The High Warp Tapestry Loom

Gobelin high warp loomThe 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.gobelin tapestry weaver

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.gobelins studio

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.tapestry weaver

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.modern gobelin loom

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!

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Quest for the Horn–by Land or by Sea

maiden with unicornAll this fuss with maidens, gardens, hunting.  Why seek the unicorn at all?  Why go to all the trouble?  Surely something else would be tastier and less dangerous?  Wouldn’t the hart make just as pretty of a mount?

Ah, but the fleet-footed hart doesn’t have what the unicorn’s got–the magic to purify (no wonder it’s attracted to the maiden’s purity).  And all that magic lives in the horn.

You see, there was a problem for people in the upper echelons of medieval society.  That problem was poisoning.  I’ve often wondered how much of that came from food poisoning due to lack of sanitation in the kitchen, but nonetheless, popping off whoever was in the way of what you wanted (land, riches, a pretty girl) could be done easily enough by slipping something into that unfortunate fellow’s drink.

unicorn horn flaskWith everyone living in close proximity and most meals still being a public affair, with the noble family presiding at the raised dais at the end of the hall, anyone could have done it!  No Sherlock Holmes to call for discovering who was culpable for the dastardly deed.  No life insurance.  So traditions sprung up to mitigate risk.  The traditional toast at the beginning of a meal was once a more rowdy affair, where drink from each cup upon impact would slosh into the other.  If you were planning to poison someone at the table, you would be quite reticent to lift your cup for sloshing!  In essence, it was a show of trust to toast one another and make that hearty clink.

But there was another method in circulation.  What if the very vessel from which you drank was able to purify any contents–even the most vilest of poisons?  Could that be possible?  People of the Middle Ages thought so.  And what might be the medium for such a powerful cup?  Why, the horn of a unicorn, of course!

unicorn purifies waterAnd here we must return to the ancient story about unicorns to learn why.  Part of the legend is that every night, the serpent of evil slips into rivers and lakes and poisons the water.  All the animals of the forest must wait until dawn, when the unicorn comes to the banks and dips its horn into the water.  Instantly, all the vile venom is repelled and the water is safe once again for the animals to drink.  This is relayed in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series, where the animals are waiting by a fountain for the unicorn to purify the stream with its magical horn.

If you were a nobleman in fear of poisoning, you’d want a piece of that magic too!  No one seemed to wonder if the power of the horn worked in life as well as death, for an industry sprung up over the procurement and sale of unicorn horns for this elite and often spendy market.  Every inch was money to be made.

sea unicornAh, but you say, where would such horns have come from for this sale?  Surely there was no medieval unicorn farms to raise them.  And here we intersect another interesting piece of medieval legend–the copying theory.  It was believed that for every creature on land, there was a counterpart that lived in the sea.  Goats had their fish-tailed cousin the Capricorn.  Even people had their version–the mermaid.  If a unicorn on land existed, then a unicorn of the sea must also exist.  And interestingly enough, a sea unicorn does exist.  It just doesn’t look that much like a unicorn.

narwhalThe narwhal is quite a natural curiosity, with its whale body and enormously long fighting “tooth” off the prow of its face.  Occasionally, narwhal tusks will wash to shore, and these immediately found their way onto the lucrative unicorn horn market.  Every “unicorn horn” object of medieval work can be traced to the narwhal.  Maybe those dashing men of the castle would have had better luck setting out to sea than traipsing through the woods in search of the precious horn.  But then we would have missed all the drama with the maidens in the garden–and then where would our story be?

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Alternative Narrative: Power, Play, or Involvement?

original sketchYou know the story of the Three Little Pigs, yes?  They each have their little roles to play, along with the “big bad wolf.”  Now imagine that one day, someone is telling you the story, but the wolf is a completely different character.  He’s been evicted from his home because the oncoming urban sprawl of the city of pigs condemned his lands and forced him off his family farm.  This new bit of backstory might completely change your opinion of the aggressive behaviors of the wolf and the silly antics of the pigs.  With this in mind, you wonder, maybe the wolf has a point.  Maybe he has a legitimate reason for wanting to eat the pigs and this is more than a child’s creative lecture on building sturdy houses.

