The Unicorn Tapestries


Art and artisans have transcended regions, cultures and time and one never has to travel far to find either. Our team Shokunin loves exploring different traditional arts and crafts together, and a few days ago on a beautiful spring afternoon, we decided to make the trek to the Cloisters Museum, right here in NYC.

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The Cloisters is dedicated to medieval art and boasts an impressive collection, but the real draw that brought us there were the lush gardens and the Unicorn tapestries. The Unicorn tapestries are permanent exhibits at the Museum and we were most curious about them not just for their construction but also for the unicorns in these tapestries as these fabled creatures have been a topic of scholarly discussions for centuries. The tapestries are grander in scale than one can imagine from the pictures and cover several walls of some very large rooms. It is impossible not to be impressed as soon as you walk into the rooms that house the tapestries and feel overwhelmed by their sheer scale and artistry!

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Tapestries are literally paintings done with the threads of the fabric. You can compare the warps (vertical threads in a fabric) to a blank canvas and the wefts (horizontal threads in a fabric) to strokes of paint on that canvas. In medieval castles, tapestries were draped on walls of castles for insulation during winter and for decorative displays inside castles and behind the King's throne. Though tapestries may look like they are painted with brushstrokes, they are indeed large fabrics woven with a slow and meticulous process. In fact, using paint on the surface of a tapestry was once considered a crime punishable by a large fine or worse!

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While viewing a tapestry, we contemplated and discussed all the processes that went into creating such incredible works of art, from fibers to finished products. Not only are these works steeped in tradition, but they also tell the stories of the myriad artisan, craftspeople, shepherds and farmers that were involved in creating these masterpieces. It's these craft people and artisans that have advanced our understanding of processes necessary to create these works of art and advance our knowledge of modern textiles. We couldn’t help but think about the spinners who cleaned and combed the wool, handing it off to the dyers who gathered and grew the herbs that gave all those incredible colors, the metal-smiths who hand-hammered precious metals into threads for special tapestries, weavers and carpenters that created looms and wove the tapestries, and the sewers that assembled the tapestries and so on.

Unfortunately, the edges of the tapestries are not visible as they have been covered in the museum to protect the most vulnerable parts of the tapestry and give it extra support from its own weight. We couldn’t help but wonder about those hidden selvages since they are an important part of the detail on how the tapestry has been put together. Tapestries represent the lifetimes work of scores of artisans.  People with the most incredible skill, working and learning every day and that there had to be somebody with the initial vision who understood all those details and still undertook the endeavor for the whim of creating art and beauty. Even with modern machines and techniques, recreations of these tapestries would be an incredible undertaking.

Tapestry is a medieval form of art, the stories, and material including the threads and looms have evolved with time which brings us to modern day tapestry. There are several modern tapestry artists who express themselves using the same techniques that were realized centuries ago. Two of our favorite tapestry artists are Judit Just and Sarah Swett. While Judit creates abstract art and accessories with tapestry, Sarah Swett tapestries include woven scraps of paper in which she weaves part of a novel she wrote. 

Judit Just

Sarah Swett


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