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What is a Tapestry?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tapestry is a woven image which may use any number of textiles and may come in a wide range of sizes. Generally, the term refers to a wall-hanging which depicts a scene, but the term may also be used in conjunction with other textiles to indicate that a scene is woven onto an item. Examples of this include tapestry blankets, pillows and chairs.

The tapestry is one of the most pervasive works of art throughout historical Europe and elsewhere. Many churches and cathedrals had a number of ornate tapestries depicting religious scenes, and kings and nobility would often commission one to tell the story of a great battle or event. Because the textile may be removed from a wall and rolled up for easy transport, in many circumstances they were preferred to murals or other static forms of art which were tied to the architecture. In a cathedral or other religious setting, this mobility meant it could be kept stored away to be brought out only for special occasions and ceremonies, helping to add to its perceived importance.

Because of the use of various colored thread and the way the threads can blend together in three dimensions, tapestry allows for an intricate interplay of color and light. The subtle shadings and differences in appearance from various angles often found in great tapestries are similar to, yet very different from, those found in the great classical paintings. In addition to their aesthetic worth, a tapestry also provided a church or castle with the added benefit of insulation. Thick layers of fabric lining the walls helped to keep heat trapped within, and also helped dampen the somewhat harsh acoustics of large stone chambers.

The most famous example in history is undoubtedly the Bayeux tapestry. Though the origins of the textile are highly disputed, it seems to have appeared sometime in the 1070s either in England or in France. It depicts the Norman conquest of England, with William the Conqueror as its central figure. The story is told in a number of panels, beginning with an ailing King Edward and finishing with the French victorious at the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux tapestry is just about 230 feet (70 m) long and 20 inches (50 cm) high.

Other famous tapestries include the Sampul tapestry, from approximately the 3rd century BCE in Greece, the Lady and the Unicorn from the 15th century in France, and the modern Quaker tapestry. The Sampul tapestry shows a centaur and a Greek soldier, woven using threads in over 20 different colors. It was found in a grave near China, where it had been made into a pair of pants.

The Lady and the Unicorn is widely hailed as one of the most spectacular pieces of art to come from the European Middle Ages. It is a cycle of six tapestries, each representing one of the five senses, and one representing love. The detail work is beautiful, and the use of light and shadow skillful.

The Quaker tapestry is a modern textile showing the rich history of the Quaker faith, from its origins in the 17th century through the present day. It is made up of 77 panels and was created by over 4,000 people over a period of 15 years in the 1980s and 90s.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Oct 27, 2014

@Mor - That sounds like a really cool project. I actually wish that tapestries were still done as a modern art form though. I know they take a lot of doing, but people make quilts even though they take ages. I just think it would be amazing to see modern examples of tapestry wall hangings and they'd probably be good as insulation as well.

By Mor — On Oct 26, 2014

@MrsPramm - When I was in Scotland I visited a particular castle (I can't remember the name now) which had been converted into a kind of museum and one of the projects they had going was to completely remake the unicorn tapestries in the exact same way the original ones had been made. So they had attempted to dye the threads with the same ingredients and were putting them into the exact same pattern at the same kind of loom. They were trying to speed up the process by having full-time weavers who would swap positions so that the tapestry was never left without someone working on it, but even with that kind of schedule, it was still going to take months to finish it.

It was amazing actually, and when you compared the colors with what you usually see in pictures of those tapestries, it showed you how much they've faded over time.

By MrsPramm — On Oct 25, 2014

When I was in Europe I saw a lot of different tapestries. Most of them were replicas of designs that had been made hundreds of years before though. The problem with medieval tapestry is that it was also a practical part of the house and, while cherished, rarely survived hundreds of years intact.

And even if they did, they are usually kept in storage now so that they won't be exposed to sunlight and pollution. The threads are delicate and the colors fade quickly. Although I've seen them in museums sometimes, with a lot of protection, they usually don't look very much like you'd expect.

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