The Unicorn Is Found

By Norris, Michael | School Arts, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The Unicorn Is Found


Norris, Michael, School Arts


During the Middle Ages, tapestries were an exclusive art form that became more popular over time. At first, tapestries with religious subjects covered the walls of churches, but later tapestries with secular designs also decorated the interiors of courts and civic buildings. By the fifteenth century, tapestries with popular subjects not only ornamented wealthy homes, but also divided rooms or kept drafts away at doorways, while smaller tapestries with coordinated designs decorated beds, tables, and chairs.

About the Artwork

A tapestry represents the ultimate in collaboration and cooperation. First, an artist created a small-scale drawing or painting of the design. A specialist enlarged this into a cartoon--a color or color-coded line drawing on a sheet of linen or paper that was the full size of the tapestry and the mirror image of the initial design. The weft yarns that gave color to the tapestry were usually made of dyed wool and silk, created by a dyer. Besides the natural whitish color of its wool, the colors in this tapestry were created with dyes from five types of plants: fresh madder, fresh weld, dried sappan, selected dried bark of trees, and composted woad.

When it came time to weave, parallel warps of strong, undyed yarn were stretched vertically between the beams of a loom. Facing the reverse of the tapestry, the weavers (who were all male) wove following the cartoon, which was either folded or cut into strips before it was placed behind the warps on the loom. Heddles, connected to treadles or to an overhead bar, enabled the weavers to change the positions of alternate warps with a shift of their limbs. The dyed weft yarn, wound into small balls (or, later, wrapped around small wooden bobbins), was passed through the separated warp threads, called a weaving shed, which the weaver then compacted down onto the undyed warps with a comb-like tool. As the weaving progressed, the woven tapestry was rolled around the beam close to the weavers while the unwoven warps were unrolled from the other beam. …

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