The technology for weaving tapestry has changed rather little over the centuries. And while the Jacquard loom of the 18th Century was actually the first computer–this loom used a punched card system where needles attached to individual warp threads poked through (or not), dictating the pattern one row at a time–actual tapestry work is still executed completely by hand. In another post, I’ll explain how tapestry differs from other types of textiles.
During the time of the unicorn tapestries, the most renowned studios were in Brussels and Leon, in Flanders (now Belgium), with the Gobelin studio in Paris just being opened. The latter would become quite famous in the Classical tapestry age (after the unicorn series), where they would leave a lasting mark on the art for by imparting their studio name on the type of loom itself–the Gobelin tapestry loom.
Two main methods existed in the late medieval period for weaving tapestry. The first (in the Gobelin and Brussels vein) was what is known as a “high warp” loom, where the structural warp threads are held vertically on rollers. These were set up in permanent studios and were considered to be of the highest quality and fineness. The high-warp weavers formed guilds and guarded their trade secrets closely.
Secondly were the “low warp” tapestry looms, which were set up like contemporary floor looms, with the warp stretched horizontally. While some permanent low-warp tapestry studios existed, often this loom was preferred by itinerant weavers who would set up their loom at the place of employment, complete the commission, and then move on. While there is actually no technical reason why low-warp tapestry looms should produce a difference in quality from the high-warp variety, they gained a reputation as being coarser, cheaper, and of faster production. If you were of the lower ranking nobility but still wanted to have your house look the part, you probably would hire a low-warp tapestry weaver. If you were of high ranking nobility and could afford “the real deal,” you went to the high-warp studios for you tapestry needs.
Because tapestry warp requires considerable tension, high-warp looms were often monstrous and involved support from the building as well as the frame. And because castle and manor house tapestries were often wider than tall in finished size, this meant that supporting a beam strong enough to accommodate such great width was physically impossible due to the materials available at the time. Therefore, with the piece turned on its side, the roller beams supporting the warp only had to be as long as the piece was tall. This meant weaving the project sideways. The other quirk of tradition was that the weavers actually worked on the back of the piece, mounting mirrors on the opposite side so that they could check on the accuracy of their progress. In this drawing, patrons have come to visit their commissions-in-progress. They are standing at the back of the loom in order to view the front side of the piece.
The Gobelin studios still exist, and you can visit them in Paris to see current works in progress. Another prominent studio and school is West Dean in England, which recently completed their recreation of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series for Sterling Castle in Scotland. Their interpretation of the fragmented scene involves borrowing from “The Lady and the Unicorn–Sight,” which does agree with the bit of hand and sleeve remaining in the original.
Unlike most contemporary western looms, the Gobelin style of tapestry loom does not employ foot pedals for warp separation. Instead, a dowel holds one shed apart, while “leashes” catch the opposite shed. The weaver grabs the leashes with one hand, pulling, while the other hand inserts the thread through the gap. This is actually quite similar (though on a larger scale) to the traditional Navajo technique of “stick shed” and “pull shed”–a tradition which grew up completely independent of European tapestry production.
One thing remains constant with high-warp tapestry technique, and that is the highly time-consuming nature of the medium. Each thread is worked individually and by hand, pounded down with a wooden or metal comb. And, while the cartoon is present to help the weaver, colorwork and finesse are entirely affected by the weaver’s skill and abilities. Scrutinizing the Unicorn Tapestries, these artists were very skilled indeed–able to work heroics in shading and detail with a very limited palate. It must have been quite impressive indeed to have visited those late medieval studios during their production process!