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Aubusson Tapestry Tradition

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Recently we visited France for two weeks in the back of our van. Being an artist, one of the most memorable trips for me was a visit to Aubusson, a town famous for its tapestry industry. We tend to take a haphazard approach to holidays and didn’t make many plans before we left, so coming across a place with such interesting history was a real find. You can buy a triple ticket in Aubusson for the three main museums, which means you get a reduced rate if you visit all three, which we duly did.

I have gathered most of the information regarding the history of weaving and weavers in Aubusson from an educational leaflet given out by the Musée Départemental de la Tapisserie, so I can’t claim credit for the research I’m afraid, but I hope you enjoy the following information.

 


 

 

Aubusson and its neighbouring town, Felletin, are medieval cities with a weaving history that dates back to at least 1457. Both towns are situated beside rivers in the beautiful Limousin department of Creuse.

Verdures, or landscapes, were much favoured in the 15th century, but gradually gave way to tapestries with narratives, usually with historical, religious or mythological significance. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, tapestries were used to warm the cold stone walls of castles and cathedrals. Today this is still true in modern steel and glass buildings where this art form can be used to give life and warmth to a building.

 

 

In 1601, King Henri IV prohibited the import of foreign tapestries into France, and later in 1665 Aubusson was granted the rank of Manufacture Royale (Felletin was granted the same Royal seal of approval in 1689). Weaving expanded, but in 1685 a large number of Protestant weavers emigrated due to the Religious War.  Despite this, at the beginning of the 20th century there were still 1500-2000 jobs relating to the taspestry industry in Aubusson, but today there are only around 50 who work mostly in private ateliers.

 

 

Before World War II the French government and some private collectors attempted to revive the flagging fortunes of the tapestry industry in Aubusson by commissioning contemporary artists to create new, modern works. These included Léger, Braque, Picasso, Dufy, Lurçat, Gromaire and Dubrueil. Lurçat in particular heavily influenced the craft.

 

 

Cartoons

 

 

We were delighted when Chantal Chirac (below), the Artistic Director of the ‘Atelier-Musée des Cartons de Tapissiere’ (above), took time out of her schedule and opened the museum especially to give us a guided tour in English. It really made us feel welcome. Chantal does not weave much herself, but instead restores the ‘cartoons’ or paintings from which the weaver (or lissier) creates the tapestry.  However, she gave us a quick introduction to the basics of weaving using a full-size low-warp loom (below left) and a tiny loom (below right) on which someone had woven the most exquisite silk tapestry I have ever seen.  If only I had gotten a photo of the other side of the work!

 

 

The interesting device below left and middle is called a poinçon, and was used to copy paintings.

 

 

Early on in the history of weaving, miniature paintings or maquettes (above right) were used which the weaver had to interpret. However, by the 17th century, life sized paintings were placed directly under the warp (chaîne) so the weaver could recreate the painting more accurately. Weavers in Aubusson don’t see their finished tapestry until it is removed from the loom because they work on the reverse side of the tapestry, which is also why the cartoon is presented backwards underneath the warp. Usually the weaver also has a maquette in front of them as a general guide.

 

Inside the Musée des Cartons de Tapisserie

Inside the Musée des Cartons de Tapisserie

 

After World War II the cartoons were often colour-coded, which is a bit like painting-by-numbers. Serious artists are loathe to use this method, however. In the present day weavers often use enlarged photographs as their cartoons.

 


Dyeing

Aubusson tapestries are woven in wool. The wool is hung in skeins on a thick wooden rod called a lissoir and is inserted vertically into a mixture of water and dye heated at more than 100°C. The high temperature ‘fixes’ the colours. The wool is lifted and turned so that the dye takes evenly and then it is dried in the sun.

 

 

A colourist (assortisseur) works with the weaver and identifies the colours needed for each tapestry.  They create a chain of coloured wool called a rosary or chapelet for the weaver to execute the work.  The wool is wound onto a long bobbin with a central hole.  Owing to this they are known as flûtes.

 

Weaving

As previously mentioned, Aubusson weavers work on a low-warp (basse-lisse) horizontal loom. In Gobelins in Paris, weavers work on upright looms and use wool for the warp, whereas in Aubusson the warp is cotton.  Below are images taken at the weaver’s house, or the Musée du Tapissier.

 


Weaver at the Musée du Tapissier

Weaver at the Musée du Tapissier

 

The warp is mounted on two horizontal rollers (rouleaux or ensouples). Heddle bars (barres de lisse) are attached to alternate threads on the warp. Underneath the loom there are two foot-operated paddles or treadles (marches), and when one is pressed, alternate threads of the warp are pulled apart. When prised apart, a bobbin of coloured wool (flûte) is passed between the threads from right to left (une passée). Then the other treadle is pressed, and the threads pull apart in the opposite direction. The bobbin is passed back to its original position (going back and forth is a duite).

This action of passing the bobbins back and forth creates the weft, or trame. After several passes, or duites, the weaver uses a hard wooden comb to pull the weft towards himself and pack it tight so there are no holes and the warp disappears. Generally speaking, weaving a metre of tapestry takes about a month to complete.

Eventually the tapestry must be cut from the loom (tombée de métier). This is the moment of truth as the weaver has not seen the completed tapestry until this moment. The weaver then checks the work for small holes or gaps where the colours were changed and sews these up (couture des relais).

The image below shows a beautiful tapestry called Le Marchande de Poissons (the fish market) at the Musée de la Tapisserie.  In the background on the left you can see the cartoon image (in reverse) that the tapestry was copied from.  Under the horizontal loom you can see the two foot-operated treadles which pull apart alternate threads of the warp so the bobbins can be passed back and forth between the threads.

In the image bottom right you can see the reverse of the tapestry and the rest of the loom.

 

Le Marchande de Poissons - the fish market - at the Musée de la Tapisserie

Le Marchande de Poissons – the fish market – at the Musée de la Tapisserie


 

Under French law, tapestry editions must be limited to 6 copies, and usually also one for the artist and one for the workshop. You can tell where it was made as each tapestry is edged in a specific colour relating to the town around Aubusson where it originated. Tapestries also have a bolduc on the reverse, which is a small piece of tissue or paper bearing the name of the artist, the title, dimensions, the name of the workshop and often the date.

 


 

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this beautiful artform.  It was too good not to share!

Kelly.

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