Just so, the stories told over and over in what are now known as “fairy tales” can sometimes be used to share cultural wisdoms while at other times are used in a subliminal way to mold social behavior (I’m thinking Disney!).  Stories are the human method for understanding life–both personally, historically, culturally, and spiritually.  We literally “story ourselves” and our world into a place where we feel that we can understand it, can relay it, and it becomes ours.  But our stories can also limit or harm us, and that is where the skill of alternative narrative can be most compelling.unicorn sketch

Think of all the role rewriting for the lives of women through their process of liberation?  Think of the new narratives that had to be formed as enslaved people came to freedom?  Think of a national history that had to be formed as new governments arose from the ashes of what had come before?  The very reason that the “Middle Ages” received their name and backwards connotation was because intellects of the Renaissance happened upon the writings of Classical Greece and believed that they were creating a new age (and that everything in between them and Classical Greece was horribly ignorant and dark).  It’s a narrative that still clouds most people’s understanding of the medieval experience today.

Now imagine, as a contemporary (and feminist) storyteller, you encounter a narrative where some noble men want a unicorn horn (why they want the horn will be explained in another post).  They’re hungry for a hunt, so they set out with their best hounds and scouts to find this illusive beast.  They discover the unicorn performing one of its many miracles–purifying the river water with its horn.  The tranquil scene is soon broken by the baying of hounds and the sounding of horns, and they’re off on the chase.  The unicorn flees, fording a river, but the men and dogs are quickly upon it.  Infuriated and injured, the unicorn fights back, kicking and goring with the power of a wild ass.  A hound loses its life and the men lose their pray into the thickets of the forest.

lady sketchWhat to do?  They cannot return home empty handed.  They must claim their prize and show off their manhood!  But force isn’t working, so it’s time to use guile.  Everyone knows from the stories that unicorns cannot resit the charms and pleasant smell of a maiden, so the young damsels of the castle are summoned to the garden to work their charms, while the hunters wait in the bushes for the “all-clear.”  The scene plays out just as expected, and the hunters pounce on their opportunity, slaying the now passive unicorn and parading its corpse on the back of a horse towards the castle and its crowd of proud onlookers.  Now wasn’t that a splendid day for a hunt indeed.

But none of those damsels are partaking in the celebration, their absence like a strange gap in the dance.  Did they remain in the rose garden?  How did they feel after taming the beast that had just been so violent and deadly, only to have it carried off and killed?  Who asked them to share their side of the story?  What would you have done if you had been there?

Because the maidens are not present at the homecoming celebrations, they are simply being used by the men to accomplish their goal.  The capture of the unicorn is merely the means of procuring the magical horn.  I have yet to see “haunch of unicorn” appearing on the menu of even the most fanciful medieval fairy tale, which means it wasn’t intended to be eaten.  So both maiden and mystical animal are tools for an end–procurement of the coveted horn.

full tapestry cartoonNow imagine that the lady and the unicorn, seeing in each other the oppressed, decide to change the story–right where the fragment panel of the original adds its mystery of the unknown.  What if, instead of telling the hunters it is time to come in for the kill, the lady leads the unicorn to a place of hiding and safety, thereby “Deceiving the Hunters” (as the title of my alternative narrative tapestry piece relays).

Ah, but you have seen her!  You were in the garden too!  She raises her finger to her lips.  Will you participate in this new plot?  Will you keep the secret of their escape?  Will you turn her in and claim the horn as your own?  Now that you know the story and how it usually plays out, you too are part of that story.  And there enters the power, the playfulness, and your involvement in the alternative narrative woven into “Deceiving the Hunters.”

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Visiting the Originals

Laura at CloistersLiving in rural, northern Wisconsin could be considered a challenging location for viewing historic tapestries.  But that means that whenever I do get to travel off the farm, I’m always looking for a chance to experience a medieval textile masterwork.

