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The Art of Making a Tapestry

Tapestry weaving, a timeless art, thrives at Paris's Gobelins, where Louis XIV's royal factory still stands. Here, weavers interpret artists' designs, using custom-dyed threads to create vibrant tapestries. From planning to completion, this meticulous process, blending tradition and creativity, can take years, producing exquisite works that celebrate both art and its creators.

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Video transcript

Tapestry weaving is a living art, and an art with a long history. To see a tapestry up close is to experience the hand-on nature of its making. The art of tapestry weaving reached new heights in France in the 17th century, when Louis the XIV set up the Royal Tapestry Manufactory at the Gobelins, a place that still exists today, in Paris. There, tradition still informs the making of contemporary art: knowledge and creative inspiration handed down, at the exact same site. It's enclosed, a bit beyond the reach of time. It can seem anachronistic in the world in which we live, when everything has to do with speed. Here, we take the time to do things with humanity and soul. In Louis XIV's time, designing a tapestry began with a single artist who often planned an entire series and may have delivered early sketches. Other draftsmen honed the design. Today, similarly, a contemporary artist creates an original work with a tapestry in mind. But it's the weaver who interprets it. A weaver needs to love drawing, above all. You have to have a lot of imagination. And you have to be creative. From a copy of the artist's work, the weaver has drawn essential lines onto strips of clear plastic. These are positioned against the loom's vertical "warp" threads, and the lines are redrawn. The markings and ink will serve as a visual guide for weaving. Next, the color palette is decided, and threads will be custom-dyed to match the tapestry's design. The colored and textured threads of a tapestry form the "weft." 17th-century tapestries were made of wool for strength, silk for luminosity, and silver or gold thread, for showing off a patron's wealth. Whether wool, silk, or some other material, weft must be dyed to have a color. And this requires a dye expert. For me, you can't even call it a profession. I actually don't feel like I'm coming to work. It's really magical to see a color being born. For hundreds of years, dyes came from plants, minerals, and insects ground into powder. The process of using them was challenging. Formulas differed, depending upon the color and the material to be dyed. Temperatures for dye baths were tough to keep constant, with vats over wood fires. Now, chemical dyes are used. Infinite hues are possible using just red, yellow, and blue, carefully measured out. A bath of non-mineral water is heated. Dye is added. The weft soaks. Several hours later, the threads are pulled out and compared to the intended color. Adjustments might be made: more dye, longer soaking. When the color is perfect, the weft is hung to dry. In another area of the Gobelins, the dyed threads are wound onto spools for storage. When the weft is needed, it's transferred from a spool to the weaver's main tool, called a "bobbin" or "broche." A bobbin can hold a single color or a combination of colorful threads, twisted together. Now, the weft is ready for the loom. In the 17th century, the production of large tapestries required huge looms, and at the Gobelins, there were two types, the horizontal and the vertical. Now, it's the vertical loom. Thick strands of undyed wool, called the "warp" form the structure of a tapestry, and on a vertical loom, they're especially noticeable. Before weaving begins, the loom is bare. The warp must be prepared according to the tapestry's specifications in a process called "warping." A single continuous thread is wound between a metal wheel and a wall railing to form loops. After a set number of loops, the process is repeated with a new warp thread. Each bundle of warp is braided. At the empty loom, the braided threads are arranged, perfectly spaced across a wooden bar with metal teeth. The bar is hoisted up and suspended from the loom's top beam. The braids are undone, and threads pulled down and attached to the lower beam. Once the warp is on the loom, the next step is to add tension. The warp is loosened and tightened until tension is just right. The last step is to add "heddles," a system of looped twine attached to the warp, which will enable the weaver to move threads while weaving. The weaver's role is that she does it all, from beginning to end. I speak from the point of view of the weaver, who invests a part of herself in the work. A weaver sits behind a loom, facing the back of a tapestry. As she works, she occasionally looks between the warp threads to see the front of the tapestry reflected in a mirror. She also sees a reflection of the "cartoon," a copy of the design being woven, which hangs on the wall behind her. When the mirror is turned just right, the reflection is aligned perfectly with the area being woven and the markings on the warp threads. The weaver's bobbin, or "broche," is used like a needle to hold weft and guide it between the warp threads. Each one holds a particular color and hangs from the back of the tapestry, ready to be picked up and used again. The end of the bobbin is used to tamp down passages of weft. Or, a metal comb is used. To make a tapestry, the weft is woven over and under the warp threads in a horizontal direction. A row from right to left is followed by a row left to right. Eventually, the warp will be completely covered by weft. To weave a passage, the weaver pulls on a heddle to uncross odd and even sets of warp threads. This brings one set forward, and in the space or "shed" between the warps, the bobbin can be guided through. To weave a narrow passage, using the heddles isn't always necessary. Like a harpist plucking strings, a weaver pulls a small group of warp threads forward. The weaver's skill and experience enable her to accomplish not only a complex design, but to create a textile that's structurally sound. Even today, a tapestry takes years to make. A finished tapestry is a celebration, honoring a work of art and the people who created it. We are surrounded by history. We can't really speak of the spirit of the old weavers. But we acknowledge this glorious past, and try to carry on ourselves.