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What is a Tapestry?

The Royal Windsor
Tapestry Manufactory

Compiled by
G G Cullingham

An Introduction to The Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory

Index to The Tapestries

What is a tapestry?

The classic misnomer is 'The Bayeux Tapestry', which is not a tapestry but embroidery in coloured wools on coarse linen. Similarly, any design built upon a textile fabric such as linen or canvas is not tapestry. A true tapestry is built up in the process of weaving. The plain warps are stretched vertically - usually between horizontal rollers-to receive the coloured wefts which form the picture when densely packed down by pressing with a comb-like tool as the work progresses. The warps thus hidden form ridges in the wefts and these run vertically while on the loom but horizontally when the tapestry is finished and hung by its wefts after the tapestry has been given a quarter turn into its hanging position. The warps are stretched between rollers and this permits long sections of tapestry to be woven-only restricted in depth by the size (width) of the loom, which may be up to 16 feet. Tapestries deeper than this have to be sewn together in strips.

The Tapestry Loom

From a supplement dated 29 April 1882 to the Illustrated London News
Work in progress at the Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory

Top left:
Dyeing the wool
Top right:
Winding the wool
Centre: A worker at a low-warp loom
Bottom left:
Another preparing the warp
Bottom right:
Several women repairing old tapestry

The warps are divided into 'odds' and 'evens' alternatively. A division is maintained by the 'shed rod' parallel with the top roller and actuated by means of the 'heddles' to permit the passage of the bobbins of coloured weft. In a vertical or high warp loom, heddles are attached only to alternate warps and the weaver can pull these towards him. One set of warps being the nearer by reason of the shed rod, the operation of pulling the heddles brings the other set of warps past these towards the weaver who can then pass between them the bobbins, and repeat this in the other direction after releasing the heddles. The high warp weaver is thus weaving with only one hand-the other being required to operate the heddles. In low warp looms the heddles are operated by pedals or treadles with one pedal operating the 'odd' warps and the other the 'even' warps-the pair covering about two feet sections of the width of the loom. Several weavers can work side by side, each with a pair of pedals to operate the warps on his section and using both hands for weaving thus making more progress than with the high warp loom.
The high warp weaver walks round the back to inspect his work, or uses a small mirror which hangs behind the work, so that he can peer between the warps and view the reflection. His cartoon hangs on the wall nearby. The low warp weaver can inspect his work by a small mirror passed through the warps but he cannot see much at one time. Both types of loom have the weaving done in reverse, so that the back faces the weaver. The cartoon from which the low warp weaver works is under the warps and is seen through them. This permits the reproduction of the most intricate designs with great accuracy. The word 'cartoon' comes from 'cartone' the Italian for a large sheet of paper and a full-scale design for work in a different material.
On primitive looms there may be no heddles and the wefts are passed over and under the warps in a darning action. This is also the method of repairing old tapestries.
The working of the looms however is only one aspect of tapestry manufacture. The initial stage is the preparation of a design for the cartoon, the latter being made the full size of the proposed tapestry. Tapestry weaving indeed has been described as a three-fold art, combining the skills of artists, dyers and weavers. The weaver executes the design into cloth but it is the artist who conceives and creates the design for the cartoon. The Raphael cartoons displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum on loan from the Queen are equally if not more famous than the tapestries made from them at the Mortlake 'atelier' which are now in Paris. The tapestries differ as always by reason of being reverse or mirror pictures because such tapestries are woven reverse side uppermost, towards the weaver.
The weavers who came to Old Windsor from Aubusson, France, in the period commencing in 1876 already had had experience of executing tapestries from 18th century Boucher designs and cartoons. This French artist's romantic designs were to become popular in America after the Old Windsor works closed in 1890, no doubt because of the migration of the French weavers from Windsor to Williamsbridge New York.

An Introduction to The Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory

ALSO SEE (External Link)
Tapestries Direct
More about the History of Tapestry


The Royal Windsor History Zone

The Royal Windsor Home Page

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