Telling Stories Through Tapestry

Bayeux 2Nicola here. Today I’m talking about telling stories through tapestries as last weekend I went to the unveiling of our wonderful Parish Textile Map. I love story telling in all its shapes and forms, whether it is through words, paintings, music or any other medium and ever since I was a small child on a trip to France and saw the Bayeux Tapestry I have been entranced by the way that people used textiles as a way of telling a story.

Most historic tapestries were luxury items, created in specialist workshops and used for both decoration and warmth. The first tapestries were entirely hand made although with the introduction of a new type of loom in the 14th century, tapestries became more common. Often they were produced for the nobility to commemorate an event or tell a particular myth or story.

The grand daddy of all tapestries is of course the Bayeux Tapestry dating from the 11th century and Bayeux 1 telling the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 although there are records of Scandinavian tapestries dating from even earlier.

Technically speaking the Bayeux Tapestry is a strip of embroidered linen rather than a tapestry and it is unusual in that most art from this period was religious whilst the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of a very particular and significant political event. It is over 200 feet long and consists of fifty scenes, charting the story of the Conquest over a period of 2 years, telling what happened at the Battle of Hastings and probably originally culminating with the crowning of William I. The Bayeux Tapestry was probably made in England, rather than France, on the orders of William the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. There are also Latin captions explaining the events in each scene and it is a story told very much from the victor’s viewpoint and with a Norman bias. Every story has its standpoint!

The_hunt_of_the_unicorn6Another famous set of tapestries is the Unicorn series, a set of seven tapestries, which hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and date from the 15th century. Known as the Hunt for the Unicorn, they were woven in wool, silk, and metallic thread and are some of the most beautiful and complex works of art to survive from the Middle Ages, with their colours still rich and vibrant today.

Tapestry making never really went out of fashion. By the 19th century there was a larger demand for the decorative arts from the emerging middle classes and the development of tools, materials and dyes made the cheap reproduction of existing designs much easier. This in turn led to various artists worrying about the survival of the original craft of tapestry-making, which they felt was under threat from poor quality reproductions made with modern machinery. Members of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England re-introduced the traditions of medieval craftsmanship. William Morris established a tapestry factory at Merton Abbey in Surrey. At the same time there was also a revival of tapestry production in Scandinavia and Central Europe, inspired by folk traditions.

It’s wonderful to see the traditions of tapestry living on in different forms in the modern day. A few Fishguardyears back I blogged about the tapestry made in Fishguard, in Wales in 1997, which commemorates the last invasion of Britain in 1797. You can read about the Fishguard Tapestry and the last invasion here. Like the Bayeux Tapestry it puts a military expedition in a broader context and paints a very vivid tale.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is another wonderful modern tapestry that records the history of Scotland from the end of the Ice Age to Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon in 2013. Like the Bayeux Tapestry it is created on embroidered cloth and it was the work of over 1000 volunteer stitchers. It shows both significant events in Scottish history and also gives a flavour of Scottish culture, and is a broad,sweeping and fabulous tale of a nation.

Ashbury MapAnd so to our own local textile map, which is on a slightly smaller scale but is equally exciting. It grew out of a community arts project and involved 97 members of the village. The first step was for an artist to put together an initial draft map using photographs he had taken of the buildings in the village. Each component of the map was identified numerically and individual packs were put together containing a photograph, guidelines, stitching tips and a timetable of workshops to help those (like me) who were novices in the art of tapestry making. At the workshops we learned about canvas stitches and machine embroidery, drank tea and coffee and made friends! Stitching took over village life – pieces were cross-stitched, tent stitched, embroidered, knitted and appliquéd. The background had a Hessian backing, a cotton lining, wadding and a top collage of green and blue cotton to represent land and sky. Once all the pieces were ready they were pinned, tacked and finally stitched into place and the whole framed in oak.

One of the many things I love about the village map is that it isn’t just a depiction of buildings and roads but it also tells a historical story and says so much about the community. It features houses that date from the 15th century to the 21st century. It shows the pub and the church and the farms but it also features the birds, the flowers, the pets, the postman and the morris dancers! It’s a wonderful depiction of life in an English country village in all its richness, told through a vivid collection of pictures and textiles.

Have you ever taken part in a community project like this, or do you have a favourite tapestry you’ve worked on or seen? What is your favourite way of story telling – through words, pictures, or other means? 

50 thoughts on “Telling Stories Through Tapestry”

  1. Isn’t your parish tapestry wonderful! Did you do Ashdown House? I expect there was some competition for that section!
    My favourite tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. They are wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, and are absolutely beautiful. I discovered them years ago, when I was exploring Paris as a penniless student and happened upon Cluny. I didn’t even know that the tapestries existed, so when I suddenly saw them I was captivated. They were restored recently, so I really ought to go back and look at them again.

