Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles. The word tapestry is defined as 'a thick textile fabric in which coloured weft threads are woven (originally by hand) into fixed warp threads to form pictures or designs'.

The weft threads do not weave between the warp threads all the way across the fabric from selvedge to selvedge but are woven only as far as the each particular colour is required to produce the integral design. The weft threads are pressed down firmly row-on-row, thereby hiding the warp threads completely. The detail is determined by the closeness of the warp threads; the closer together and finer the threads, the more detail can be worked into the cloth.

Plain weave structure is shown below. The warp is shown in white, the weft in black.

Plain Weave

To avoid slits occurring in the finished tapestry where colours change, various methods of joining the wefts are employed, as shown below.

Interlocking (front)
Interlocking (back)
Creating slits

The unique tapestry technique should not be confused with embroidery where a needle is used to stitch a design onto the surface of fabric nor with appliqué where pieces of fabric are superimposed onto a cloth background. Most will know of the Bayeux Tapestry. The original was not tapestry, in fact, but appliqué in which 72 narrative scenes, woven into one piece of fabric, depicted William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066. Reproductions of various individual scenes have since been woven, particularly those of Bayeux, Bayeux Horsemen and Bayeux Longboat.

The design of the tapestry is created as the weaver copies from a cartoon (drawing or painting). The early cartoons were hardly more than sketches and it was quite common for the weavers to exercise their own flair by adding a small animal or a particular expression to a face so giving each tapestry its individuality. However, by the Renaissance period the cartoons were very sophisticated; drawn or painted in great detail with specific instructions to the weaver about colours and tones to be used.

The Latin name for tapestry (tapetium) is taken from the Greek. The earliest written records of woven cloth appear in the biblical text Exodus, Chapter 26 and it is reasonable to assume that the woven fabric referred to was a tapestry-type.

Egyptian tomb paintings from circa 3000 BC clearly depict weavers working on a tapestry-type loom and vase illustrations by the Greeks dating back to circa 500 BC show women weavers working at looms. Evidence of tiled and mosaic floors would suggest that their works of art were wall hangings and predated rugs made to adorn the floor. The Greeks obviously regarded tapestry as an important aspect of interior decoration for affluent homes and civic buildings and it is thought that the walls of Parthenon were covered in tapestries.

The Romans also valued tapestry and, although they did not appear to have woven tapestries themselves, there is evidence that they imported tapestry hangings from Egypt, Persia, Babylon and India.

However, the use of tapestries died out in the West and was not reintroduced until the Moors established a civilisation in Spain during the eighth century. The industry spread from Spain to France and by the eleventh century Poitiers, Arras and, later, Tournai were renowned in Europe for the tapestries produced there. Flanders had all the ingredients needed for textile production; a wealth of fuller's earth, plants suitable for dyestuffs, access to superior English wool and a plentiful water supply from the surrounding rivers. Gradually, the craft became established in Ghent, Bruges, Ypres and Valenciennes also. Flanders became regarded as the chief tapestry weaving area for three centuries with Antwerp serving as the European tapestry market.

In medieval times, tapestries were one of the most important forms of artistic expression and were commissioned, particularly in the early middle ages, to depict religious scenes. Costumes in the early Flemish tapestries were seldom true to life; gold brocades, velvets, jewels and other lavish trimmings were shown in religious scenes and peasants were woven dressed in cloths fit for a lord! Conditions in which the weavers worked were often cramped and poorly lit and a twelve-year apprenticeship had to be served before one could be regarded as a master weaver. Medieval weavers' guilds, which were male-dominated, prevented women doing anything other than spinning the yarns and so the term spinsters was created.

Royalty commissioned scenes from victorious battles, tournaments and hunts and even used tapestries as ransoms after battles. Valuable tapestry collections were held by monarchs and aristocrats which were regarded as symbols of status and influence. Tapestries would have been the spoils of war during the early crusades and, as a result, many wall hangings were relocated after wars had be won.

Whilst Flanders remained the centre of European tapestry weaving in the Middle Ages, small workshops in private homes in Germany and Switzerland produced smaller simplistic works of art on a commercial basis. The tapestry scenes were either religious (made for churches and cathedrals), or romantic, called Minneteppiche; or mysterious and allegorical - the latter two being produced for the wealthy in cities.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, individual workshops appeared in various parts of Europe, especially in central France, where itinerant artisans would receive commissions from castles, monasteries, merchants and wealthy farmers. These workshops, and similar ones in Flanders, produced an abundance of pastoral scenes and verdure tapestries (depicting landscapes with streams and waterfalls with emphasis on trees, foliage and fauna).