In the winter of 2009, my sister Kara was attending a dairy sheep conference in Albany, NY.  Tagging along, I realized it was the closest I had ever been to the Cloisters Museum–part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  No one in the family wanted to drive through the city, and I was public transit illiterate (hmmm, this was going to be a challenge).  But I was going to get there!

Fortunately, I had a few amazingly helpful Goddard classmates who lived in the area and could give me detailed instructions for using transit from Albany all the way to the entrance of the gardens to the Cloisters.  During a break from the sheep conference, we made a day of the affair.  Laura and Unicorn tapestryThe stony towers of the museum rose against a cool, gray sky.  Inside, only a few people were milling about the museum–no large school groups, no massive tour crowds.  It gave us quiet and intimate time with the array of arts and artifacts housed in the collection.

What impressed me first when entering the tapestry room was the sheer size of the pieces.  Having experienced these works only in books or digitally before the trip, the sense of size is nowhere as compelling as meeting the works in person.  There is not a wall in my entire house big enough to support even one of the panels!  To give you a little perspective, the people in the tapestries are nearly life-sized.

Being a tapestry weaver myself, I was then equally struck by the amount of time that would have gone into each piece–let alone the whole set.  All the washing of the wool would have been done by hand, as well as the carding and spinning.  This would have been accomplished by innumerable women working with drop spindles and distaffs.  Then whole teams of people were employed in the dying process, which was all vegetal–woad, madder, yarrow, etc.  Another team was in charge of color matching and sorting and winding the weft threads onto the hanging bobbins, ready for the teams of weavers.  Newer weavers would focus on verdure and small animals, while a most skilled weaver or two in the studio would float from piece to piece-in-progress, just doing hands and faces!

trumpeter detailIt also struck me just how rich the colors have remained over 500 years of use and abuse.  During the French Revolution, peasants were rampaging noble households–pulling out anything bearing a coat of arms, piling it up in the yard, and burning it.  Traditionally, this set would have born coats of arms along with a Latin inscription across the top, explaining who was the patron of the set and what occasion the pieces celebrated.  Some enterprising or dedicated person cut off this portion, carefully clipping around leaves and castle turrets in the background.  The result?  While the tapestries were mutilated by the process and the story behind them is now shrouded in mystery, the bulk of the textiles were confiscated instead of burned.

They were discovered in the mid 1800’s in a peasant’s barn–being stored there for use as a covering for crops against frost.  Rescued from what surely would have become their demise, the pieces were cleaned and restored (as best they knew how at that time), though the original top portion could never be recreated since no documentation survives as to its content.  Instead, blue sky above was added, as well as patched in other portions–either rewoven or, as in some cases, tacked in from other tapestries (which apparently were worse off than this set).

unicorn captiveWith no direct link to patron or reason save the love-knotted A and E, which are ever-present throughout the pieces, the meaning has tickled the fancy of curators and historians since its restoration.  The most compelling potential narrative is that the series was a commissioned as a wedding gift (hence the tying of A and E together) and was originally hung as a bedroom set.  “The Start of the Hunt” and “The Unicorn Captive” (shown right) were actually woven separately from the rest of the hunt (up close, you can see how they are stylistically very different).  The scene of hunters heading off was for the back of the 4-poster bed (between the headrest and the wall), while the unicorn in a circular pen with the pomegranate tree was suspended above (protecting the sleepers below from falling debris and to hold in warmth).

These two are the most placid in the set and could conceivably be a comfort in sleep, though the rest of the series is in comparison rather gory, including hounds being filleted by the unicorn’s horn and the unicorn being stabbed by sword and spear.  But framing the scene within the idea of pursuit and capture (courtship brought to marriage), peppered with plants and animals that have their roles to play in fertility symbolism, I find the link to be the best hypothesis presently available.  If this is the case, what a bedroom suite indeed!

unicorn fragmentThe curiosity of the trip, though, was in seeing the only piece to include maidens (you can tell by their headdress and demeanor), which was perched over the doorway to the room.  You really had to look for it, and many visitors might even have missed it, because all that remains are two fragments of a work which likely was just as large as the rest.

