On the afternoon of the 16th we all loaded into a minibus and headed off to Stirling to check out the tapestry project there. I had a really great time! I think I might have gotten a bit annoying with my exclamations about how castle-y the whole place was! It was foggy and damp and romantically Scottish, plus there were tapestries being woven right in front of us!
We talked with one of the weavers about the incredible 12-year project that aimed to recreate 6 tapestries. It was especially fascinating for me to learn about the project because one of my pet topics of study is the recreation of textiles. Some of the issue brought up were the provenience of the originals that the recreations were based off of. They are recreating the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries now being held in the cloisters in New York. The series of 5 complete and 1 fragmented tapestries were most likely not originally woven as a set despite the stylistic and temporal similarities. However, they are similar enough and woven at nearly the same time and so from a modern perspective they can easily be grouped together. The originals date from the turn of the 16th century and over the years have accumulated the various repairs and re-weavings that so often seem to clutter the "truth" of the object. This is to say that as parts of the object are changed the object is no longer simply and object from the turn of the 16th century. It also contains alterations that date to the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries as well. It can be argued that the visual impact of the object is only as recent as the most recent repair since that is when it’s appearance was last altered.
So what does this mean when a complex object like these tapestries is recreated? At this point it is truly impossible to recreate the object as it was in the 16th century simply due to the loss of information. Additionally, there are modern concerns that must be dealt with. Despite the incredible scale of the project, practical concerns still take precedence. The tapestries are being woven one tenth less than the originals for some reason I can’t recall, and this has an affect on the weavers ability to reproduce the image. For example, imagine a pixelated image. When that image is decreased in size there is a loss of information because the individual pixel has a set size that cannot be altered. As the image is decreased in size, the individual pixel then represents a greater area of the image but is still only able to indicate a single colour. This is the same for the tapestries except replace "pixel" with one weave of an individual coloured weft thread.
The weavers are thus unable to count the weft threads and base the recreation on any sort of categorizing of the specific weaving of the originals. Nor, really, is this a feasible way to go about this project. The weavers are trained to weave at a normal pace and to create the tapestry as they do, and they are experts at it! So this is how the project will be accomplished. The weavers create the cartoon in the desired scale with notations about the colours originally used and away they go!
There is this odd contradiction in the balance between the lofty goals of recreation and the practical how-exactly-are-we-going-to-do-it problem solving of those who bring the project about. I saw the incredibly detailed notation describing the colours used, where and how but that complex document was based on the subjective examination of the individual. I know from experience that a long highly detailed project based upon a subjective questions like "what colour is this thread" is most definitely subject to the vagaries of the human brain. One day a colour might appear to be one thing and the next another. Only the barest cartoon is actually placed behind the tapestry as this is the best way for the multiple person team to weave comfortably with whatever additional reference materials they feel that they need.
Clearly I find the process fascinating since I have gone on and on about it but I find so many similarities in my attempts at costume recreations. A basic adjustment that I must always make is for the fit of the clothing which brings similar issues of scale and silhouette that the weavers experience on such a different project. So cool!
There are all these creepy gargoyle/people coming out of the walls that have been mostly eroded away and they all kinda look like their screaming…
they weave the tapestry sideways so that when it is hung with the right side of the image up, the warp threads run horizontally. Here the top of the image runs along the lefthand side. They’re nearly done this one. The edge of the paper cartoon behind the warp threads marks the end of the tapestry!