When Chantal Chirac arrived in Aubusson, France, in the 1980s, tapestry making was on the wane in a town where it had flourished since the 15th century. Economics was largely to blame as most individuals were not willing to pay the large sums required to compensate for the weeks or months it takes to produce these wall hangings. Changing tastes also played a part as interest in the traditional religious and historic themes had given way to more contemporary figural and abstract designs and mediums. Chirac dealt in antiques and soon discovered that a vital part of Aubusson’s tapestry tradition was rapidly disappearing. Many of the “cartons de tapisseries,” the paintings dictating the design, shape and colors of the textiles, had been lost and others were being discarded as the paper upon which they were drawn disintegrated.
She set out to collect and learn all she could about these “cartons.” The result is several books and the Atelier-Musee des Cartons de Tapisserie. The museum as well as her restoration studio and shop are in renovated buildings that used to house weavers. She has maquettes, the initial small model of tapestry designs, and full-size versions, some of which are perfect for framing and some of which are crumbling. She can repair and recolor a carton or she cuts out key design elements for smaller examples of this vital first step in tapestry production.
For her books, she uncovered photos of the busy artists’ studios where the cartons were created and of their conversion to guides for weavers on their looms. Both the cartons and the weaving were done in reverse, meaning the artists and weavers did not see the finished product as it would look on the wall until the loom threads were cut in what traditionally was a grande finale celebration. The museum is a chronology of tapestry themes and execution, starting with very early examples commissioned by churches to explain scriptures. As wealthy patrons desired tapestries, the depictions evolved into scenes of royalty and everyday life. Flowers filled backgrounds and provided color, and as tapestries became even more popular, the flowers were systematized to cut down on weaving time. Only the figural elements were dictated by clients.
The size also shrunk, with some tapestries covering purses, the backs and seats of chairs. There were conventions – no people on seats or rugs because to sit or walk on figures was considered disrespectful; Aubusson tapestries had blue borders while those of another important tapestry destination – the Gobelins in Paris – had red borders; Aubusson pieces had long, severed threads on the back side, to preserve warmth and to save weavers’ time. Initially, the artist and weaver were anonymous; only the manufacturer’s name was woven into the textile until the middle of the 20th century when “signatures” started to appear.
A museum guide explains that it took 10 years to become a competent weaver, with some starting as young as 13. Most were male because bending over the horizontal looms common in Aubusson was considered dangerous for women. Weavers developed specialties, such as grass or sky, with those doing skin considered the most talented. The number of colors available for tapestries grew from a low of about 15 to 90 or more, enabling Aubusson manufacturers to pursue verdure or nature themes for which the town became famous.
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For centuries, Aubusson bustled with tapestry making, introduced to the region by the Turks or the Flemish, depending upon whose historical account is believed. Today, the city has only a few manufacturers, but they and the long tradition were enough to lure French officials to approve the building of a magnificent museum for this art -- the Cite Internationale de la Tapisserie Aubusson, which serves as an anchor for the local tourism industry. Manufacture Robert Four sits just outside downtown in a four-story, renovated grain mill, chosen to give weavers in a glass-enclosed top floor the best possible light.
The company is private, a distinction always applying to Aubusson manufacturers in contrast to the publicly-funded Gobelin factory in Paris. It is one of few remaining factories that starts with dying threads and continues through to completed tapestries – only done on commission. Taking wool from New Zealand, experienced men with trained eyes produce the hundreds of colors Robert Four offers its customers. The colors are made from chemicals now instead of vegetables. The company’s magasin or dye library also contains silk and cotton threads as well as gold and silver.
Tapestry designs are done by artists working at home or in studios. Different artists segment the designs into the shapes and colors needed by the weavers. Once this part of the process is completed, the design comes to the factory where it’s checked for accuracy and the various bobbins of colored thread are gathered for the loom. Yet another specialist sets up a loom, tying the warp threads with precise tension. Working in reverse, the weaver, now typically female at Robert Four, painstakingly inserts the colors, pushing and pulling each row snug to the previous one. Once off the loom, there’s more work to be done.
A piece of wood is sewn into the top for hanging. And the openings, created when there’s a color change in the weaving, are stitched together by hand. Some of the women bent over this task only work with needles while others also are trained as weavers. Depending on the size of the tapestry, it can take three or four women working all day at least a week to complete the finishing touches. Besides the pieces being produced in the factories, the museum is in the midst of a four-year project to produce 13 tapestries and one carpet of illustrations by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and other works. Weaving began in 2017 and is expected to be completed by 2021. The objective is to showcase the tapestry tradition of basing designs on literary works, customary in the 16th and 17th centuries, but using a contemporary author. Adding to the creativity of the project is that the illustrations for the tapestries were done by the author himself.
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