Typical later medieval designs were of seigniorial life, allegorical scenes and mille fleurs tapestries. The latter were characterised by backgrounds made of hundreds of tiny flowers. Probably the most notorious mille fleurs tapestry is La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), c.1490-1500. This tapestry was woven as a set of six panels. Five panels each represent one of the five senses and the sixth panel depicts a lady returning a necklace to a box held out by her maid and is entitled 'A Mon Seul Desir', thought to mean 'only at my will'. The set originally hung in Boussac Castle and is now housed in a purpose-built circular room at the Cluny museum in Paris.

During the sixteenth century, wars between France and Spain caused the Flemish weavers to emigrate to Britain, France and Italy where they were employed in private workshops. Cartoons, which were first introduced in the fourteenth century as mere sketches, had by now evolved and emphasis was placed on producing tapestries as woven copies of paintings by prominent artists of the time - Raphael was one such artist who produced cartoons specifically for tapestries to be made to hang in the Sistine Chapel. Tapestries, now with pictorial borders, were sophisticated works of art with their detail and tonal effects, and began to rival paintings of the era.

The first English factory was established at Mortlake in west London in 1619 under James I and his son Charles, who later became Charles I. Despite financial difficulties during the first twenty years the factory produced work which excelled that produced in France and Flanders. However, as a result of the English Civil War, many Mortlake weavers established their own workshops in Soho and Hatton Garden.

The French had the greatest and most influential royal factory employing some 800 artists and weavers working to produce tapestries solely for King Louise XIV. It was opened in 1663 in Paris and was known as the Gobelins royal manufactory. In addition to wall hangings, portieres, were also woven in Paris for royalty and aristocracy. In 1664 another royal factory was opened at Beauvais as a commercial enterprise to provide French-style tapestries for foreign royalty and nobility.

Noblemen followed the trend of monarchs and all over Europe employed Flemish weavers to set up private workshops for them. Italian examples of these could be found in Florence, Mantua and Rome where tapestries were woven for the Medici, Gonzaga and Barberini families respectively.

By the mid seventeenth century, the political and cultural climate affected the tapestry-weaving industry and in 1665 an ancient tapestry workshop at Aubusson was granted a royal charter to produce coarser and, therefore, cheaper commercial wall-hangings for the modest homes of those other than the rich and famous.

French tapestries in the eighteenth century were elegant and romantic. The painter Françoise Boucher (1703-70) painted many cartoons depicting love scenes in pastoral settings which were worked as tapestries at Beauvais. His style was used for many tapestries produced during this period throughout Europe. As the growing merchant-classes at the middle of the eighteenth century required simpler and coarser tapestries, the workshops at Aubusson became more important as they produced modified versions of designs by artists like Boucher. Aubusson also became famous for designs which included bouquets and garlands of flowers.

Interior decoration became very elaborate during the second half of the eighteenth century with the use of more furniture, and the addition of mirrors and wallpaper. Tapestries were relatively expensive as wallcoverings, due to their extreme detail and vast range of colours, and as a result this brought about the decline of the royal manufactories in France and Flanders.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, traditional European tapestry makers were struggling to exist. The nineteenth century saw mainly commissions for civic buildings, hotels or art galleries. The Windsor Tapestry Factory which opened in 1876, later to become the Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory in 1882, was an attempt to revive the tapestry weaving industry. It supplied the Crown with wall hangings but since the tapestries were prohibitively expensive for the majority of the English population, the manufactory closed in 1890.

The Industrial Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century brought about the formation of the Arts and Crafts Movement led by British designer William Morris (1834-96). Their vision was of a changing work ethic.

William Morris founded the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkener and Co in 1861, which became Morris & Co. in 1875. He produced designs for wallpaper, tapestries and carpets. All his tapestry designs were inspired by Flemish examples from the late medieval period and the first tapestries produced by Morris and Co. were made on looms at Merton Abbey in London. One of his best-known tapestries, is Pomona, which was woven c. 1890. The figure, personifying autumn, was designed by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and the background and border was designed by William Morris. The Merton Abbey workshop, producing hand-made tapestries, managed to survive for 60 years.

Today, modern, mechanised jacquard looms, using the same techniques as those used in centuries past, produce reproductions of traditional tapestries. They provide us all with the opportunity, in our own homes, to share in the beauty of magnificent tapestries at realistic prices.