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.
Tapestry is a broad word. It means one thing in a wall-paper shop and another in a carpet and rug store. One thing among makers of painted tapestry and another among makers of embroidered tapestry. One thing among jacquard and power and shuttle weavers, another among manipulators of high warp and low warp looms. There are also printed imitations of arras tapestries.
By general consent and established usage, the term real tapestry is reserved for high warp and low warp products. But until now general consent and established usage have not put into print a clear and comprehensive statement of how high warp and low warp tapestries differ from other textiles and from each other.
First, as regards the looms. Both high warp and low warp antedate the shuttle. In other words they use bobbins that travel only part way across the warp, instead of shuttles that travel all the way across. The shuttle is a mechanical invention - a box or carriage for the bobbin which enables it to be thrown intead of passed, thus increasing the working range of the weft.
The high warp loom not only antedated the shuttle, it also antedated the treadle. In the low warp loom, the odd threads of the warp are attached to a treadle worked with the left foot, the even threads of the warp to a treadle worked with the right foot, thus making possible the manipulation of the warp with the feet, and leaving both hands free to pass the bobbins. In the high warp loom, that has no treadle, the warps are manipulated with the left hand, while the right hand passes the bobbins back and forth. The high warp loom, then, is all-hand power, the low warp loom hand-and-foot power. The term high warp means that the warp is strung vertically; low warp, horizontally. But the fundamental difference is the treadles, and many primitive all-hand-power looms have a horizontal warp.
The high warp loom is not only the primitive loom that naturally developed among widely separated peoples for the figuring of textiles. It is also the loom that gives the weaver the most complete control over each point of his work, thus putting the artistic result up to him most completely. What the low warp loom gains in width of pass, it loses in completeness of control, and in lack of ability to watch the work from the other side as it progresses.
Both high warp and low warp tapestries are woven with the wrong side toward the weaver - the wrong side that in all real tapestries is just the same as the right side, except for reversal of direction (as in a mirror), and for the loose threads that mark the passage of bobbins from block to block of the same colour (See colour plate no. IV). In both high warp and low warp looms, wall tapestries are woven on the side in order that the ribs, which of course, like the warps, are vertical or the long way on the loom, may be horizontal on the wall. This is a part of the technique and texture of arras tapestry, and not merely for ease of weaving as the majority of tapestry weavers and some tapestry designers seem to think.
In the high warp loom, the outline of the design is traced on the warp threads in India ink from tracing paper, and the coloured cartoon hangs behind the weaver where he consults it constantly. In the low warp loom the coloured cartoon is usually beneath the warp and often rolls up with the tapestry as it is completed. But sometimes in copying tapestries, and usually at Beauvais where an improved low warp loom is used that can be tilted up during the progress of the work tracings of the design take the place of the cartoon beneath the warp, and the colours are put in by the weaver referring to a model behind him. Anciently in the low warp loom, the cartoon was inserted in narrow strips, each strip being removed as completed.
On the low warp loom commonly employed, it is not possible to see the right side of the tapestry until it is completed and taken from the loom. On the high warp loom all you have to do is go around in front of the loom. Of course, on both looms, small portions of the right side of the tapestry can be studied through the warp with the aid of mirrors.
Especially worth noting is the fact that the low warp loom reverses the direction of the cartoon placed beneath its warp. So that either the cartoon must be painted left-handed, or the tapestry will come out that way.
With weavers of average intelligence and modern training, the low warp loom is much to be preferred, especially for the reproduction of paintings in the Italian Renaissance, XVIII century French or Modern styles. At the Gobelins in the XVII century Lebrun preferred high warp looms for the first interpretation of his great Story of the King, and his Royal Residences. If we ever get down in earnest to the weaving of modern tapestries in arras texture, we shall, like William Morris, go back to the high warp looms, and once more compose line drawings in wool and gold and silver, with little silk or none at all.
