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Updated on December 25, 2009

A tapestry is a heavy handwoven fabric colorfully patterned and usually hung as a wall decoration. It can also be used as a carpet or drapery. The craft of tapestry weaving flourished particularly during the late Middle Ages, when tapestries served both as decoration and insulation for the stone walls of castles. One of the most famous examples of French Gothic tapestry is The Hunt of the Unicorn series (The Cloisters, New York City).

An ancient technique, tapestry weaving has changed little over the centuries. The basic warp is made by stretching undyed linen yarn lengthwise across a loom. The decorative pattern is woven through the warp with bobbins of colored silk or wool thread. These threads form the weft, or woof, of the fabric. As portions of the tapestry are completed, they are rolled around one end of the loom so that fresh warp is exposed.

Areas of different color are woven separately. Each color is provided by a different thread. Depending on the intricacy of the color design, the number of weft strands may range from about 50 to many thousands. Later, areas of color are stitched together to close up gaps of unwoven warp. Elaborate tapestries often require many weavers and may take years to complete.

Tapestries can be woven on two types of looms. Some weavers use a high-warp loom, or haute-lisse, in which the warp threads are arranged vertically, and others employ a low-warp loom, or basse-lisse, in which the warp is stretched horizontally. The weavimportant tapestry centers were monasteries and convents, which produced handwoven fabrics for a variety of religious purposes. Early medieval tapestries were frequently made of wool, and their designs were usually flat and stylized representations of Biblical subjects.

The manufacture of tapestries reached a height of development during the late Middle Ages. Leading centers arose in the 14th century at Arras and Paris in France. Later, the industry spread to Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, and other cities of western Europe. Religious themes continued to be popular subjects of tapestry design. However, there was a growing emphasis on background detail and on secular costume, and there were lush displays of colored and metallic threads. Famous Gothic tapestries include the 14th-century Apocalypse series and the 15th-century Seven Sacraments.

During the Renaissance, tapestry design became increasingly like oil painting in its use of perspective and other illusionistic devices. Mythological subjects as well as scenes of daily life were incorporated in the tapestries, which were frequently conceived on a huge scale. A famous set of tapestries made by Flemish weavers is the series Acts of the Apostles based on designs by the painter Raphael. Fine cartoons were also produced by William Sheldon, who opened the first English tapestry works in about 1560.

Tapestry weaving continued to thrive in Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Particularly outstanding were the products of the Gobelins tapestry works, which became King Louis XIV's private factory in 1662. The weavers of Aubusson and Beauvais were also famous for their designs. Tapestries of this period were realistic and had a wide array of delicate colors. Examples are the Constantine tapestries, designed by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, and the Cupid and Psyche series, based on cartoons by the French painter Francois Boucher.

With the production of factory-made cloth in the 19th century, handweaving declined. Simulated tapestry carpets, draperies, and upholstery fabrics were woven on mechanical Jacquard looms. Such limitations, however, were generally inferior in design and texture to handmade tapestries. Late in the 19th century the traditional craft of tapestry weaving was revived in England by the artists William Morris and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Among the leading contemporary tapestry designers is the Frenchman Jean Lurcat. Modern tapestries have also been adapted from the paintings of many famous 20th-century artists, including Stuart Davis, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miro.


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