Triumph of De Wit
Hidden away in a 15th-century house in the heart of Mechelen is one of the world’s most important tapestry restorers, the Royal Manufacturers De Wit. Founded in 1889, the workshop today counts the Louvre, Prado and Metropolitan museums among its many clients.
Mechelen is home to one of the world’s foremost tapestry makers and restorers
De Wit has cleaned and restored famous wall tapestries in all of the top collections, including the Patrimonio Nacional of Spain, the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna and France’s public collections. Among its most prestigious projects was the conservation of “The Story of David and Bathsheba” for the National Museum of the Renaissance in Ecouen, probably the most important series woven after 1500 and conserved in France.
But De Wit makes tapestries, too, carrying on a centuries-old tradition in Flanders, and passing on the craft to new workers. Though there isn’t much call for new tapestries in the modern world, acquiring the skill makes it easier to carry out the conservation work, explains Ann Van Tuerenhout, my guide around the De Wit workshop.
I never doubted that weaving would be difficult, but watching one of the workers on the loom highlights just how tricky it is. For starters, the weaver is looking at the back of the tapestry, not the front where the beautiful image is being formed. For an experienced weaver, this is completely natural, explains Van Tuerenhout, and she (nowadays it is usually a she) can immediately tell from the reverse side if the weaving is progressing well.
An illustration of the image and numbers indicating particular colours to be used are placed underneath the warp (lengths of yarn held taut), and then the weft (lengths of yarn that are woven) is passed over and under before being pushed down with a fork-like instrument to keep the threads tight. The worker presses two pedals to control the warp and the weft.
Needless to say, this whole intricate procedure, which to me looked like the artistic equivalent of playing the harp, takes years of practice. The amount of time it takes to learn the craft is why De Wit is keen for prospective employees to see a job with them as something long term. Other requirements to become a tapestry weaver at De Wit are the ability to sew a button on properly, to work under stress and to be an absolute perfectionist. The work is, therefore, better suited to women, Van Tuerenhout says with a smile. That said, in the Middle Ages this craft was only done by men.
The work is also slow going, with an experienced weaver only able to cover approximately the area of one hand in a day. In earlier centuries, less work would have been done during the short, winter days because of the need to weave by daylight rather than candlelight.
The speed of work also depends on which part of the tapestry is being woven, with a face clearly taking longer than a neutral area. In the past, certain weavers would become renowned for, say, animals or flowers, similar to how paintings were created in big workshops.
Such fascinating titbits of information are sprinkled throughout public tours, which also provides a wonderful lesson in how to view a tapestry. The borders, colours and signatures, for example, are all features to look out for and that help date the piece.
Where that tapestry has been
In Flanders, the craft of tapestry essentially started in the mid-14th century when wall tapestries were a luxury item that the rich transported between their winter and summer residences. Tapestries were a symbol of wealth and also served as insulation for castle walls against both the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer.
This constant back and forth led to a design change, with plain borders being added by the end of the 15th century in order to protect the tapestries during their journeys. This design development is a key factor that helps experts determine the date of a tapestry, Van Tuerenhout notes. From the practical border, more elaborate borders developed in the 17th century, to which were added once again smaller plain borders to avoid damage. As of the 18th century, borders fell out of fashion as the tapestries were moved around much less.
Another dating feature for tapestries is the range of colours, with early works having a much more limited palette. A further hallmark is a signature, which started to be added in the 16th century. The signature might be in the form of a name or a coat of arms. For example, on one tapestry in the De Wit collection are the letters MRAUBUSSON, indicating the Manufactures Royales Aubusson.
Accompanying many tapestries was a parchment acting as proof of quality and including details such as who ordered the work, its price and where it was manufactured. All this information is like a treasure trove for archivists and experts.
Among its many resources, De Wit has a specialised library and a digital databank, with more than 14,000 tapestries inventoried, for iconographic and historical research. In addition to cleaning, restoring and making tapestries, De Wit also offers expert appraisal services and technical analyses of fibres, dyes and metal threads.
De Wit can also hang tapestries in private or public premises or in particularly dicult places, having, for instance, taken down and re-hung the largest tapestry in the world in the main entrance hall of the United Nations building in New York. It was appropriate: “Triumph of Peace” was woven by De Wit in 1952.
As I left the De Wit workshop, a former refuge of Tongerlo Abbey, and walked back across the cobbled path and past its garden of beautifully clipped shrubs, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for the days when making tapestries played a more important role than the present-day work of restoration.
Pictured: Royal Manufacturers De Wit works mostly on restorations of tapestries, shipped to them from across the world