Tapestries have been used and enjoyed for hundreds of years. Tapestry weaving is one of the oldest techniques of textile art. It probably originated in prehistoric times, but the oldest surviving hanging tapestry fragments, as well as written accounts, date from about 1500 B.C. Several ancient Greek tapestries survive to this day.
Tapestries are woven on looms. The vertical threads are called the warp. The horizontal threads are called the weft. The weaver winds threads of the weft over and under the threads of the warp, which are attached to the loom. In ordinary woven cloth, both weft and warp are visible. In tapestry cloth, the weft completely covers the warp.
In the Middle Ages, hanging tapestries were extremely popular, especially from the 1300s to the 1500s. Hanging tapestries were commissioned by wealthy noblemen and churchmen. The wall hangings and tapestries handmade on looms were huge. They were signs of wealth and prestige and were often murals, used to tell stories to an illiterate populace. They were used in churches and in castles and palaces to provide education, decoration, and insulation from dampness and cold weather, mainly on stone walls. In addition, tapestry fabric was portable, a distinct advantage for changing and moving tapestries from place to place; some tapestries were even hung in tents on battlefields!
Paris was the first major tapestry-making center in Europe. Many hanging tapestries have a “millefleurs” design as their background. “Millefleurs” is a French word meaning “a thousand flowers.” Designs using millefleurs use realistic flowers and leaves over a background. Though beautiful, these make the pictures seem flat, like the walls they decorate. “The Lady and the Unicorn” set of hanging tapestries is a famous set of millefleurs work. In the early 1500s, the Italian painter Raphael designed patterns (called cartoons) for a set of tapestries called “The Acts of the Apostles.” These looked like paintings with figures standing in three-dimensional space. Raphael’s realistic designs had a significant impact upon tapestry-weaving as an art form.
Tapestry-weaving flourished in Europe during the 1600s and 1700s, but declined in the 1800s when wallpaper became widely-used in homes. In the late 1800s, Englishman William Morris revived the handcrafts displaced by the Industrial Revolution. He also re-discovered the hand-weaving and dyeing techniques of the Middle Ages. His influence on hanging tapestries is significant to this day. In the early 1900s, French artist Jean Lurcat introduced the use of modern artists’ designs at Aubusson, a hanging tapestry center important since the Middle Ages.
A modern crafts revival occurred after the end of World War II in 1945. Since then, artists and craftspeople have experimented with materials and weaving to create new forms of hanging tapestries.
Information is provided about individual wall hangings and tapestries right here on the site. Many of our hanging tapestries come in several sizes. Sizes are approximate because of the unique nature of tapestry fabric and the centuries old loom weaving processes that are used to make it. Most hanging tapestries today are made primarily from cotton or wool, with other fabrics, even gold thread, woven in. One of the most used fabrics is viscose, a form of rayon.
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