    Reply
  2. Isn’t your parish tapestry wonderful! Did you do Ashdown House? I expect there was some competition for that section!
    My favourite tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. They are wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, and are absolutely beautiful. I discovered them years ago, when I was exploring Paris as a penniless student and happened upon Cluny. I didn’t even know that the tapestries existed, so when I suddenly saw them I was captivated. They were restored recently, so I really ought to go back and look at them again.

    Reply
  3. Isn’t your parish tapestry wonderful! Did you do Ashdown House? I expect there was some competition for that section!
    My favourite tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. They are wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, and are absolutely beautiful. I discovered them years ago, when I was exploring Paris as a penniless student and happened upon Cluny. I didn’t even know that the tapestries existed, so when I suddenly saw them I was captivated. They were restored recently, so I really ought to go back and look at them again.

    Reply
  4. Isn’t your parish tapestry wonderful! Did you do Ashdown House? I expect there was some competition for that section!
    My favourite tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. They are wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, and are absolutely beautiful. I discovered them years ago, when I was exploring Paris as a penniless student and happened upon Cluny. I didn’t even know that the tapestries existed, so when I suddenly saw them I was captivated. They were restored recently, so I really ought to go back and look at them again.

    Reply
  5. Isn’t your parish tapestry wonderful! Did you do Ashdown House? I expect there was some competition for that section!
    My favourite tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. They are wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, and are absolutely beautiful. I discovered them years ago, when I was exploring Paris as a penniless student and happened upon Cluny. I didn’t even know that the tapestries existed, so when I suddenly saw them I was captivated. They were restored recently, so I really ought to go back and look at them again.

    Reply
  6. Thank you, HJ! Yes, I think it is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn’t nearly accomplished enough to do Ashdown and the lady who ran the workshops took that on and made it look very pretty, I think.
    I’ve taken a look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries online and they are very beautiful. I love that they depict the five senses. How wonderful! Next time I visit Paris I will make a point of going to see them.

    Reply
  7. Thank you, HJ! Yes, I think it is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn’t nearly accomplished enough to do Ashdown and the lady who ran the workshops took that on and made it look very pretty, I think.
    I’ve taken a look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries online and they are very beautiful. I love that they depict the five senses. How wonderful! Next time I visit Paris I will make a point of going to see them.

    Reply
  8. Thank you, HJ! Yes, I think it is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn’t nearly accomplished enough to do Ashdown and the lady who ran the workshops took that on and made it look very pretty, I think.
    I’ve taken a look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries online and they are very beautiful. I love that they depict the five senses. How wonderful! Next time I visit Paris I will make a point of going to see them.

    Reply
  9. Thank you, HJ! Yes, I think it is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn’t nearly accomplished enough to do Ashdown and the lady who ran the workshops took that on and made it look very pretty, I think.
    I’ve taken a look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries online and they are very beautiful. I love that they depict the five senses. How wonderful! Next time I visit Paris I will make a point of going to see them.

    Reply
  10. Thank you, HJ! Yes, I think it is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn’t nearly accomplished enough to do Ashdown and the lady who ran the workshops took that on and made it look very pretty, I think.
    I’ve taken a look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries online and they are very beautiful. I love that they depict the five senses. How wonderful! Next time I visit Paris I will make a point of going to see them.

    Reply
  11. Wonderful post, Nicola, and goreous images. I love storytelling in all form, but particularly love these tapestries because of my visual arts background. Amazing the nuances of plot, character, etc they create in a seemingly simple form. Real artists!

    Reply
  12. Wonderful post, Nicola, and goreous images. I love storytelling in all form, but particularly love these tapestries because of my visual arts background. Amazing the nuances of plot, character, etc they create in a seemingly simple form. Real artists!

    Reply
  13. Wonderful post, Nicola, and goreous images. I love storytelling in all form, but particularly love these tapestries because of my visual arts background. Amazing the nuances of plot, character, etc they create in a seemingly simple form. Real artists!

    Reply
  14. Wonderful post, Nicola, and goreous images. I love storytelling in all form, but particularly love these tapestries because of my visual arts background. Amazing the nuances of plot, character, etc they create in a seemingly simple form. Real artists!

    Reply
  15. Wonderful post, Nicola, and goreous images. I love storytelling in all form, but particularly love these tapestries because of my visual arts background. Amazing the nuances of plot, character, etc they create in a seemingly simple form. Real artists!

    Reply
  16. I had the good fortune to see the Unicorn series years ago. They are displayed at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park rather than the main Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters also has the surviving pieces of a Nine Worthies series from ca. 1400-1410, but the Unicorn series is my favorite, for the rich colors and botanical detail.

