Tapestry (or weft -faced weaving) has been with us for a very, very long time. The richness and diversity of tapestry is a fascinating history of both ancient and not so ancient cultures. The oldest fragments of tapestry that have been discovered came from Egypt and date back to 1500 B.C. I found these photos of such fragments here.
The Coptic tapestries were made in Egypt from the 4th to 8th century. I found this Coptic Curtain Fragment made of wool and linen for sale that was made in that time period.
The Incas of Peru also produced tapestries, a few of which have survived such as this fragment from the pre-Columbian area (found at this website)
Almost any culture that practiced weaving had tapestry as one of its techniques. Tapestry is decorative, strong and versatile. It can be used as a saddle blanket, a bag, a wall hanging, a rug . . . the list goes on. It can withstand the ravages of time like no other woven material and hence fragments of it have survived thousands of years.
Tapestries have graced the walls of castles and the interior of tents as well as the hallways of modern buildings. No other art form is as noble and awe-inspiring. The richness of dyed fiber seems to reach out with its depth and beauty, pulling the viewer in with its amazing magnetism.
I was looking through my favorite book on tapestry: “Tapestry” by Barty Phillips and found my all time favorite fragment of a fish woven in Egypt sometime between the third and sixth centuries. This fish looks like it could have come straight from a modern tapestry. The techniques included: eccentric wefts, hatching, slit tapestry, outlining, weft and warp interlock. The colors were a rich blend of oranges and yellows and browns that seemed to have not faded over time. When I look at that fish I feel like time has not moved on at all, that I could see in my mind the person weaving that fish in the same manner that I could have woven that fish. In fact, I am so in awe of that fish that it has taken great restraint not to try to copy it!
I could pepper this blog with examples of all the cultures that have embraced tapestry over thousands of years, but I suggest that you take your own journey and explore both on the internet and through books such as the one I mentioned the varied and expansive journey tapestry has taken throughout history. It’s mind-boggling. If you are a tapestry weaver it will serve to connect you to the past as if an unbroken thread has spun its way through the centuries to reach you. It gives me chills to think of it.
If you are looking to explore modern tapestry I suggest you start with the American Tapestry Alliance website: http://americantapestryalliance.org. I could spend days and days (and have done so) just exploring the artist pages. The diversity of style and subject matter all contained within the rather rigid restraints of tapestry technique will give you a greater and global understanding of what tapestry really is: a very serious, very controlled and difficult art form that can be as diverse in style and subject matter as, let’s say, oil painting. In fact, during the middle ages oil painting was seen as the poor man’s tapestry (I love that!).
I have to admit, I am very prejudice when it comes to tapestry. I consider it the highest form of art and one of the most difficult. It is no easy task to create a tapestry that is both technically and aesthetically correct and pleasing. In fact, it’s difficult at best. It is no wonder that there are very few dedicated tapestry weavers wandering this earth. The number is actually tiny compared to other art forms.
But don’t be intimidated by this art form. After all our ancestors were not. It’s not something you will master over night. It is a slow and beautiful journey that can engage you for a life time.
May yours begin here.