This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
As a rule, tapestries should hang loose and free. Only then do they succeed in telling their complete story in their own way. And then only are they safe in case of fire, because easy to take down and carry away. The measures often taken for the preservation of tapestries are frequently fatal to them. Wooden frames that for paintings are necessary from the aesthetic as well as from the utilitarian point of view, are doubly wrong for tapestries. They make tapestries difficult to transport, and they expose them particularly to the attacks of moths.
One of the virtues of tapestries is that they are so easy to handle and take care of. A band of stiff webbing with rings, across the top, is all the harness necessary for hanging, from small hooks, even the largest tapestries that are in good condition. Then it is but a second's work to unhook the precious fabric, and carry it off folded up under the arm. But the folding should be only temporary, and tapestries like rugs when sent to the store-room should never be folded but rolled on wooden poles, a large number of which can be stored in small space by placing on upright standards with projecting arms, as at the Gobelins.
On the question of folding tapestries the famous tapestry designer, Oudry, speaks with authority, writing from Beauvais to the King of Sweden in 1745 with regard to the set of Boucher's Story of Psyche, just acquired by the King for only 8,835 livres. He says:
I have made a roller on which I have rolled the tapestries in order that they may not be a fold under the arms, leg, etc., to spoil the contour. I beg of you earnestly, sir, to order that it should never be folded for several days at a time, and that always after it has been opened out for some time, that it be rolled up with care, in order that no false folds slip in. For lack of this precaution, many fine tapestries in our public collections have been seriously injured by their guardians who took the greatest pains to fold them always in the same folds.
Frames with heavy relief mouldings not only make tapestries unwieldy, they also spoil their appearance, even without the glass that some ignorant vandals add. Just as surely as paintings look best when fenced in so as to increase the illusion, so tapestries look best when standing out in relief beyond their background. This is true even of XVIII century tapestries, and the farther back you go toward the Golden Age of tapestries the more is it true.
Of course when tapestries are very old and tender, especial measures must be taken for their preservation. They must be held in position by vertical and horizontal bands of lining, reinforced if necessary with an all-over lining, so that no part of the ancient textile may be subjected to strain or stress. But great care must be taken to have the lining well shrunk before applying, or the effect will be disastrous instead of helpful. A narrow board across the top of a tapestry, tacked to the webbing, makes it easy to hang by picture-cord from the moulding like a framed painting, and a narrow board across the bottom will straighten out obtrusive folds.
Before And After Repairing
Plate no. 319. On the left, Before Repairing. On the right, After Repairing. A Renaissance tapestry now in the Crefeld Textile Museum, repaired by the Ziesch tapestry works in Berlin. An excellent illustration of what can be done with valuable fragments. Fragments of inferior tapestries are not worth repairing.
But here I wish to utter a word of protest against those who insist on hanging tapestries flat. Tapestries are not made to hang flat and do not show to their best advantage when so hung. The lights and shadows that are added to the tapestry ribbed-and-lined surface by the folds and puckers, natural to the product of the tapestry loom - particularly the high-warp loom - are one of its most pleasing features, and should be preserved even in XVIII century tapestries that can stand flatter-hanging than any others.
For XVIII century panels of moderate size, a newly invented tapestry tape that reduces the insurance on valuable pieces, will be found useful, because it makes them easier to save in case of fire. The tape is of two kinds, one with eyes that sew to the border of the tapestry, the other with buttons that attach to the wall or frame. In a trice the eyes can be snapped over the buttons and the tapestry is as flatly in the frame or against the wall as the greatest lover of flatness in tapestry surface could wish. Comes a fire, and one pull will dislodge the whole panel.
Of course, another reason for not framing tapestries, is that many of them already have a woven border or frame.
The cleaning of tapestries is comparatively a simple matter - merely a wooden frame or frames elevated to a convenient height above the ground, with lattice-work of narrow bands of canvas six or eight inches apart to hold the tapestry flat. Then spread the tapestry out face down on the frames, and tap the back lightly but persistently to dislodge the dust. Then invert the tapestry and attack the dust gently with a stiff brush. This process will also do more than any other to dislodge moth eggs, which survive the formaldehyde vapor baths, that to the moths themselves are fatal and that do not, like other baths and washings, injure the fabric, especially if it contains gold or silver. Where formaldehyde baths are not practicable, the powdered camphrosine that is used at the Gobelins can be recommended.
Tapestries that are badly stained must be washed in water with white liquid soap. For milder cases stale bread-crumbs, or fine moist sawdust will do.
Repairing tapestries is work for an expert. Valuable pieces should never be intrusted to Oriental rug repairers or to any one not absolutely and completely familiar with tapestry texture, and also honest of purpose. Many tapestries have been ruined by bad repairing and by painting up the surface with dyes in order to accomplish astounding results quickly and inexpensively. An extreme example of this, sold at the Robb Sale 1912, was a narrow decorative panel in the style of Audran.
To allow tapestries to collect dust on the walls of a museum year after year, without proper cleaning or repairs, is a crime. An extreme example of this is a Renaissance tapestry, entitled the Capture of Granada, lent to the Pennsylvania Museum of Industrial Art by Mrs. John Harrison. Other tapestries at the same museum that are suffering from neglect are three Story of Jacob panels, signed with the Brussels mark and a monogram made out of the letters Aest.