What Makes Tapestry Unique?

unicorn holding bannerThe word “tapestry” can often be used with very broad strokes in our language–from implying that something is colorful, comprised of many parts, or decorative.  But the word tapestry is actually much more specific.  In fact, it denotes a very small subset of textiles.  I’ll deconstruct the confusion in this post, with helpful illustrations.  As someone who is a weaver of many different types of textiles, I appreciate the value of using the right terms for the medium.  Knowing a bit more about tapestry technique also gives us a peak into how these amazing historical textiles survived 500 years as well preserved as they have.

One of the most confusing references using the word tapestry is in the name of the Bayeaux Tapestries, which illustrate the Roman Conquest of 1066 (a sample of the masterpiece is illustrated at right).  bayeux closeupThis remarkable set is actually worked as very detailed embroidery, where colored threads are stitched onto an already woven background.  This is an entirely different technique from the Unicorn Tapestries (illustrated left), where the design is actually created in the weaving of the piece.

Within the world of weaving, we find plain weaves, twills, overshort, and many other techniques.  Some (like most cloth) shares fairly evenly with warp and weft, but some styles of weaving have a predominance of one or the other.  For instance, rag rugs (example from one of my own projects shown left) has strips of fabric as weft.  This is so thick that is forces the cotton warp threads to curve around each row.  This style of textile is called “warp faced,” meaning that the warp is on the outside.rag rug detail

True tapestry, on the other hand, is the exact opposite–it is “weft faced.”  This means that the warp is strictly a stabilizer for the piece (the backbone if you will) and only the weft is visible.  Therefore, in tapestry, the weft must carry the image.  Almost never (unless the pattern bears a full horizontal line) does any one weft thread pass the entire width of a tapestry.  Each weaves back and forth over its own color area, with a different thread for each color region.  The yarns are dyed before being woven–no printing the image on later like silk screening or block dyeing, and no stitching it in like embroidery.

tapestry in progress detailHere, on the “Deceiving the Hunters” piece currently in progress, you can see the white warp threads above.  But once an area is woven, they completely disappear–like it’s a weaver’s magic trick.  Individual “butterflies” (a Navajo method of bundling weft threads for ease in weaving) dangle down from their respective color areas on the lady’s velvet sleeve.

Navajo textiles (often called rugs, though they deserve far more respect than this term typically garners) are also tapestries, due to their weft facing technique.  Woven (rather than knotted) Persian rugs are as well.  In fact, some of the oldest surviving textiles in the world are worked using tapestry technique.  Here is an example of one of my own Navajo-style tapestries, where the warp threads above can be seen but the weft carries all of the color.  Weft-faced textiles are amazingly durable because the tightly-packed weft yarns/threads protect the warp from damage.

navajo tapestry in progressOnce warp threads have been severed, unraveling can cause great destruction for a tapestry, requiring the heroic stabilizing efforts that have been part of the Unicorn Tapestries’ restoration process.  But had these historic textiles been made using any other style of weaving, the likelihood of surviving their harrowing history would have been almost impossible.  The very nature of the way they were woven has greatly contributed to their longevity–that an the amazing properties of wool.  But that could be another whole post of its own!