How the Ornate Tapestries from the Age of Louis XIV Were Made (and Are Still Made Today)

“Time is the warp and mat­ter the weft of the woven tex­ture of beau­ty in space, and death is the hurl­ing shut­tle.”

— Annie Dil­lard, Pil­grim at Tin­ker Creek

For the unini­ti­at­ed, the warp are the plain ver­ti­cal threads of a weav­ing or tapes­try, through which the col­or­ful, hor­i­zon­tal weft threads are passed, over and under, on wood­en nee­dle-shaped bob­bins (or shut­tles).

As Beat­rice Grisol, Head Weaver at Paris’ ven­er­a­ble Man­u­fac­ture Nationale des Gob­elins remarks, in The Art of Mak­ing a Tapes­try, above, weavers must pos­sess a love of draw­ing and an abun­dance of imag­i­na­tion in order to trans­late an artist’s vision using silken or woolen threads.

21st cen­tu­ry designs are more con­tem­po­rary, and dying equip­ment more pre­cise, but Les Gob­elins’s weavers’ process remains remark­ably unchanged since the days of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

As in the 17th-cen­tu­ry, giant looms are strung with white warp threads, in readi­ness for the threads expert dyers have col­ored accord­ing to the artist’s palette.

The col­ored weft threads are stored on spools, and even­tu­al­ly por­tioned out onto the bob­bins, which dan­gle from the back­side of the tapes­try, as the weaver works her mag­ic, con­stant­ly check­ing her progress in a mir­ror reflect­ing both the pro­jec­t’s front side and a print of the orig­i­nal design.

It’s worth not­ing that the pro­nouns here are exclu­sive­ly fem­i­nine. The lav­ish tapes­tries dec­o­rat­ing Louis XIV’s court hint­ed at years of unsung labor by high­ly skilled craftswomen. Tapes­tries were the ne plus ultra of prince­ly sta­tus, a tes­ta­ment to their owner’s eru­di­tion and taste. Louis XIV amassed some 2,650 pieces.

That’s a lot of bob­bins, and a lot of hard-work­ing female weavers.

Wit­ness the trans­for­ma­tion from artist Charles Le Brun’s 1664 study for the fig­ure who would become the seat­ed youth in The Entry of Alexan­der into Baby­lon

…to the ful­ly real­ized oil on can­vas ren­der­ing from 1690…

…to its incar­na­tion as a tapes­try in the Sun King’s court:

Speed­ing ahead to the 21st-cen­tu­ry, Les Gob­elins appears to rival Brooklyn’s Etsy flag­ship as a pleas­ant­ly appoint­ed, well lit, and high­ly respect­ed Tem­ple of Craft.

View some of the high­lights of the Get­ty Museum’s 2016 exhi­bi­tion Woven Gold: Tapes­tries of Louis XIV here.

Or grab your hed­dles and plan an in-per­son vis­it to La Man­u­fac­ture Nationale des Gob­elins here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Bayeux Tapes­try Come to Life in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Artis­tic Maps of Pak­istan & India Show the Embroi­dery Tech­niques of Their Dif­fer­ent Regions

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the sec­ond install­ment of Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain at The Tank. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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