My vacation in Spain gave me the opportunity to see some fabulous tapestries in four cities. It was fun to seek out the fiber arts side of a country. Try it with your next trip abroad and you'll be surprised at what you can find.
The most fascinating visit of my trip was to the Real Fabrica de Tapices or the Royal Tapestry Workshop in Madrid. It was founded by King Felipe V in 1721 and the artisans still make rugs and tapestries on the original looms. Seeing how they work was an amazing experience, but unfortunately they don't allow photographs. The tour starts with the rug weaving area where 6 people are lined up across a 15 foot loom, tying knots for a brown and white rug. The brown pattern was about 1/4" longer than the white background, yet all six weavers cut the thread at exactly the same length! Custom rugs start at 1,000 euros per square meter.
On the next loom a woman was inking a warp against a cartoon using the most primitive of tools -- a stick and india ink. No Sharpies here! The tapestry design was of a 17th Century Greek column for the Dresden Museum and had to exactly match with a prior tapestry they wove in 2010. Fortunately the museum sent back the first one for comparison. Custom tapestries start at 12,000 Euros per square meter.
Other smaller looms (8 to 12 feet across) had similar tapestries being woven using dozens of colors on ancient wooden bobbins. The wooden vertical looms were hundreds of years old with massive beams that looked like tree trunks. The next room had a rug repairing section and an area specializing in applique where two women were embellishing a heraldic banner for the royal palace with 14K gold thread and braid. The tour ends in a gallery of wonderful tapestries from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as two of Goya's original cartoons.
Toledo is a medieval fortress town high atop a mountain south of Madrid. The city is a maze of winding streets, barely wide enough for both cars and pedestrians. It's not unusual to jump into a doorway when a car comes down the lane. Toledo is known for inventing marzipan, forging swords for crusading knights and having the first cathedral in Spain.
The Catedral Primada has a separate Tapestry and Textile Museum with a collection covering the 16th to 18th centuries. About two dozen gigantic tapestries line the walls with the average size about 20 x 15 feet. Many were too big to fit the walls without sloping onto the floor. As you might expect in a cathedral museum, all the tapestries have religious themes. Generally their condition was good considering how old they are, but you can see where restoration has been done through the years.
The first exhibit was The Triumph of the Eucharist by Peter Paul Rubens woven in 1676. What made these six tapestries novel was the fact that the borders no longer served to frame the tapestry but were incorporated into the scene, making it resemble a theatrical stage. The range of colors is amazing and looking at it closely you see that nothing is truly a solid color, especially the backgrounds which contain many shades giving it a tremendous depth. Most of the tapestries had a red shield flanked by the letter B indicating that it was made in Brussels, Brabant, along with the name of the artist.
In Segovia, best known for its Roman aqueduct, the Alcazar de Segovia is a medieval castle with some interesting Flemish tapestries from the 15th and 16th centuries. Note how there are fewer details and colors, making the figures look more like cartoons, and there is little sense of perspective. In the Royal bedroom it was interesting to see the tapestries hung around the room like wall coverings, curving around the corners and framing the windows.
For a total change of pace, the Joan Miro museum in Barcelona had two gigantic tapestries he created. Miro used very thickly coiled wool, about 2 inches in diameter, which added texture and dimension on a tremendous scale. I would have loved to see it being woven -- imagine the size of the loom to accommodate the length and thickness!