ANCIENT TAPESTRY MAKING

ANCIENT TAPESTRY MAKING

Post 234 ⇒   by Gautam Shah 

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Historically any hand or machine-woven heavy material, and used to cover furniture, walls, or floors or for the decoration of clothing, has been called tapestry in popular usage. The earliest tapestries were functional coarse fabrics, made from coarse spun fibres. Tapestries were woven as small units, and joined to form a larger unit. Tapestries were precious items, and used till its smallest piece survived. Tapestries were heavy fabrics so residual pieces formed door and window cover, apparel, children’s quilt, home slipper bottoms, etc.

Egyptian wall painting of weaving technology

Tapestry is weft-faced weaving wherein the warp threads are hidden by discontinuous heavy weft yarns. The discontinuity and varieties of weft created patterns and textures, and later pictorial images. The warps in a tapestry appear as parallel ridges coarseness of yarns. Tapestry is unlike cloth weaving where both the warp and the weft threads are visible. Tapestry weaving flourished along with wearable textiles. Tapestries (at least, earlier ones), however, due to their simple weaving technique had identical pattern and texture on both faces making them reversible fabrics.

Icelandic warp weighted loom

Tapestries were made since prehistoric times in all cultures wherever textiles were woven. Egyptians and Incas buried their dead in tapestry pieces. Egyptians were earliest known or established (3000BC) users of tapestries. Tapestry weaving, was well-known in Peru by the 6th century. China had silk tapestries in the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907).

Fragment of the Sampul tapestry is a Hellenistic wool wall-hanging dating from 3rd -2nd C BC found in Sampul, Tarim Basin, China

Tapestry weaving continued to flourish in Asia. Fragments of wool tapestries from 4th C BC. have been found in graves in Ukraine. The ornamental motifs of these fragments are of widely diffused Hellenistic style that was especially prevalent in Syrian art at the time.

Sampul Tapestry fragment showing Probable Greek soldier, woollen 2nd C-3rd C AD, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum

Earliest attested Mycenaean Greek form of the word is ta-pe-ja English usage of word Tapestry occurs in 1467. The word derives from old French tapisserie > from tapisser (to cover with heavy fabric or to carpet) > from tapis (heavy fabric) > via Latin tapes. Technical definition of Tapestry has been exacted during the 18th and 19th C., meaning only heavy, reversible, patterned or figured handwoven fabrics for hanging or covering. By this period Tapestry was established as a luxury art afforded only by the wealthy.

Greek tapestry weaving

There are literary mentions of tapestry making in ancient Greece and Rome. In the Odyssey, Homer (8th BC) describes Penelope working on a tapestry that was unravelled each night as she waited for Odysseus. The Roman poet Ovid (43-17 BC) in the Metamorphoses describes tapestry looms used by Minerva and Arachne in their mythological weaving contest. The Trojan War tapestry referred to by Homer in Book III of the Iliad, where ‘Iris disguises herself as Laodice and finds Helen working at a great web of purple linen, on which she was embroidering the battles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake’.

Fabric weaving on weighted loom

Allusions in early Greek poetry and paintings on Greek vases show that tapestry weaving was an important household industry.

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