Tapestry Workshops

SN 1024 - 1025. 1997 Exhibition Label.
Rubens and the Tradition of Tapestries by Francoise Hack.

Before the 14th century tapestries were still woven by monks, but quickly workshops developed. Cities with many workshops gave their name to the tapestries made there. The more famous ones are Arras, Paris, Tournai, Oudenaarde and Brussels. Royal factories such as Gobelins and Mortlake developed in the cities of Paris and Mortlake (near London) respectively. Weavers moved freely from one center to another, taking with them their skills and habits.

Initially all the stages in the creation of a tapestry, from bozzetti to cartoon to weaving, were done in the weaver's workshop. Than the work divided between those who made the design and the cartoon and those who actually wove the tapestry. Sometimes the painter of the design also made the cartoons, in other cases the design was given to a specialized cartoon painter. Guild regulations issued in 1476 confined tapestry weavers to design backgrounds, trees, shrubs and animals, while the rest of the work was done by painters.

In large shops, the work was organized according to experience. Apprentices began learning the weaving by working on the galloons (the colored bands around the outer edge of the tapestry). The next step was the weaving of the borders, the vegetation, background and simple draperies. The master weaver wove the more difficult parts, like the faces and the brocade fabrics of the clothing.

The tapestry center of Brussels blossomed in the 16th century. Early tapestries were not marked with initials, names or symbols. Brussels had many problems because workshops outside the city were selling their tapestries under the Brussels name and some of those workshops were dyeing the tapestry after the process of weaving. A law was issued in 1528 to guarantee the origin and the quality of tapestries woven in Brussels. Each tapestry had to be marked with the monogram of the master weaver and the mark of the city, its coat of arms flanked by two B's, standing for Brabant and Brussels. The coat of arms with the double B can be found in the galloon of the two tapestries of The Triumph of the Eucharist. The emperor Charles V extended the law to all weaving centers in the Low Countries in 1544. Many tapestries have lost these monograms and in most cases workshop marks are unknown because archival records are lost. Around 1600 the weavers started to replace the monograms by initials or a full name. This makes the identification for the 17th and 18th centuries much easier.

Rubens' role in tapestries and their workshops is much greater than once thought. Besides his four known designs for tapestry series, The Triumph of the, Eucharist, The History of Achilles, The History of Constantine and The History of Decius Mus, other tapestry sets are found relating to paintings by Rubens. Hendrik Pypelinckx, Rubens' grandfather was an apprentice in the tapestry workshop of Joris van Liecke in Antwerp and Rubens was married to Helena Fourment, daughter of tapestry dealer Daniel Fourment. Several documents prove Rubens' involvement with tapestries. There is a contract between a commissioner of a tapestry set and a weaver, including a specification that Rubens had to aprove the tapestries for their quality. Another document shows Rubens as a "connoisseur", giving his statement that the tapestries he had seen were made after the original cartoons by Guilo Romano.

bozzetto first design, preliminary sketch for a tapestry
modello second stage in designing a tapestry, carefully detailed drawing or small oil sketch, served to determine the final forms and colors to guide the studio painters who then executed the compositions on the same scale as the tapestries
cartoon full scale painting, oil on canvas or watercolor on paper, the same size as the tapestry, served as a reference for the weaver
tapestry a decorative fabric, made by weaving colored weft threads alternatively over and under the warps to form a pictorial or ornamental design
warp the set of parallel threads that form the basis for the weave
weft thread laid down with a shuttle between warp strings to make the tapestry by filling in and covering the warp
shuttle a tool loaded with weft thread, also called bobbin
loom the framework which is used to weave a tapestry
high warp loom a loom with warp threads stretched parallel and vertically between the top and bottom rollers
low warp loom a loom with warp threads stretched parallel and horizontal between the rollers, foot pedals provide control of the warp threads