When one hears the term tapestry, the large hand woven pictorial wall hangings of medieval and later northern Europe come to mind. Although an ancient craft, the turbulent social and economic conditions of this period probably account for the fact that no significant industry developed until the early fourteenth century. The oldest known hand woven tapestries are from the tombs of Tuthmosis IV and Tutankhamun, dating from C. 1400 BC to 1330 BC. From around 1300 archival records show that tapestries with simple embellishments were being woven in Paris and Arras. Other important tapestry centers were Beauvais, Aubusson, and Brussels. The term tapestry has also been used to identify any pictorial weaving or needlework.

Large-figured designs, which include tapestry, are woven on the jacquard loom. Other fabrics made on a jacquard loom include damask and brocade. Punched cards or computers control the individual warp yarns independently. Many of these looms are integrated with computer aided design systems. Computer design patterns are programmed into jacquard looms for automatic design formation. Jacquard weaves lend themselves to complex pictorial and other patterning effects. Infinite changes of the weft yarns are possible, which enables the tapestry weaver, when the subject is pictorial, to imitate the graduations of tone achieved by the oil painter.


Damask fabrics have a satin float on a satin background with the floats of each running in the opposite direction. Damask patterns are more subtle and produced by the slight difference luster from the light reflected from the two different areas. Damask can be made of any fiber content and in many different weights for apparel or home furnishings. The quality of damask fabrics depends on yarn count. Low-count damasks are not durable because of the many floats, which become loose and snag or slip during use. Damask is a popular choice for tablecloths. The "white-on-white" is a familiar pattern along with the red and white checked damasks popular in restaurants.


Brocade fabrics have satin or twill floats on a plain, ribbed, twill, or satin background. Brocade fabrics differ from damasks in that the floats in the design are more intricate and varied and are usually of several colors. Brocade fabrics have a surface that is slightly raised in certain areas, giving depth and texture to the fabric. In contrast, damask is flat and smooth with a design that is usually reversible. Brocades are typically dressy, formal fabrics


Tapestries are produced by a more complicated weave than damask or brocade and consists of two or more sets of warp and filling. The designs are formed by the filling threads, which are worked back and forth over the warp threads only where the needed instead of completely across the fabric. Filling threads of contrasting colors are dovetailed with adjoining filling threads in many of the primitive tapestries. This is usually referred to as dovetailed tapestry while many Oriental tapestries are composed of interlocking filling threads of contrasting colors called interlocking tapestry. Most tapestries woven in Europe are of the slit tapestry variety. A slit or opening is left in the weave when the filling threads of one color meet those of the contrasting color.


Tapestries are typically more ornate, colorful and more expensive. Tapestries range from heavy, durable floor-coverings to delicate Chinese silk. Very few of these early tapestries survive being ravaged by time, light, mold, rats, moths, wear and tear. High quality tapestries, which often included gold and silver thread, were frequently burned in later periods in order to extract their precious metal.

In the 1880s William Morris attempted to revive tapestry weaving using designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Morris sought to return to the simplicity of gothic designs. During the 30's and 40's Jean Lurcat, who rejected pictorial weavings in favor of abstract designs, started a second tapestry revival. Lurcat's work inspired a generation of weavers, and in the last thirty years respect has grown for independent weavers producing one of a kind tapestries.

Today's tapestries are mass-produced by machines for apparel, upholstery, draperies, handbags, floor coverings and wall hangings. Although machine made tapestries are typically not reversible, they fill the need for an inexpensive, hand-woven look-alike.


  • Harris, Jennifer. "Textiles, 5000 Years," Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, NY, 1993, pp. 24 - 27, 188-199.
  • Collier, Billie and Tortora, Phyllis. "Understanding Textiles", 6th Edition, Prentice-Hall Publishing Company, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1998, pp. 310-311.
  • Humphries, Mary. "Fabric Handbook Reference", 2nd Edition, Don Mills, Ontario Canada, 1992, 43.
  • Belck, Nancy and Butler, Sara and Wamhoff, Marlene. "Textiles for the Consumer," Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI, 1990.
  • Kadolph, Sara and Langford, Anna. "Textiles", 8th Edition, Prentice-Hall Publishing Company, Upper Saddle

About the Author:

The author is the President of Textile Fabric Consultants, Inc


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