Monday, 18 June 2012

Tapestry: a word with multiple meanings part 1

What is tapestry? A current exhibition of works by Grayson Perry at the Victoria Miro Gallery, The Vanity of Small Differences, is described as containing 'a series of six tapestries' on its website. These six weavings are explored in depth in a three-part Channel 4 documentary In The Best Possible Taste, presented and written by Perry himself. On reading about the exhibition and programme I immediately thought: Is it really tapestry?

The Annunciation of the Virgin (detail), 2012, Grayson Perry, woven by Flanders Tapestry,

The term tapestry has a confusing, multitude of uses in modern language. Here are some descriptions:

A weaving technique that differs from other weaving in that the weft threads do not pass all the way across the warp threads from selvedge to selvedge but only as far as colour is needed for the design. Characteristic small slits can be left where the colours change.
('Glossary' in Barty Philips Tapestry, Phaidon, 2000)

As an object, a tapestry is usually (but not exclusively) a large, pictorial wall-hanging woven in tapestry weave.
(Elena Phipps Looking at Textiles - a guide to technical terms,  Getty Publications, 2011)

A weft-faced plain weave with discontinuous weft structure, tapestry weave utilises many different colours weft yarns to create the pictorial designs. These discontinuous yarns change constantly across the width of the tapestry.
(Elena Phipps Looking at Textiles - a guide to technical terms,  Getty Publications, 2011)

Technique of weaving discontinuous weft threads into an undyed warp thread to form a pictorial or decorative design. The term also denotes wall hangings made by this technique, most notably the pictorial wall hangings popular in Europe from the 14th century.
(Grove Art Online, accessed 18/06/12)

A hand-woven fabric, usually of silk or wool, with a non-repetitive pattern which is woven during the manufacture. The word is often applied mistakenly to other textiles used for wall-hangings and upholstery.
(The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, accessed 18/06/12)

A weft faced, woven cloth with discontinuous wefts, usually plain weave.
('Glossary' in Tapestry, Black Dog Books, 2011)

It is quite clear from these academic sources that tapestry, or tapestry weaving, is the method practiced at studios such as Dovecot, Gobelins and West Dean: a hand-woven piece of weaving which is distinctive from cloth weaving by the weft which does not always travel across the width of the weaving.

Tapestry in process at Dovecot Studios, January 2012
On watching the Channel 4 documentary it was instantly apparent that these were not tapestries in these terms, but Jacquard weavings. Jacquard weaving, or the Jacquard loom, is described as follows:

A loom introduced in 1801 that uses a punch-card system. It produces fine cloth with tapestry-like blocks of colour much faster than hand-worked looms.
('Glossary' in Barty Philips Tapestry, Phaidon, 2000)

A Jacquard loom, or more precisely, the jacquard attachment to a loom, is a mechanism to automate the raising and lowering of individual warp threads in order to weave complex designs, a task that was previously done laboriously by hand.
(Elena Phipps Looking at Textiles - a guide to technical terms,  Getty Publications, 2011)

A mechanical loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801, that simplifies the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns such as brocade, damask and matelasse.
('Glossary' in Tapestry, Black Dog Books, 2011)

A Chuck Close design being woven on a Jacquard loom,

In none of these definitions is a Jacquard weaving described as a tapestry. Why do many describe it as such? The answer lies predominantly in the etymology of the word tapestry. The term tapisserie (tapestry) is first found in 15th Century French and was associated with tapisser (to cover with heavy fabric) and tapis (heavy fabric). This terminology can be traced back to the Classical Greek word tapes (tapestry or heavy fabric). The etymology of the word has meant that jacquard producers, such as Flanders Tapestry, have defined tapestry as 'a thick textile fabric in which colored weft threads are woven into fixed warp threads to form an image'. Though this is not an incorrect interpretation of the word tapestry, it is evident from the source above that in today's language it means a more specific type of hand production.

To confuse things even more the word tapis in modern French means rug or carpet!

What does it all mean and how do we move on? Essentially, there is no 'ultimate' dictionary to which all producers of weavings adhere. I once asked a tapestry weaver if it would be possible to create a one-stop glossary of tapestry weaving terms and he said it would be impossible, as weavers from different generations and regions often use different technical terms for the same thing. For me, the use of the word tapestry in either of the cases above (tapestry weaving or jacquard weaving) is no problem as long as information on its production is available. This is essential for the education of the general public and academics on the differences between the two methods of manufacture. Describing a jacquard weaving as a tapestry, with no reference to its mechanical nature (as in the Victoria Miro gallery exhibition information) is doing the world of a textiles a mis-service.

Next time... on the use of the word tapestry to describe embroidery.

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