This is the panel where the unicorn is being beguiled by the maiden, but all that remains of her are her fingers and part of a brocade sleeve.  The damsel in red is raising her hand to alert the huntsman in the tree that the lure has been successful–her movements languidly serpentine like the snake in the garden of Eden.  The rest of the panel, like the heraldry and inscriptions, have vanished into the sands of time.  To learn more about what would have been happening in this panel, please read the post “Who is She?–the Lady and the Unicorn.”

After spending at least three hours in the tapestry room alone, I left the Cloisters awed that something as fragile as a textile could have survived such a harrowing history at all.  Even though it bears its battle scars and alterations, the fact that I can visit a 500-year-old wall-hanging and still be filled with the sense of splendor and show of power and money behind the works indicates the timelessness of the medieval tapestry medium.  I was struck by the narrative of the work and also by mystery of the fragment–a lingering thought that would work its way into my own tapestry project.

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Who is She? The Lady and the Unicorn

lady and unicorn sightThere is a famous damsel from the high period of pictorial tapestry, who dances in the fine line between the end of the medieval period and the onset of the Renaissance in northwestern Europe.  She is thin, tall, and fair, and she is not complete without her unicorn.  In fact, the two make a unit–“The Lady and the Unicorn.”  Two major tapestry sets include her from this era, both of which survived the ravages of time not unscathed.

One of the missing links that creates a sense of mystery that intrigues viewers and curators to this day is what their relationship means.  Why are they pictured together, and what statement or stories would it have invoked in the peoples of the late 1480’s to 1510’s (the best guesses we have for the time of the textiles’ creation).

Unicorns, like dragons, have been part of human collective mythology far beyond the dawn of the written word.  And the beauty of drilling into this story is discovering that the unicorn becomes knit into the very fabric of the story of human struggle, of balance with nature, and of the lure of purity.  In the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series, this is juxtaposed with male aggression and deceit.  unicorn fords streamOver half of the series involves armed men stalking and chasing the unicorn, but their hunting prowess is to no avail (not a typical message for art being commissioned by the aristocracy, who were very proud of their hunting abilities!).

This is because the unicorn cannot be captured by force–it must be beguiled.  This means laying a trap for the wily beast.  A trap with bait.  And what would be the bait?  A young maiden, pure and chaste.

And here engages the deep roots of the story, which weaves its way back to Nile valley, the Tibetan plains, the journeys of a Greek doctor, and later overlays with Christian symbolism.  I will make a “related bibliography” list if you wish to delve into the intricacies yourself, but here is the melding that I have come to in my years of research into the narrative.

The lady and the unicorn draws its roots in an early human struggle–that of domestication and the dawn of agriculture.  The unicorn symbolizes nature and the spirit of the wild.  Illusive, unattainable, full of magic unknown to human arts.  The men symbolize the tribal hunter–seeking the chase to provide for the family by taking from the wild.  But as populations grew, hunting and gathering was either not enough or not stable enough of a supply, and a new means of support appeared–agriculture.  And agriculture, interestingly, was “invented” by women.  They tamed the “beasts” who could be kept near and tended; they planted the first cereal crops; they paved the way for the stabilization of their food system and the potential for growth beyond the tribe into civilizations.  lady and unicorn touch

Instead of being taken by force, plants and animals were lured by coercion into a new reality that brought stability for them too (protection from predators or a real advantage over competing plants).  Only the peaceful maiden of domestication can lure the wild from its hiding place and tame its wayward temperament.  And so it is with the most illusive animal of all–the unicorn.  Later, this would be melded with the virtues of the Virgin Mary and the unicorn as symbolic of Christ.

