Nicola 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 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!
Another 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 years 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.
And 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?