September 22, 2014

Weaving history

On our first full day in Scotland, we were in Stirling and of course, we visited beautiful Stirling Castle. A favorite of Scottish Kings and Queens for centuries (until they also became Kings of England), this castle is still (and/or again) pretty much intact and in size it's second only to Edinburgh Castle. 
Stirling Castle reached the shape and size it still has today in the reign of James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots (by the way, while on holiday, I was reading Margaret George's biographical novel about that ill-fated queen. It proved a very good choice because so many of the places we visited had some connection to her reign).

And it's not just a stone shell with a lot of stories connected to it. In recent years, a huge effort has been made to restore the royal apartments to how they may have looked in the mid 16th century, when the child-Queen Mary lived there. This means things are more brightly painted and glossy than we're used to, but that is very likely historically correct. 
I won't go entirely off-topic here and discuss history, the way it is told and perceived or the benefits of or problems with large-scale restoration. I'm not an expert on any of those topics and although I love to talk about such things, I don't expect all of you to enjoy that. This is a sewing blog, after all. However, there was something there which I think will interest you. 

The tapestries. When I walked into this room, the Queen's Inner Hall, I immediately realized these couldn't be period tapestries. The colours were just too clear and bright and vibrant. The gauge also seemed somehow 'off'. And yet, they were definitely real tapestries, not imitations made by painting on coarsely woven canvas, like I've seen in Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (of course, that entire castle is a 19th century phantasy and imitation of the Middle Ages).
The answer came later that day, when we followed the signs to the tapestry workshop (located in an outbuilding). 

There, two weavers were at work. By sheer coincidence, we were perfectly on time for the weaver's talk (which I believe they only do once a day).
She explained the story of the tapestries: As you may know, rooms in Medieval castles were often hung with tapestries for both warmth and decoration. That would certainly have been the case in the royal apartments of Stirling Castle in the 16th century. However, none of the original tapestries remained. And according to old documents, James V had owned a set of tapestries with a unicorn theme. 
When planning the restoration, Historic Scotland decided to re-create a set of tapestries. 
The new tapestries are based on a series which spent most of its history in France (one of only two surviving sets of unicorn tapestries) and is now in New York. It is called "The Hunt of the Unicorn"
The finished tapestries are all copies of those. And I was right to notice the gauge: the original tapestries were woven with threads less than half the thickness that is used now. This had to be done to limit the cost and the duration of the project.
The tapestry they are working on now, the last one of the set, is a bit of a re-invention. Only parts of the original survive but the story is known: It is the crucial moment when the unicorn lays its head in the maiden's lap.

Obviously, tapestry weaving is not a common skill these days. The ladies we met belonged to one of only two studios in the UK which could carry out such work. Just looking at them working, it was clear how much skill, experience, precision and endless patience goes into a project like this. Just imagine: the daily target for the work on this project is about 10 centimeters square. And you can see in my pictures how big these tapestries are. And they are not 'just copying' either. They constantly have to decide on when to change to what colour and invent their own intervals, because of the change in scale.

Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures in the weaver's workshop because I was too busy looking and listening. This is impressive, fascinating stuff.
I can tell you that the tapestry is woven on a big vertical loom, on its side. That way, it won't sag out under its own weight later. This is also how it would have been done by the weavers in the past. What isn't historically correct is that they are weaving the image from the front. However, these weavers were trained like that and it has the added benefit (for the part of the work that's carried out on site in Stirling) of actually giving visitors something to look at while the work is in progress.
The work has been going on for the past 12 years and it should be finished by the end of this year. 


  1. Thanks for this interesting story on weaving. I have never been in Scotland, but it looks beautiful.

    When I think about Scotland I think about sheeps, yarn and fabric.

  2. We were there in April this year but didn't see the weavers. How very interesting. Thanks for sharing

  3. How fun. Our family saw the hunt of the unicorn in NYC in 2010.

  4. There is a four-part documentary put out by BBC called The Manor Reborn hosted by Penelope Keith which shows the rehabbing of a manor house to its former glory. You might like it as it is similar to what you describe.

  5. Stirling Castle is really beautiful and it sits on a "crag and tail" just the same as Edinburgh. Hard to think of Scotland as being volcanic. Thank ou for sharing about the tapestries. They are very beautiful and hopefully will be there for centuries to come.

  6. I visited Stirling Castle a few years ago. It was so foggy that day! I wish I had taken more pictures of the tapestries. They are so beautiful. When you think of the time and skill that went into creating them, it's just amazing.

  7. early this here we had an art exposition here in São Paulo focused on Chinese contemporary artists. And there was a section about contemporary tapestry, with such beautiful works!! I will look through my papers and check if I find a better reference to point to you.
    it is indeed an impressive art, and it takes loads of patience and determination.

    Great post.!

  8. I've been to Sterling Castle this year and the tapestries is what I loved and remember the best, especially the work room. What a herculean task!

  9. How incredible. I have a few friends who weave on small looms, and I'm fascinated by it. I spin and knit, and have prepared my own fibers for spinning and dyeing...but I haven't tried weaving yet. Even if (let's be honest, when) I do, it will be a scarf or something simple. These...are stunning. I really need to go visit this place and see them for myself!!