What is Tapestry?

Tapestry is a great mural art. We look back to its high point in the Middle Ages and marvel at the power of those great suites. But why is this? Great tapestries tell stories. They record the past and project the future.” Sue Walker, “Threads of Life,” 2001

"The Lady & The Unicorn" tapestries, Cluny Museum, Paris

Here . . . are the dreams, the legends and the everyday occupations of our mediaeval forefathers, naively related by Gothic tapestries; the pomp, the power and the glory of kings boasted by the tapestries of Flanders, Italy and the Gobelins; and our 20th-century conquests, our joys and our anguish, and our artistic experimentation mirrored in contemporary tapestry.” –Joseph Jobe, 1965, Great Tapestries: The Web of History from the 12th to the 20th Century.(Edita S.A. Lausanne, Switzerland)

Historic & contemporary tapestries in "Karpit2" exhibition, Hungary, 2005

What is tapestry? From past to present, tapestry is arguably the most expressive and versatile of the textile arts. Tapestry-woven objects range from wall hangings to carpets and seat cushions, to garments, hats and shoes. They may be huge or tiny. They might be flexible or stiff, somber or bright, rough or smooth. And most importantly, their designs may be almost anything under the sun.

Tapestry woven furnishings, Musee du Tapisserie, Aubusson, France, 2003From prehistory to the present day, people from many cultures and times have created and used fabrics in tapestry weave (which is defined and illustrated below). Pre-Columbian Inca tunics, Egyptian Coptic medallions, Chinese k’ossu, Middle Eastern kilim carpets, European wall hangings, and Navajo blankets and rugs all utilize the handwoven tapestry technique.

Navajo Indian ye'ii rug by Mary Long, Santa Fe Collection

Navajo Indian ye'ii rug designed & woven by Mary Long, Santa Fe Collection

Today, tapestry remains a rich art form, with varied imagery, textures, and shapes. Contemporary designs range from bold abstraction to convincing realism.

Detail, Daisy Andrews, Lumpu Lumpu Country, 2004, Victorian Tapestry Workshop

Tapestry Defined

What is tapestry? Tapestry weave is a specific, hand-woven, textile construction. In tapestry designs, the different colored threads of the weft interlace with the foundation threads of the warp, and the color makes a pattern. We define tapestry with a classic characterization by Irene Emery in her book, The Primary Structures of Fabrics—“weft-faced plain weave with discontinuous weft patterning.”

Tapestry weave with interlocked join

Tapestry weave with slit junctures

Tapestry weave with dovetailed join

Tapestry weave with diagonal juncture

Whether using horizontal (floor) looms or vertical (upright) looms, weavers may employ either simple or complex mechanisms, but the tapestry artist always operates the loom by hand and must interlace each yarn, pass by pass, across the fabric. The artist’s interlacing of adjoining colors, one by one, gives tapestry its expressive character.

"Mappamundi" tapestry designed by Gulam Sheikh, in progress at Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne, Australia, 2004

Tapestries may contain yarns of any fiber or combination—wool, silk, linen, and cotton are the most common. The front and back of a tapestry may be identical, each with the completely finished design and all yarn ends concealed. In contrast, many tapestries show the final image only on the front, and the reverse side reveals a tangle of loose threads.

Apocalypse tapestry, Angers, France

Tapestry Variations

The GFR Tapestry Center acknowledges the fascinating gray areas between tapestry and related techniques. Tapestry weave has spurred many innovations, sometimes through the use of differing fabric structures. For instance:

  • Kashmiri shawls employ a complex twill tapestry weave instead of plain weave.

  • Navajo weavers sometimes use a two-faced tapestry weave in which wefts have over-1/under-3 interlacement and different patterns appear on each side of a rug.

    Navajo rug with two-faced twill & tapestry weaves, Lucy Wilson, Santa Fe Collection

    Navajo rug with two-faced twill & tapestry weaves, designed & woven by Lucy Wilson, Santa Fe Collection

  • Contemporary tapestry weavers may break with tradition by exposing warps, floating wefts over more than one warp, or embroidering on top of their woven work.

    "After Big John's Special," a GFR Tapestry designed by Clifford Ross, woven by Mollie Fletcher, 19##

    "After Big John's Special," a GFR Tapestry designed by Clifford Ross, woven by Mollie Fletcher in handpicked overshot weave ("rosepath" variation), 1978

In considering what books to add to our library or which artists to include in our reference files, the GFR Tapestry Program focuses on weavers worldwide whose works derive in some way from classic tapestry techniques. We tend, however, to be inclusive rather than exclusive in our choices. Hurrah for variety!





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