How were Tapestries Made ?

'The Triumph of Fortitude', c 1525, Flemish (Brussels)
[larger version]

The making of a tapestry| involves numerous stages from design to completion. Some of the main steps are explained here, but you can find more detailed information from the books in the find out more section|.

  • Tapestry manufacture has varied throughout the ages. Common practice during the Renaissance period involved the use of a pre-designed image, known as a cartoon. This would be provided by an independent artist who did not necessarily reside or work near the workshop where the tapestry would later be produced. It is not known who designed the 'Triumph of Fortitude'. However, one contemporary artist who worked on tapestry cartoons was the famous Raphael, whose designs for the 'Apostles' series were particularly influential.
  • Once in the workshop, the cartoon would be placed underneath a weaving loom and function as a blueprint for the weaver to work from directly.
  • From this initial stage, the tapestry was created by the passing of coloured lengths of silk, wool or metallic threads known as wefts, through stronger, load-bearing lengths of wool or linen called warps (see diagram below). During the weaving process, the wefts are parallel to the weaver. However, when they are hung, the tapestry is turned so that the warp direction runs horizontally.
  • The design was built up by the continuous passing of the weft back and forth through the warps until a thick band of colour was formed. As different areas of colour were built up, patterns or figurative images emerged.
  • As the tapestries were hand made, they naturally took a long time to produce. The tapestry at Walker Art Gallery is 411 cm x 533 cm, but it is estimated that one only slightly bigger would required the equivalent of thirty weavers to work for between eight and sixteen months!
  • To consolidate the image the weaver pressed down the threads with a hand-held beater. This insured that the warps were completely covered by the weft so that the tapestry image looked complete.

Head of Cyrus after cleaning
Detail of the head of Cyrus, with wefts clearly visible.

Diagram showing warps and wefts
The warp is shown in white, the weft in black.