A History of Tapestry – Part 1

It is difficult to put an exact date on when and where the art of tapestry originated as the surviving evidence is both rare and fragmented (true tapestries include various primitive textiles woven on the rudest of early looms). However, the evidence we do have indicates that the earliest known tapestry weaving was worked in linen by the Ancient Egyptians between the period 1483 and 1411 BC.

Some scholars believe that tapestry art was introduced to the egyptians by the ancient people of Mesopatamia. They argue that since tapestries were not produced in quantities until the 4th century the likelihood of the art being indigenous is remote.

Fragments, preserved by the dry desert climate of Egypt, were discovered in the tomb of Thutmose IV (the 8th Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt). Two of these ancient fragments have cartouches of Egyptian Pharaohs and the third is a succession of hieroglyphs. Also, a woven tapestry glove and a robe were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen c1323 BC.

In the first millennium before Christ the evidence suggests that the art of tapestry weaving was flourishing throughout Western Asia. Fragments that date from the 4th or 3rd century BC were discovered in burial places in the Ukraine near Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula. The designs of these fragments are very ornamental and of a Hellenistic style that was particularly prevalent in Syrian art at that time.

Another fragment dating 200 to 500 years later was found in China at Lou-lan in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang, and again shows Syrian connections and is of silken weave. The archaeological sites of Palmyra and Doura-Europus also produced fragments of tapestries. Unfortunately, the climatic conditions in the Middle East was not ideal for textile preservation and for this reason it is hard to determine that at the start of the Christian Era Syria was a great centre of tapestry weaving and production.

In both ancient Greece and Rome there are literary descriptions of tapestry production. Homer, in the Odyssey (8th century BC?), describes Penelope, whilst waiting for Odysseus, working on a tapestry that was unraveled each night. In Metamorphoses, Ovid, the Roman Poet (43BC-AD 17), describes in detail the tapestry looms used by Arachne and Minerva in their mythological weaving contest.

Throughout the period of the Roman Empire the Romans imported tapestries in vast numbers to decorate their public buildings and the homes of the wealthy. It is generally accepted that the Latin terms related to tapestry and weaving are Greek in origin and therefore that the art of tapestry making was introduced to the Romans by the Greeks.

Tapestry Production in Eastern Asia

The K’o-ssu (Chinese tapestry of cut silk) has long been produced in China. The earliest surviving examples of K’o-ssu date from the T’ang dynasty (ad 618-907). Traditionally, made of entirely silk, these tapestries are fine in texture, light in weight and completely reversible. They differ from European tapestries in that the warps are vertical to the pattern as opposed to European tapestries that are woven horizontally.

Fragments from the eighth century have been discovered in desert oases around Turfan in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang, China. And late T’ang fragments have been found in the Ch’ien-fo-tung or Mo-kao-k’u (Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s) near the town of Tun Huang in Kansu Province. Although these fragments are not representative of the more developed K’o-ssu of the T’ang period their beauty is in their simplicity of simple repeating patterns of ducks, lions, flowers and vines; and they were found mainly in relatively remote areas of Central Asia along the silk trade routes. The oldest known complete Chinese wall tapestry hangs in the Taima-dera, a temple near Nara, Japan. The tapestry is 43 square feet and tells the story of the T’ang dynasty priest Shan-tao.

It was during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) that the imperial family patronized the art of tapestry and workshops sprang up at Ting-Chou in Hopeh Province. In the Chekiang Province, under the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) a government for weaving K’o-ssu was established at Hangchow. The rich ornamental designs produced by the factory were frequently woven with gold and silver thread. Few examples of the exquisite tapestries from the Ming period (1368-1644) exist today. The finest tapestries produced during the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12) are renowned for their delicate colouring and their use of religious and philosophical themes. Later tapestries from the Ch’ing dynasty have survived in abundance but technical and artistic decline are evident.

It was during the late 15th and early 16th century that the tapestry technique travelled from China to Japan. Tsuzure-nishiki (Japanese polychrome tapestry) is much different from Chinese tapestry in its more pronounced surface relief. This affect is achieved by using thick cotton weft threads covered with gold, silver or silken thread. The production of Japanese tapestry flourished during the Tokugawa (Edo) period (1603-1867) and continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteen century.

Unusually, Japanese tapestries were used primarily to decorate garments and wrapping gifts, they were rarely used as wall hangings.

The history of tapestry art in Korea remains somewhat ambiguous but the productions of coarse tapestry woven rugs with stylized motifs are still in production today.

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