onto strips of clear plastic. These are positioned against the
loom’s vertical “warp” threads, and the lines are redrawn. The markings and ink will serve
as a visual guide for weaving. Next, the color
palette is decided, and threads will be custom-dyed
to match the tapestry’s design. The colored and textured threads
of a tapestry form the “weft.” 17th-century tapestries were
made of wool for strength, silk for luminosity, and
silver or gold thread, for showing off a
patron’s wealth. Whether wool, silk, or
some other material, weft must be dyed
to have a color. And this requires a dye expert. For me, you can’t even
call it a profession. I actually don’t feel
like I’m coming to work. It’s really magical to
see a color being born. For hundreds of years, dyes
came from plants, minerals, and insects ground into powder. The process of using
them was challenging. Formulas differed, depending
upon the color and the material to be dyed. Temperatures for dye baths
were tough to keep constant, with vats over wood fires. Now, chemical dyes are used. Infinite hues are possible using
just red, yellow, and blue, carefully measured out. A bath of non-mineral
water is heated. Dye is added. The weft soaks. Several hours later, the threads
are pulled out and compared to the intended color. Adjustments might be made:
more dye, longer soaking. When the color is perfect,
the weft is hung to dry. In another area of the
Gobelins, the dyed threads are wound onto
spools for storage. When the weft is needed,
it’s transferred from a spool to the weaver’s main tool,
called a “bobbin” or “broche.” A bobbin can hold a single
color or a combination of colorful threads,
twisted together. Now, the weft is
ready for the loom. In the 17th century, the
production of large tapestries required huge looms,
and at the Gobelins, there were two types, the
horizontal and the vertical. Now, it’s the vertical loom. Thick strands of
undyed wool, called the “warp” form the
structure of a tapestry, and on a vertical loom,
they’re especially noticeable. Before weaving begins,
the loom is bare. The warp must be
prepared according to the tapestry’s specifications
in a process called “warping.” A single continuous
thread is wound between a metal wheel and a
wall railing to form loops. After a set number
of loops, the process is repeated with
a new warp thread. Each bundle of warp is braided. At the empty loom,
the braided threads are arranged, perfectly spaced
across a wooden bar with metal teeth. The bar is hoisted
up and suspended from the loom’s top beam. The braids are undone,
and threads pulled down and attached to the lower beam. Once the warp is on
the loom, the next step is to add tension. The warp is loosened
and tightened until tension is just right. The last step is
to add “heddles,” a system of looped
twine attached to the warp, which
will enable the weaver to move threads while weaving. The weaver’s role is
that she does it all, from beginning to end. I speak from the point of view
of the weaver, who invests a part of herself in the work. A weaver sits behind a loom,
facing the back of a tapestry. As she works, she occasionally
looks between the warp threads to see the front of the
tapestry reflected in a mirror. She also sees a reflection
of the “cartoon,” a copy of the
design being woven, which hangs on the
wall behind her. When the mirror is
turned just right, the reflection is
aligned perfectly with the area being woven
and the markings on the warp threads. The weaver’s bobbin, or
“broche,” is used like a needle to hold weft and guide it
between the warp threads. Each one holds a
particular color and hangs from the
back of the tapestry, ready to be picked
up and used again. The end of the bobbin is used
to tamp down passages of weft. Or, a metal comb is used. To make a tapestry, the weft is
woven over and under the warp threads in a
horizontal direction. A row from right
to left is followed by a row left to right. Eventually, the warp will be
completely covered by weft. To weave a passage,
the weaver pulls on a heddle to uncross odd
and even sets of warp threads. This brings one set forward,
and in the space or “shed” between the warps, the
bobbin can be guided through. To weave a narrow
passage, using the heddles isn’t always necessary. Like a harpist plucking
strings, a weaver pulls a small group of
warp threads forward. The weaver’s skill
and experience enable her to accomplish
not only a complex design, but to create a textile
that’s structurally sound. Even today, a tapestry
takes years to make. A finished tapestry
is a celebration, honoring a work of art and
the people who created it. We are surrounded by history. We can’t really speak of the
spirit of the old weavers. But we acknowledge
this glorious past, and try to carry on ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *