Our tribute to men who stitch begins with a Historical Perspective on the influence of
Men in the Fiber Arts
From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution
by Rita Vainius
ll over the world, museums thrill their visitors with exhibits of Medieval and Renaissance tapestries and royal and religious garments that are decorated with sumptuous embroidery. But in the 20th century, weaving, stitchery and embroidery are known to most of us as housewifely skills. History teaches us otherwise. The practice of these arts in some cultures, and during specific periods of time in others, was often primarily the domain of men. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, most people lived in the castles of the feudal lords. Gradually, small settlements sprang up under their protection, and these eventually became towns. During this transitionary period the weaving of cloth and other related crafts, began to move out of the confines of the home and Guilds were established. By the 12th century, the Weavers Guild, the oldest in England, had been organized. In France, the Company of Embroiderers was formed as a Guild in 1272. Throughout the remaining Middle Ages, and on through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the needle and fiber arts were chiefly practiced and controlled by men.
"In the towns, men engaged in the same craft lived side by side, and streets came to be named by the prevailing craft practiced there, such as Threadneedle Street, which still exists in London. Artisans came to be known by the name of their trade, thus the origins of last names such as Weaver, Tailor, Dyer etc."
uilds helped the artisan to be competitive and the strict standards protected the consumer by assuring high quality at a fair price. They enacted firm laws governing their specific trades. A rule of the Weavers Guild in England stated one could not employ one's wife or underage children. A statute of the Guild of Embroiderers in Paris provided that only men could become Master Embroiderers. The Guilds also instituted a system of apprenticeship. If a boy wanted to learn a trade such as embroidery, his parents would contract with a Master Embroiderer and the boy would become his apprentice, learning the secrets of the trade. When the apprenticeship was over he was allowed to become a journeyman. He could now travel from town to town, looking for work and learning new skills. But no journeyman could become a Master until tested by the Guild. To do this, the Wardens of the Guild would set him a piece of work to do. This was called his "masterpiece", and he had to carry it out by himself, in the presence of the judges. If his work passed their inspection, the new member became a full fledged Master Embroiderer and could set up his own shop.
"The apex of the textile arts in Europe is acknowledged to be the magnificent tapestries that were created by the Master Weavers of the time."
he most famous tapestry, perhaps the most famous textile of all time, is a work of embroidery called the Bayeaeux Tapestry executed on linen with wool stitching and measuring 231 feet in length. Tapestry reached its pinnacle in the 14th Century, when for the first time, it was possible to ascribe certain textiles to the hand of a known artisan. Three French Master Weavers dominated the field: Jacques Dourdin, Pierre de Beaumetz and Nicholas Bataille. Bataille's masterpiece, "The Apocalypse", was inspired by an illuminated manuscript. Another entitled "The Nine Heroes" depicts men of valor from the Hebrew, Christian and Pagan traditions. Philip the Bold commissioned some, more modest, items like tapestry mule blankets and a garment for his favorite leopard.
rom the 12th to the 14th Centuries, Embroidery was used extensively, and almost exclusively, for religious purposes. The most beautiful church vestments, were embroidered with a special couching stitch, which completely covered the fabric. The Flemish tapestry workshops flourished under the direction of Master Weaver, Jacques Dourdin, and were supported by the patronage of the French Court. Most of the tapestries of the period, depict the prevailing popular themes of battle scenes, religious and heroic subjects, and legends of love. The rebirth of the arts and sciences that engulfed Europe after the Middle Ages is known as the Renaissance. This was the Golden Age of Tapestry. In both quality and quantity, the products of the Renaissance looms, rival those of any other age. "The Story of Alexander the Great" by Pasquier Grenier, a Master Weaver of Tournai, was rendered in silk, wool and actual gilded threads and measured 13 feet by 32 feet. It was commissioned by Philip the Good for 5000 gold pieces. This one, like the best tapestries of the time, attained a monumentality of scale, concept and execution, and the stories portrayed were epic in nature.
uring the 15th Century, Brussels became the tapestry capital. The extravagant use of gold thread in these works, inspired the name Tapis D'Or (cloth of gold). The most prominent weaver, Pieter Van Aelst, was responsible for creating "The Acts of the Apostles" which was commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. And in the 1500's Queen Elizabeth made the weaving industry the basis of England's trade. William Sheldon designed a series of county maps which were a charming mixture of geographical representation and decorative design. Mary, Queen of Scots, employed 2 Master Embroiderers for the Crown: Pierre Oudray and Charles Howart. The first embroidery book published in England was "A Schole House for the Needle" by Richard Schorleyker in 1624. It illustrated most of the usual motifs of the time, and also some lace and cut work. Embroiderers were also influenced by the designs from a manuscript by Thomas Trevellyan. These may be seen in many variations of Elizabethan Age embroidery.
eanwhile, Venice and Florence specialized in the creation of rich cut velvets and several Italian painters, including Pisanello and Jacopo Bellini, designed these patterns. Cosemodo Medici contracted a Flemish weaver, Nicolas Carcher, to set up a tapestry works in Florence and Ferrara, which specialized in silk pieces. Another exceptional artisan of the time was Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, the son of an embroiderer, who became the designer for Loius XV's wardrobe. He was the author of "L'Art du Brodeur", an illuminating study of the embroiderers' art. This book contains a wealth of information including descriptions of the embroiderers' milieu, precise detailing of stitching techniques, methods of assemblage, as well as first hand information on working conditions, social values and aesthetics of the time.
ouis XV established the Royal Tapestry Manufactory of Gobelins under the direction of Jean Soufflet, a Master Weaver. Soufflet experienced problems familiar to many harried, inventive master artisans running their own shops. He was bedeviled by workers who caroused at the gatekeeper's house or engaged in swordplay at work. His biggest problem, however, was money. The King neglected to pay his bills and the Gobelin looms could not produce work rapidly or cheaply enough to supply a clientele beyond the court. Louis' successor, Henry IV, subsidized the Tapestry Works under the direction of Charles LeBrun. These ateliers were prolific in their output of clothing, wall hangings and upholstery and flourished until 1789, when the French Revolution brought production to a virtual standstill. But it was a different kind of revolution which would have much more spectacular implications for the textile arts.
"When hints of the Industrial Revolution began to appear, all ranks of artisans seem, in retrospect, to have shared a compulsion to show the world the extravagance of their skill, before technology made it superfluous."
n example of this phenomenon is the "All Tapestry Room", commissioned by the Earl of Coventry from the Gobelin Tapestry Works, in which every surface of the room, including walls, floors and furniture is completely enveloped in tapestry. The Industrial Revolution began in 1764 with the historic introduction of the spinning jenny, later replaced by the spinning mule, which tended by one laborer, could match the output of 200 hand spinners. Incensed at the loss of jobs, hand weavers rebelled, but the new system was too profitable for workers to reverse the trend. The factory system. emerged and artisans were now reduced to automatons.Women and children worked more cheaply than men and this was the final denouement of male domination in individually handcrafted fiber arts.
uring the 1950's the international tapestry biennials in Lausanne, Switzerland were inaugurated. They gave visibility to, not only the historic monumental tapestries woven on looms, but also to a broad range of textile arts and techniques which had lapsed in the intervening years. Across the world artists were discovering that textile fabrication could be a creative end in itself, or a mere starting point for further embellishment. This movement brought together other design skills with the age old processes of needle and thread. Emerging fiber artists and designers are exploring the new possibilities for self expression and teaching us all to look at the their art in new ways. Whether their work tells a story with stitches, or whether they rely solely on color and texture for more abstract imagery, their work compels us to look, touch and experiment.
en are starting, once again, to move back into the vanguard of needle art design and execution. Join us as we celebrate their accomplishments. This month we spotlight those who as artists, designers, teachers and shopkeepers are in the forefront of this trend.
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