    Reply
  17. I had the good fortune to see the Unicorn series years ago. They are displayed at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park rather than the main Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters also has the surviving pieces of a Nine Worthies series from ca. 1400-1410, but the Unicorn series is my favorite, for the rich colors and botanical detail.

    Reply
  18. I had the good fortune to see the Unicorn series years ago. They are displayed at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park rather than the main Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters also has the surviving pieces of a Nine Worthies series from ca. 1400-1410, but the Unicorn series is my favorite, for the rich colors and botanical detail.

    Reply
  19. I had the good fortune to see the Unicorn series years ago. They are displayed at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park rather than the main Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters also has the surviving pieces of a Nine Worthies series from ca. 1400-1410, but the Unicorn series is my favorite, for the rich colors and botanical detail.

    Reply
  20. I had the good fortune to see the Unicorn series years ago. They are displayed at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park rather than the main Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters also has the surviving pieces of a Nine Worthies series from ca. 1400-1410, but the Unicorn series is my favorite, for the rich colors and botanical detail.

    Reply
  21. Thanks, Cara/Andrea! Yes, I thought you would be very appreciative of visual storytelling. As you say, it is astonishing how cleverly the artists convey all the nuances. Truly wonderful.

    Reply
  22. Thanks, Cara/Andrea! Yes, I thought you would be very appreciative of visual storytelling. As you say, it is astonishing how cleverly the artists convey all the nuances. Truly wonderful.

    Reply
  23. Thanks, Cara/Andrea! Yes, I thought you would be very appreciative of visual storytelling. As you say, it is astonishing how cleverly the artists convey all the nuances. Truly wonderful.

    Reply
  24. Thanks, Cara/Andrea! Yes, I thought you would be very appreciative of visual storytelling. As you say, it is astonishing how cleverly the artists convey all the nuances. Truly wonderful.

    Reply
  25. Thanks, Cara/Andrea! Yes, I thought you would be very appreciative of visual storytelling. As you say, it is astonishing how cleverly the artists convey all the nuances. Truly wonderful.

    Reply
  26. Thank you, Elinor. I’ve looked up the Nine Worthies series. I love discovering new tapestries! The Unicorn series really is remarkable for the vividness of the colours after so many centuries!

    Reply
  27. Thank you, Elinor. I’ve looked up the Nine Worthies series. I love discovering new tapestries! The Unicorn series really is remarkable for the vividness of the colours after so many centuries!

    Reply
  28. Thank you, Elinor. I’ve looked up the Nine Worthies series. I love discovering new tapestries! The Unicorn series really is remarkable for the vividness of the colours after so many centuries!

    Reply
  29. Thank you, Elinor. I’ve looked up the Nine Worthies series. I love discovering new tapestries! The Unicorn series really is remarkable for the vividness of the colours after so many centuries!

    Reply
  30. Thank you, Elinor. I’ve looked up the Nine Worthies series. I love discovering new tapestries! The Unicorn series really is remarkable for the vividness of the colours after so many centuries!

    Reply
  31. The Ashbury Village Textile Map looks and sounds like a wonderful community project.
    In Melbourne there is a group called the Australian Tapestry Workshop. They collaborate with contemporary artists. Their tapestries are amazing!!!
    Their website has images of many of the tapestries they have created over the years (they started out in 1976), as well as images of the weavers at work. Do, do, do have a look –
    http://www.austapestry.com.au/

    Reply
  32. The Ashbury Village Textile Map looks and sounds like a wonderful community project.
    In Melbourne there is a group called the Australian Tapestry Workshop. They collaborate with contemporary artists. Their tapestries are amazing!!!
    Their website has images of many of the tapestries they have created over the years (they started out in 1976), as well as images of the weavers at work. Do, do, do have a look –
    http://www.austapestry.com.au/

    Reply
  33. The Ashbury Village Textile Map looks and sounds like a wonderful community project.
    In Melbourne there is a group called the Australian Tapestry Workshop. They collaborate with contemporary artists. Their tapestries are amazing!!!
    Their website has images of many of the tapestries they have created over the years (they started out in 1976), as well as images of the weavers at work. Do, do, do have a look –
    http://www.austapestry.com.au/

    Reply
  34. The Ashbury Village Textile Map looks and sounds like a wonderful community project.
    In Melbourne there is a group called the Australian Tapestry Workshop. They collaborate with contemporary artists. Their tapestries are amazing!!!
    Their website has images of many of the tapestries they have created over the years (they started out in 1976), as well as images of the weavers at work. Do, do, do have a look –
    http://www.austapestry.com.au/

    Reply
  35. The Ashbury Village Textile Map looks and sounds like a wonderful community project.
    In Melbourne there is a group called the Australian Tapestry Workshop. They collaborate with contemporary artists. Their tapestries are amazing!!!
    Their website has images of many of the tapestries they have created over the years (they started out in 1976), as well as images of the weavers at work. Do, do, do have a look –
    http://www.austapestry.com.au/

    Reply
  36. The most famous tapestry I remember seeing is The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris. On my last trip to Spain I was fascinated by the historical map tapestries on display in some of the palaces. The whole world according to 15-something!
    I also remember in history class at school the teacher had a roll of paper with the Bayeux Tapestry on it. I have a very distinct memory of being marched out, two or three students at a time, to view it!

