Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Tapestry: a word with multiple meanings part 2

Having discussed the use of the term 'tapestry' in reference to Jacquard weavings in part 1, this blog post is concerned with embroidery. Dovecot has had many visitors who have come to the studio with the expectation that the tapestry the 'weavers' are carrying out is in fact sewing - they are often surprised to be met with large looms and weaving. This stems from the popularity of needlepoint kits which are often described as 'tapestry' kits (click here for examples).

The use of word tapestry to refer to needlework does not only occur in the world of hobby-crafts. The two terms have a longer association thanks to the labelling of the Bayeux Tapestry. The etymology of the word tapestry is grounded its translation as 'heavy fabric'. Though of considerable length (almost 70m or 230ft) the fabric on which the story of the Norman conquest of England is actually quite thin and light. Indeed, Santina M Levey has commented on the plain nature of the materials of the Bayeux Tapestry: linen and wool (5000 Years of Textiles, p.200).

The Bayeux Tapestry is embroidery, a technique which the following entries show is very different to woven tapestry:

Embroidery Created with a threaded needle, embroidery is used to embellish a fabric ground. It can be done in a number of ways, using many types of stitches.
(Elena Phipps Looking at Textiles - a guide to technical terms,  Getty Publications, 2011)

Embroidery Method of decorating a ground material by stitching, cutting or withdrawing threads or by applying beads, pieces of fabric etc.
(Grove Art Online, accessed 18/06/12)

Tapestry 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)
The two are clearly very different in structure and manufacture and this is reflected in academic books on textiles. In 5000 Years of Textiles (edited by Jennifer Harris, British Museum Press, 2010) 'Embroidery', 'Weaving' and 'Tapestry' are given separate sections in the introductory chapter 'A Survey of Textile Techniques'. If this is the case, why is tapestry sometimes used to describe embroidery?

Acts of the Apostles tapestries, designed by Raphael, woven in Brussels at the workshops of Pieter van Aelst, c.1500, displayed here in 2012 in their original positions in the Sistine Chapel

Prestonpans Tapestry on display at Dovecot in 2012

A scene from the Prestonpans Tapestry
I think that the description of the Bayeux embroidery as a tapestry stems from the story-telling tradition of woven tapestry cycles. Many of the most famous Medieval and Renaissance tapestries are series of works which tell a story. These include the History of the Trojan War (15th century) which was woven numerous times from the same cartoons and the Acts of the Apostles designed by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel, Rome. Tom Campbell has written of the popularity of such didactic tapestries. When the Duke of Burgundy visited Paris in 1461, he hung his tapestries of the History of Gideon and Alexander the Great on the facade of the Hotel d'Artois where he was staying - Parisians 'queued night and day' to see them (5000 Years of Textiles, p.189).

The effective impact of the Bayeux Tapestry's story, displayed horizontically in chronological order has been adopted by contemporary projects which aim teach aspects of Scotland's history whilst making use of the highly skilled embroiderers who occupy the country. The first of these was the Prestonpans Tapestry. Made from 104 metre wide panels, the work tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie's journey from to Scotland, culminating in victory at the Battle of Prestonpans. The website for the project contains a wealth of information covering the design, historical research and even individual biographies of the embroiderers involved.

The success of the Prestonpans Tapestry has led to a second project The Great Tapestry of Scotland. For updates on the project, you can follow them on twitter.

It's all a bit confusing, no? It would be easy for someone to ask 'Why not just wipe the slate clean, and insist that everyone uses the correct technical term?' But to do that, would be to wipe away the history and journey that the word 'tapestry' has been on through the years. These blog posts have also shown that the use of 'tapestry' is subjective and it would be arrogant to try to impress one's own ideas upon other makers and thinkers. The weavers at Flanders Tapestry consider their work 'tapestry' whereas the Dovecot weavers would consider their work 'true' tapestry. This does not mean that it should be used idly or taken advantage of. As I concluded in the part 1 of this post, it is vital that the technical terminology of any medium (jacquard, tapestry, embroidery) is used in conjunction with its description of tapestry. The only solution I have come up with is to differentiate them with the following: Jacquard weaving, woven tapestry and embroidered tapestry.

PS. A Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry can be seen at Reading Museum, which was the focus of this blog post.

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