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.
The process of tapestry weaving is most interesting. The loom and tools necessary are surprisingly simple. In fact for a tiny tapestry a square embroidery frame with needles and comb is sufficient. But for large tapestries a powerful loom is needed to withstand the strain of hundreds of taut warp threads. One of the earliest forms of the tapestry loom had the warp threads attached to a roller above and individually weighted below to keep them taut. This was the Homeric loom and also the primitive Scandinavian loom. It was extremely slow and inconvenient. The so-called high warp loom with two rollers, one below as well as one above, was a great improvement. On the high warp loom the left hand separates the warp threads to form the shed through which the right hand must guide the weft spool or bobbin.
Finally it occurred to some unknown genius to set the feet at work. He tipped the old loom over into a horizontal position, and accomplished the separation of the warp threads by means of two treadles. This left both hands free to manipulate the bobbins.
The use of the low warp loom has been general since the beginning of the XVI century. In the XVII century, it was used exclusively at Mortlake in England, and at the works established in Paris by Henri IV. At the Gobelins the haute lisse and basse lisse worked side by side in friendly rivalry during the reign of Louis XIV, and until 1825, when the low warp looms were sent to the other Government tapestry works at Beauvais. According to Monsieur E. Gerspach, in his "Tapisseries des Gobelins" published in 1893: "The haute lisse was retained at the Gobelins, doubtless because it presented a better appearance and being used only at the Gobelins, they did not wish to entirely discard a method handed down from antiquity".
A visit to the tapestry works at Williamsbridge, in New York City, is most interesting. Here in a city that is crowded with machinery and steam engines and electric motors, and in a country that, on account of its success with machinery, has neglected things artistic, we find what has not unjustly been called "the most important art industry in America." Here there are no noisy pulleys and creaking shafts to deafen the ear. Here everything is done by hand, and quiet reigns though industry thrives. The number of looms is 36, and each loom accommodates from two to four weavers. Of the general form and principal parts of the loom, the illustration of the model on plate no. 247 gives a good idea.
Plate no. 247. Above, miniature model of a Williamsbridge loom. Below, from the weaver's point of view, showing pillows, bobbins, small comb, large comb, awl, scissors.
The warp consists of parallel tightly spun threads of wool or cotton wound around the two rollers. The nearer roller is held by a ratchet wheel. The other roller is held by friction against the lashed-together crossbars. This primitive and ancient method is superior to any that moderns have been able to devise, giving evenness of tension combined with elasticity.
As the weaving advances the finished portion of the tapestry rolls up around the nearer roller, against which the weaver leans as he works. Underneath the loom are the treadles, one of each pair to depress the odd threads of the warp, the other to depress the even threads.
The illustration on plate no. 249 shows the weavers at work. The one in the foreground is passing the bobbin with his right hand, while the thumb of his left hand elevates the threads beneath which the bobbin passes. The weaver on the left is making a pass in the reverse direction, from left to right, and the bobbin in his right hand is clearly visible.
In front of each are two sets of lisses that separate the warp threads at the will of the weaver, as expressed through the treadles. It will be noticed that of the two sets of vertical cords or lisses in front of the weaver on the right, the nearer is raised, lifting with it the odd threads of the warp, while the other is depressed, carrying down the even threads of the warp. These two sets of lisses being attached to opposite ends of the same cross-piece above, must necessarily work in unison, the pulling down of one set forcing the other set up. One set is, of course, attached below to the weaver's right treadle, the other to the left. For every thread of the warp there is a separate lisse or heddle cord, with eyelet in the middle through which the warp thread passes.
Weavers At Work Plate no. 249. Williamsbridge weavers at work. The one in the foreground is making a short pass to the left, the other a pass back to the right.
The manner in which the lisses are woven, with eyelets formed by cords looping around each other, is very ingenious, and is illustrated on plate no. 251. On the frame is shown a set of lisses partially completed, while hanging at the right is a set of lisses ready for use. The lisses being woven are so held on the three rods that their shape and position relative to one another can easily be made out. The rod in the middle passes through all the loops, just as each warp thread on the big loom passes through one pair of loops.
On the same plate two weavers are shown in the act of threading the warp through the lisses, one weaver busying himself with the lisses that carry the odd warp threads, the other weaver with the lisses that carry the even warp threads. The weaver on the right is just passing a warp thread through the eyelet formed by a pair of loops, lifting the lower loop and depressing the upper loop. It will be noticed in this illustration that the ends of the warp threads are knotted together in groups of twenty, making a series of loops. A long brass rod passed through these loops attaches them firmly to the big roller, in a slot of which they are held as shown in the illustration of the model loom on plate no. 247.
Plate no. 251. Above, Weaving the Lisses; below, Threading the Lisses. See chapter VIII (The Texture Of Tapestries. Arras Tapestries. Greek And Roman Tapestries. High Warp And Low Warp. The Process Of Weaving) under the Process of Weaving.
The tools of the weaver are few and simple - spool, bobbin, mirror, awl, heavy comb of ivory or boxwood with long teeth close together; small metal comb, or grattoir, with tiny teeth far apart. The pillow softens the hardness of the roller for the weaver as he leans against it (See plate no. 247):
"But where," the reader familiar with the Raphael cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, is probably asking, "where are the painted models that the weavers follow?" That I was unable to secure a photograph, showing the cartoon in position on the loom, I regret. The cartoon though clearly seen by the weaver through the warp, eludes the photographer, for it is under the loom, just beneath the warp to which it is attached face up, while the tapestry above it is woven face down, so that the two faces face each other. The cartoon rolls up as the completed tapestry rolls up but separately from it and below it. The light from the sky windows above illuminates through the warp the cartoon, as well as the mirror by means of which alone can the weaver see what he has done.
The actual process of tapestry weaving is simplicity itself. The weaver passes the bobbin to the left as far as that particular colour continues in the cartoon, beneath the odd warp threads, nos. 1, 3, 5, 7, etc., and back beneath the even warp threads. On its way out the bobbin or weft thread covers the lower or face side of the odd threads and on its way back the face of the even threads. Then with his comb the weaver presses the weft home firmly against the part of the tapestry already completed. He is really embroidering, except that his foundation is not a cloth complete with warp and weft, but a set of warp threads only, and except that his stitches are all parallel to each other and perpendicular to the warp. The bobbin is used as a matter of convenience because it carries more thread than a needle. It is really nothing more than a large needle, without a point because a point is unnecessary in low warp weaving.
Plate no. 253. The Dye Materials and the Dyeing Room at Williamsbridge. The Dye Materials illustrated are madder, cochineal, blue vitriol, gall nuts, alum, tartar, indigo, orseille, bois jaune.
The threads of the weft are much finer and softer than those of the warp, and have to be dyed with extreme care. To use aniline dyes, which are employed generally for machine-made textiles, would be fatal to the permanence of the colours and to the durability of the tapestries. The dye materials are cochineal, madder, bois rouge, indigo, orseille, bois jaune, alum, tartar, blue vitriol, and gall-nuts. With these materials, which are illustrated on plate no. 253, every desirable tint and shade of colour can be secured.
To the life of tapestry dyed with vegetable dyes, it is hard to set a limit. XVI century Oriental rugs are few in number and usually much damaged by age and wear. But of XVI century tapestries there are many in private collections as well as in European museums.