History of tapestries

In the Middle Ages, tapestries had a purely utilitarian function. They were originally designed to protect medieval rooms from damp and cold, to cover the austere walls of large castles, or to insulate large rooms into more comfortable quarters. The tapestries used to decorate large stone castles were very large and required large looms, many workers and large investments. Manufactories of this kind therefore sprang up in wealthy towns, usually in weaving centres. By 1500, Flanders, especially Brussels and Bruges, had become the main centres of production. Because of their size and complexity, tapestries became an investment and a display of wealth and power. In these early tapestries, individual figures or compact groups stood out against a background that was generally plain or decorated with plant motifs or flowers, the so-called "mille fleurs" (thousand flowers) tapestries. Tapestry became one of the great visual arts, alongside painting, sculpture and architecture.

Tapestries also became more complex, depicting crowded battle scenes or large groups of figures arranged in tiers beneath architectural structures. Later in the 16th century, patrons began to depict one or another of their favourite pastimes: hunting, peasants at work and play (often themselves in disguise). Then came the fashionable "verre", pastoral landscapes, often depicting their estates. This art form required wealthy patrons, virtually all of the now famous manufacturers: Beauvais, Arras, Gobelins, Aubusson, Felletin, Audenarde, Bruges, Ghent, flourished where wealthy kings and ecclesiastical monarchs ruled. Naturally, the subjects were chosen by those who commissioned them. All these famous manufacturers were located in the north of France and Flanders, the Flemish part of Belgium today. In the 17th century, the first royal tapestry factory, Les Gobelins, was established in Paris. Hundreds of tapestry makers worked at Les Gobelins during this period.

Artisans worked in groups, one painting at a time, weaving their art into the rich and colourful scenes shown in this gallery. Designers have always played a major role in the creation of truly fine tapestries. Take Francois Boucher, designer for Beauvais since 1736. Over a period of 30 years, he designed six tapestry sets of 4-9 pieces each. At least 400 tapestries were woven after his designs, magnificent masterpieces of the rococo style. By the end of the nineteenth century, wallpaper had replaced wool and silk tapestries. The Industrial Revolution and the development of automated processes, such as mechanical looms and weaving machines, meant that plain fabrics could be mass-produced much more cheaply than before. Unfortunately, it was still very expensive for craftsmen to produce anything but the simplest patterns. Tapestry weaving became very expensive.

Around 1805, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) developed the concept and made a more sophisticated loom using "punched cards" to control the position of each thread in the weaving process. Jacques de Vaucanson created the first mechanical looms in the second half of the XVIIIth century. With the knowledge of tapestry design and weaving, Flanders became one of the most important areas where workshops were located. Today, the best Jacquard looms are used to produce very fine Jacquard tapestries. The looms have become more sophisticated. This means that there is more flexibility to create new tapestries.
The greatness of old Flanders could not be better illustrated than by one of its most famous export products: Belgian tapestry. The weaving of tapestries combined artistic flair and craftsmanship to create treasures that can be found in private collections, renowned museums and public buildings all over the world. Today, this noble art lives on in the tapestries produced and distributed by Mille Fleurs Tapestries.

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