The making of a textile which is woven by hand on either a horizontal or vertical loom in discontinuous weft to form an image.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||201-500 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||1-5 formal apprentices, plus an unknown number of informal trainees (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||50-70 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||51-100 /|
Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles, dating back to 3000BC. In Europe in the Middle Ages, weavers worked in studios designing and weaving large and colourful tapestries for wealthy clients. In the Renaissance artists were commissioned to produce cartoons for studios to copy, giving weavers less freedom of interpretation.
In the UK, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were weaving studios and workshops producing series of hunting tapestries for wealthy landowners and the nobility. Most of the weavers for these studios originally came from the continent, mainly Brussels and the low countries.
In the nineteenth century there was a revival with the Arts and Crafts movement and the designer William Morris. The twentieth century saw the birth of the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh c.1912 under the patronage of the Earl of Bute. In the 1960s the then director of the Dovecot Studios, Archie Brennan, set up the Tapestry Department at Edinburgh College of Art, which subsequently gave opportunities for a number of students to become practicing tapestry weavers – however this closed in 2008.
Today, tapestry weaving is practised across the UK, although there are a high number of weavers in Scotland, due to the Dovecot Studio and Edinburgh College of Art and in the south of England, due to the studio at West Dean College, Sussex. With the exception of Dovecot and West Dean, the craft is dominated by individual weavers producing their own designs. Traditional fibres (wool, silk and linen) continue to be used, together with cotton and other more modern materials.
The weft weaves in and out of the warps and is pushed or beaten down so firmly that it entirely covers the warps. Tapestry can be formatted in small miniature form in a fine sett (the number of warps per inch) to large wall hangings – metres high and wide as well as three dimensionally.
Tapestry weaving has a variety of techniques from the traditional Gobelin techniques of the Middle Ages such as hachure (hatching), demi duitte (pick and pick), eccentric weaving, textural techniques such as soumak, knotting, loose and open weaving, to name a few. Once they have learned the basic techniques, individual artists then develop their own style and techniques.
Within the UK there are no regional or local styles or techniques as such; variation of techniques is down to the individual artists.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
There is no lack of materials and raw materials, ideas or willingness from weavers to produce, however marketability and appreciation of this art form is often difficult.
Market issues/perception of the craft: There is the perception that the work is over-priced (not true if we are to break down the hours and hourly rate). This is compounded by the perception that it is a ‘hobby’ and therefore artists should not be pricing their work so high. It is extremely difficult to price tapestries because of the time element we need to consider and the fact that commission can be anything from 33% to 80%.
Market issues: It is very difficult to make a living from tapestry weaving. There are a dozen or so people who are well known internationally who have a sustainable market for their work, although a number of them also subsidise their income from teaching classes. There is probably a further dozen or so people teach classes, however their tapestry art is not their main source of income.
Perception of the craft: There is a reluctance to judge tapestry weaving on an equal footing with other art forms in mainstream exhibitions, and the difficulty of getting national exhibition spaces to hold tapestry exhibitions.
Training issues: Individual weavers do not have the safety net of guaranteed work (commissions) to be able to train and sustain an apprentice weaver. The majority of trainees train through a network of local and national tapestry weavers who offer short courses and workshops and this is self-funded by the trainees, unless they are fortunate enough to get a bursary through something like The Theo Moorman Trust for weavers.
Training issues: In the 1960s Edinburgh College of Art established a Tapestry Department which gave opportunities for a number of students to become practicing tapestry weavers. However, this closed in 2008.
Lack of awareness, patronage and demand in generating enough regular large-scale commissions to economically sustain running a professional studio, including master weavers and younger trainees for the future.
British Tapestry Group – the British Tapestry Group has regional groups which meet locally in the South East, the Midlands, and Scotland.
Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers – grants for weavers living and working in the UK
Peter Collingwood Trust Fund – provide an annual grant for the most innovation relating to a loom based textile.
Craftspeople currently known
There are two large tapestry weaving studios in the UK:
There are also numerous individual weavers.
Status: While the craft has been classified as ‘least concern’, in terms of professional weavers and people making a living from the craft may be considered ‘endangered’. For example, the British Tapestry Group has around 250 members, with probably less than 20 of them make a full time living from the craft.
Minimum number of craftspeople required: The British Tapestry Group feels that there needs to be between 201-500 people actively working in tapestry weaving, whether full time or part time, in order for the craft to be exhibited and seen – not only in craft centres but in mainstream exhibitions, exhibited alongside other arts, painting, sculpture, ceramics etc. This would be the minimum to practise and promote this craft to a high enough standard that it is viewed on a par with other art genres.
Number of trainees: There are very few formal trainees and it is only within studios such as The Dovecot and West Dean where there would be the opportunity for apprenticeships, and an apprenticeship would not be offered every year. The majority of informal trainees train through a network of local and national tapestry weavers offering short-courses.
Number of skilled craftspeople: There are art college trained people who are skilled and also amateur weavers who are also skilled who can practise without supervision. The British Tapestry Guild believes that the number of skilled craftspeople in the UK sits around 50-70 but they are not all making a living from craft.