The phrase haute lisse (high warp) first appears on March 10, 1302, in an addition to the ordinances regulating the trades of the city of Paris. This addition states that discord had arisen between the tapissiers sarrazinois (Saracen tapestry-makers) and another kind of tapestry-makers called workers on the haute lisse, the former claiming that the latter could not and ought not to work in the city of Paris until they had taken oath like themselves to hold and keep all the ordinances of the Guild of Saracen Tapestry Makers, inasmuch as the two trades were similar. They also claimed that the haute-lisse workers, not being organised, escaped the payment of fines, so that the King's interests suffered, and also the interests of many other good people, because the haute-lisse masters worked by night and turned out in consequence work that was "neither good nor sufficient." In response to this complaint, the haute-lisse masters were ordered to join the Guild of Saracen Tapestry Makers, and ten of the former (with the approval of an eleventh) and six of the latter appeared and agreed in behalf of their respective trades to adhere to all the provisions of the ordinances. It was further provided that the haute-lisse masters might take apprentices for a period of eight years and on payment of 100 Parisian sous of silver, but not for a less period or smaller amount, and might work on their haute-lisse looms only as long as they could see by daylight without a candle. Embroidered work was to be considered as false. And to see to the enforcement of the ordinances were appointed: one master from the trade of Saracen, or à la merche (treadle), tapestry, and another master from the haute-lisse, or à la besche (broche), tapestry. M. Guiffrey regards the tapissiers sarrazinois as makers of pile rugs after the Oriental fashion. It is with great hesitation that I venture to differ from such an eminent authority, but I find it impossible to accept his view although many others have accepted it. I agree with him that the tapissiers nostrez (our tapestry-makers) named in the ordinances compiled about 1250 by Etienne Boileau, Mayor of Paris, in his Livre des Metiers, are weavers of coarse twills, ingrains, and other shuttle fabrics, plain and patterned, for covering floors and walls and furniture. But the tapissiers sarrazinois I believe to be makers of treadle (that is to say low-warp) tapestry, as is distinctly stated in the addition to the ordinances quoted from and summarised above. The phrase à la besche tapestry that is stated to be synonymous with haute-lisse tapestry I also regard as very interesting and significant. While the most obvious difference in the appearance of high-warp and low-warp looms depends upon the vertical position of the warp of the former as compared with the horizontal position of the warp of the latter, the real and fundamental difference depends upon the fact that the low-warp loom has treadles and the high-warp has not, and also that the bobbin of the high-warp loom (broche it is called at the Gobelins) is pointed for use in pressing home the weft, while the flûte, as it is called at Beauvais (flûte or bobbin elsewhere), of the low-warp loom is blunt and is not used as a tool. Besche I take it (without elaborating my reasons here) is the Old French word that corresponds to broche. I should judge, from a careful survey of the ordinances and the addition to them, that the haute-lisse workers were new-comers to Paris, perhaps from French Flanders, or at least men who were practising a kind of weaving then new to Paris.
Certainly if the phrase à la nierche (treadle) tapestry used in the addition to the ordinances (but found only in the manuscript of the Bibliothèque Nationale, man. fr. 24069, fol. 241, and not in the manuscript of the Archives Nationales, Kk 1336, fol. 145 V°) to describe the work of the tapissiers sarrazinois, is a part of the original document or was added by one who knew, then the tapissiers sarrazinois cannot be weavers of pile rugs, in the Oriental fashion. For the Oriental rug loom has a vertical warp without treadles. At this point, it is interesting to note that while the period of apprenticeship of the Guild of Tapissiers Sarrazinois was eight years that of the Guild of Tapissiers Nostrez was only four; also that both Guilds were restricted to the use of woollen thread except that the tapissiers nostrez might use any other material in the selvage, and that while the tapissiers nostrez used plain yarn the tapissiers sarrazinois must use twisted yarn (two or more strands).
Regarding the identity of tapissiers sarrazinois, the Flemish phrase, sarazinooswerkes metier maertse (Saracen workers with treadle), used in a French charter of Philip the Good, dated November 5, 1441, to explain the French phrase sarrazinois tapissiers, is significant, as is also the phrase found in certain weavers' guild statutes assembled about 1460, dat etc saergenoyswercker werckende up 't ghetauwe metter maertse (that every Saracen worker working on the treadle loom). (For both references see page 61 of Pinchart Generate.)
When speaking of Coptic tapestries I should also have called attention to the Peruvian tapestries of which there are important collections in the New York Museum of Natural History, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and several European museums. These Peruvian tapestries, exhumed like the Coptics from ancient graves, date from probably the XVI century, though some of them may be earlier. Like the Coptics they were woven on small looms or frames, with bobbins that were sent not only perpendicularly across the warp, but also twisted diagonally around pairs of warps to outline figures and ornament. An interesting feature of some Peruvian tapestries is the introduction of open-work loose weave in parts. This suggests the open-work backgrounds of some Norwegian tapestries ancient and modern.
Other real tapestries coarsely figured - some ribbed and some with such large coarse soft weft that the surface is flat - are Navajo blankets, Mexican serapes, Oriental kelims, etc., etc.