    Reply
  37. The most famous tapestry I remember seeing is The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris. On my last trip to Spain I was fascinated by the historical map tapestries on display in some of the palaces. The whole world according to 15-something!
    I also remember in history class at school the teacher had a roll of paper with the Bayeux Tapestry on it. I have a very distinct memory of being marched out, two or three students at a time, to view it!

    Reply
  38. The most famous tapestry I remember seeing is The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris. On my last trip to Spain I was fascinated by the historical map tapestries on display in some of the palaces. The whole world according to 15-something!
    I also remember in history class at school the teacher had a roll of paper with the Bayeux Tapestry on it. I have a very distinct memory of being marched out, two or three students at a time, to view it!

    Reply
  39. The most famous tapestry I remember seeing is The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris. On my last trip to Spain I was fascinated by the historical map tapestries on display in some of the palaces. The whole world according to 15-something!
    I also remember in history class at school the teacher had a roll of paper with the Bayeux Tapestry on it. I have a very distinct memory of being marched out, two or three students at a time, to view it!

    Reply
  40. The most famous tapestry I remember seeing is The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris. On my last trip to Spain I was fascinated by the historical map tapestries on display in some of the palaces. The whole world according to 15-something!
    I also remember in history class at school the teacher had a roll of paper with the Bayeux Tapestry on it. I have a very distinct memory of being marched out, two or three students at a time, to view it!

    Reply
  41. That parish tapestry is beautiful and what a great community project. Congratulations on its completion!
    Just before seeing this post, I was reading about an exhibit of North American Plains Indian art at the Met, and the buffalo robe painting used to illustrate that review reminded me very strongly of your Bayeux tapestry image with the horses. You can see it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/moving-pictures-art-world-peter-schjeldahl
    They both have that same 2 dimensional quality, with a lot of action figures, very little interest in the background landscape, and tell the story of a battle. Plains Indians paintings were mostly war stories or religion, so it seems they had that in common with the Normans!

    Reply
  42. That parish tapestry is beautiful and what a great community project. Congratulations on its completion!
    Just before seeing this post, I was reading about an exhibit of North American Plains Indian art at the Met, and the buffalo robe painting used to illustrate that review reminded me very strongly of your Bayeux tapestry image with the horses. You can see it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/moving-pictures-art-world-peter-schjeldahl
    They both have that same 2 dimensional quality, with a lot of action figures, very little interest in the background landscape, and tell the story of a battle. Plains Indians paintings were mostly war stories or religion, so it seems they had that in common with the Normans!

    Reply
  43. That parish tapestry is beautiful and what a great community project. Congratulations on its completion!
    Just before seeing this post, I was reading about an exhibit of North American Plains Indian art at the Met, and the buffalo robe painting used to illustrate that review reminded me very strongly of your Bayeux tapestry image with the horses. You can see it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/moving-pictures-art-world-peter-schjeldahl
    They both have that same 2 dimensional quality, with a lot of action figures, very little interest in the background landscape, and tell the story of a battle. Plains Indians paintings were mostly war stories or religion, so it seems they had that in common with the Normans!

    Reply
  44. That parish tapestry is beautiful and what a great community project. Congratulations on its completion!
    Just before seeing this post, I was reading about an exhibit of North American Plains Indian art at the Met, and the buffalo robe painting used to illustrate that review reminded me very strongly of your Bayeux tapestry image with the horses. You can see it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/moving-pictures-art-world-peter-schjeldahl
    They both have that same 2 dimensional quality, with a lot of action figures, very little interest in the background landscape, and tell the story of a battle. Plains Indians paintings were mostly war stories or religion, so it seems they had that in common with the Normans!

    Reply
  45. That parish tapestry is beautiful and what a great community project. Congratulations on its completion!
    Just before seeing this post, I was reading about an exhibit of North American Plains Indian art at the Met, and the buffalo robe painting used to illustrate that review reminded me very strongly of your Bayeux tapestry image with the horses. You can see it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/moving-pictures-art-world-peter-schjeldahl
    They both have that same 2 dimensional quality, with a lot of action figures, very little interest in the background landscape, and tell the story of a battle. Plains Indians paintings were mostly war stories or religion, so it seems they had that in common with the Normans!

    Reply

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