Tuesday, April 12, 2016


I mentioned a while back that the Getty Center was having a exhibit of tapestries made gold and silver yarns.  However, I have not said anything substantive about the exhibit.

I was totally under whelmed by the associated materials.

For example, why tapestries?  Conventional wisdom is that they reduced the drafts and made stone buildings feel warmer and more comfortable.  Perhaps, but shuttle woven blankets would have done that and been much more practical.  In particular, the dyes in the tapestries tended to fade rapidly, and tapestries could  not be cleaned as easily as blankets to remove soot and smoke. Why gold and silver in tapestries? We are told it was to improve interior light, but the gold conducted heat through the fabric, allowing moisture to condense on the warmside, thereby requiring use of silver to act as an antifungal agent to keep the tapestry from mildewing and molding.  However, silver tarnished, reducing the reflectivity of the tapestry. No, when they had a practical need for more light, they used white marble as a wall facing as done in the rooms used for spinning fine thread in Bruges.

I assert that tapestries primary purpose was as displays of wealth and status. They were very valuable, but they were lightweight and compact. An 12' by 18'  wool and silk tapestry might weigh only 10 pounds (30 pounds with a linen backing).  It could be folded up and easily transported, or stored away somewhere safe. However, a tapestry was harder to steal than gold or silver per se, and not as threatening as weapons or armor.  Tapestries were a store of wealth that could be displayed  to all of one's guests.

Tapestries came in different grades. The exhibit contains a pair, both made to a similar cartoon by the same shop in Paris. The one for the King of France was much larger and much more finely worked with much gold (and silver).  I estimate the grist of the weft in the smaller tapestry to be in the neighborhood of 5,600 ypp, while the grist of the weft in larger tapestry was closer to 15,000 ypp. Thus, the yarn in King's tapestry took on the order of  100 times more effort to spin without counting the large effort to core-spin the gold and silver onto the weft.   Many of the tapestries that were less finely spun and had less gold work, had the gold work protruding slightly from the surface of the tapestry.  At first, I though this was a lack of craftsmanship.  However, reflection tells me that this was a design feature, to make sure that everyone saw that the tapestry did have gold in it.  The gold protruding from the surface, made reflective bands that were visible from any angle and at a greater  distance -- than the much finer work in King's tapestry where the finer gold work produces a more uniformly lustrous field.

At first, I was very impressed with the quality of the English spinning and disappointed with the quality of the spinning in Paris, but then it became very clear that what mattered was the rank and wealth of the person ordering the tapestries, and not where they were made.  Likely, elite craftsmen went to where the wealthy were ordering new tapestries. It was a uncommon set of skills that took a long time time to develop and refine.

Anyway, the exhibit runs to May 1, and it is likely the only place we will ever be able to do such a close comparison of such a range of fine tapestries.


 Remember the Huntington collection is also nearby.

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