So who is she?  She is that call to our better nature–the temperate, the kind, the nurturing.  She is unarmed, vulnerable (in some cases even naked), but she is not afraid.  In the case of “the Hunt of the Unicorn,” she is being USED by the men for their purposes of taking the unicorn’s horn, but that is for another story.  And that is also the point where my own tapestry project interjects its alternative narrative–hence the title “Deceiving the Hunters.”

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“The Five-Year Project” Going on Six

tapestry cartoon“Deceiving the Hunters”–a Flemish tapestry project inspired by the early 16th Century tapestry series “The Hunt of the Unicorn” (currently housed at the Cloisters Museum in NY) is still underway, though making great progress.

Researched during my graduate studies at Goddard College, the piece is envisaged as an “alternative narrative” to the traditional hunt of the unicorn, full of its mythological and symbolic roots that date back to some of the earliest human narratives to be recorded.  But that essay is for another time!  Right now, let’s dig into the physical progress of the textile piece itself.

Flemish tapestry technique begins with a sketch, followed by a full color “cartoon” (here drawn on hefty brown paper), which is mounted on the wall behind the weaver.  This allows the tapestry artist to “check in” with the original design during production to note shading and color changes and interpret these within the confines of tapestry technique.  Since my studio is a one-woman operation, tapestry early phaseI’m both the cartoonist and the weaver, which means that I do have an informed idea of what can or cannot be physically woven within the constrictions of warp spacing and weft fineness.  Even so, I know that this piece will be technically challenging for me–a good stretch!

When selecting colors for the weft, I wanted to stay true to the reality of the historical piece in that the numbers of colors and shades available was rather tight compared with today.  Four colors for verdure, three colors for the gown, etc.  I also wanted to keep in a typical color palate but find hues that (to the best guess possible) reflect how the colors MIGHT have looked when fresh off the loom.  Typically, for the dyes of the time, reds and blues stayed the most vibrant, while greens drifted towards yellow or blue over time.  Whites would become less bright, and the gilt thread would tarnish.  To mimic the gilt threads, I decided to use gold and silver sheen embroidery thread, to offer the stunning sheen of the originals.

Next, the piece has early tapestry progressto be warped, here using my Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom, which is built upright (high warp) with rollers in the tradition of the looms used in the studios of Flanders where the original series was woven.  Also in traditional style, the piece is woven on its side, allowing for the greatest delicacy of shading for fine pieces like the lady’s hair or the texture in the unicorn’s horn.  To the bottom of the piece, I tacked some detailed pictures printed from the original set, showing shading technique for verdure, mane, and velvet, while behind the piece is tacked a black-and-white copy of the cartoon.  As the piece proceeds, the cartoon is sewn to the tapestry itself so that the image avoids being distorted by accidentally tweaking the alignment.  Periodically, I lift the cartoon up to the warp and finished tapestry parts to check progress accuracy.unicorn progress

Four years into the piece (understand, there have been other projects too, plus full-time farming!), progress looks like this.  The detail of the work is demanding in order to affect three-dimensionality within a mostly two-dimensional form.  The tapestry is worked in hills and valleys, in keeping with Flemish technique, which allows the weaver to focus on a small area at a time (rather than working across the entire width each row, as in traditional Navajo technique).

the first part of the oak branch and the initial two leaves took approximately 12 hours of weaving time itself!   It appears that I was being rather optimistic when calling this the “five-year project.”  But then, several of the years were consumed with research, “studies” (small experimental pieces), and warping.  This was not a piece sloppily begun!  In another post, I’ll discuss those pieces of the process just mentioned.lady's arm

But this year, I’ve been able to set aside three hours a week for intensive weaving on the project, and the progress is showing nicely.  The unicorn now has its lustrous lavender eye, the maiden her first arm and the beginning of a sleeve.  The unicorn’s beard and the maiden’s hand were especially challenging to relay their fluidity in a medium most suited to geometrics.  I am excited to continue to share the journey and inspiration of this piece with you as it continues to unfold.

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