My interest in the Bayeux Tapestry began in 1963 when I took classes in crewel embroidery at a nearby summer school. The stitches in the Bayeux were ones that I was using in my first crewel piece and thus began my interest in this ancient piece of embroidery—mistakenly called a tapestry. I learned the history of this piece and the story it was still telling of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 through books and the wonderful embroidered depictions of the characters, the horses, and all the rest. Dr. Bard McNulty, one of the published historians of the Bayeux and a professor of medieval history, is my neighbor and friend. He shared with me the “other” stories in the borders of the tapestry which added yet another dimension to this fierce tale. As the years went by my embroidery interests enlarged to include blackwork, needlepoint, pulled thread and a host of other needle works. Through the Embroiderer’s Guild of America, I obtained my teacher’s certificate in crewel embroidery and needlepoint. Teaching was natural to me as that had been my vocation before marriage and children. Thus began a very long career of teaching the fine art of crewel and needlepoint and then progressing to spinning, natural dyeing, and weaving.
It was in the early 60’s when I took my first lesson in spinning with Margareta Ohberg, a Swedish weaver who with her family, had immigrated to the United States in the 20’s and lived on a farm nearby where she had a houseful of looms. At the time she was teaching a weaving class in the summer at Willimantic Teacher’s College and I was fortunate to take one of the last classes she taught. Thus began my second textile career and one that I continue to this day. My weaving interests took me to the wonderful CT Weaver’s guild where I learned to hone my gifts of teaching, lecturing and also of research into historical American textiles, which included making dyes from natural materials.
In a few years I began doing research on the Shaker textiles that I came across at the Shaker Villages in the northeastern states. In the late summer of 1981 I was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum in NY to do the research and weaving for reproduction Shaker textiles for their permanent Shaker room, which was to open in the fall of 1981. That was a very busy four months of research and weaving to produce two linen towels, one wool bed cover and one linen pillow case. After doing all of the research for this project, I felt something more should be done with my research, so I began giving three day weaving workshops to interested guilds in the northeast. The idea being that each student would produce a reproduction Shaker towel after the workshop with the information I would supply from my research and this finished towel would stay in my hands for one year—to be shared with other guilds. After one year the towel would be given to a Shaker Village for use in the village—not to be sold. Of course each weaver wove several towels on one warp so she would also have one or two to share with her family. With this collection of towels, I could share them with more weaving guilds and so the idea blossomed into a 25 year career and over 200 reproduction towels given to Shaker museums in this country. Eventually Shaker rug workshops were added to this endeavor. My book entitled Shaker Textiles for the 21st Century was published in 2005.
In 1985 I was asked by Dr. Bard McNulty of Bayeux fame as a researcher and author, if I would join him and another professor, David Bernstein a Medieval historian and author at Sarah Lawrence College, to present a trilogy on the Bayeux Tapestry. Dr. NcNulty would talk about the fascinating borders and how they interact with the whole. Professor Bernstein would present the history of the Bayeux. I would present the physical aspects of this piece—the linen background, the wool thread, the stitches, the natural dyes used, and the possibilities of where it was made and to embroider a partial scene. This would be Scene #32—Harold on the Throne. Half of the scene I embroidered useing threads dyed full strength as they might have appeared 2000 years ago and the other half are the faded colors as seen today. I had help with the selection of these 20th century faded colors. Dr. McNulty, on one of his trips to Bayeux, took some of my dyed yarns to compare with those in the tapestry. He also obtained Scene #32 printed on linen in Bayeux for me to embroider with my own dyed threads, as much as I could in the next 6 months. Upon his return, I began my dying by referring to these colors for the faded look and then going full strength for how they might have looked 2000 years ago. The presentation at Trinity College in Hartford, CT took place in the fall of 1986 before an audience of Bayeux scholars. My role included the following aids: a drop spindle, a spinning wheel, dyed yarns, Scene #32 , and a small castle loom along with slides (predigital) to illustrate the actual textile implements which would have been used in 11th century textile production.
I kept a notebook of the time spent each session working on the embroidery. By the fall of 1986 I had completed half of this scene and knew my “clocked time” for embroidering this part. I had also kept a record of all of the dyeing, research on the linen fabric of 1066, the type of sheep whose wool was probably used for the threads, and the amount of spinning required. This was not guesswork. My bibliography is 4 pages and refers to articles about this period of history and their textiles. I have not added footnotes in this article. Information about my bibliography may be seen at the end of the presentation.
To call this embroidery a “tapestry” is a misnomer. The word tapestry refers to a woven cloth such as aubusson, tapis and gobelin—to mention a few. True tapestry is defined by the structure of the cloth. In a strict sense, the word “tapestry” should be used to describe a handwoven cloth with a ribbed surface into which a design is woven so that the design forms an integral part of the material. This cloth may be woven on a high warp loom or a low warp loom. The colors used in the design are wrapped on small bobbins which are finger manipulated. This is not a selvage to selvage weaving technique as is used for weaving yardage. The Lady with the Unicorn at the Cluny Museum in Paris is one of the most famous tapestries in the world. It was produced in the 15th century. This is one scene from this tapestry.
During the Middle Ages, these mostly wool tapestries were used to decorate castle walls, town halls, churches and the like. These pieces of art were protected by the church where nobles would deposit them for safe keeping before going off to battle. During the 12th century, Arras, France became a well-known tapestry center as did various monastic houses in France e.g. Poiters.
The earliest known French/Belgium tapestries are from the 12th century. Many tapestries tell a story, sometimes a fantasy, a fox hunt, etc. When the Bayeux was created, tapestries were not being made in France or northern Europe. How the Bayeux came to be called a tapestry is a mystery. One possibility might be that the Bayeux tells a story which was the format of many tapestries. Hung in a church where the people—many of whom were illiterate—could “read” the story of the battle of Hastings or hung in a Baronial Hall ( as has been suggested by a renowned Bayeux expert) a visitor might also “read” the story of the battle of Hastings.
Embroidery is the art of producing patterns on textiles or leather in threads of wool, linen, silk, or other materials by means of a needle and thread. One of the most famous and oldest embroideries in the world is the Bayeux Tapestry. This design was embroidered in the 11th century on linen using a tightly twisted wool yarn for the stitches. It tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when Harold of England met William of Normandy on English soil to fight for the English crown.
The part of the linen cloth which is visible is 231′ long and 20″ wide (70 m x 50 m) with 72 scenes. There is evidence there were a few more scenes which would probably have shown the crowning of William as King of England. There are 8 pieces of linen cloth which are sewn together at 7 joins:
The longest piece is 14 1/2″. The others vary in length. The joins are cleverly hidden i.e. along a horse’s leg or a man’s back. Some of the joins have been reinforced at a later date–i.e. Plate 47. The part of the join in the lower border is very neatly sewn with almost invisible stitches. The part above this has been carelessly reinforced with visible straight stitches. The join at Plate 39 is done very neatly and does not appear to have been reinforced. I would have to examine the actual cloth to make a better judgment on these joins. The actual woven width of the cloth is probably 22″-24″ as that would have been the standard width of linen woven on a 24″ treadle loom. (More about this later). There are many places in the Bayeux where a bias tape can be seen along the bottom and top edge where the cloth has been reinforced at a later date.
During the Dark Ages 500-1000 AD there lived women and men—particularly in the convents and monasteries —who loved knowledge and art and had a great admiration for preserving ancient treasures. The monks of Saxon, England during the 7th and 8th centuries produced incredibly beautiful and intricate manuscripts with beautiful painted illuminations—all hand drawn. They were not always trying to create a convincing likeness, but wanted to convey to their sisters/brothers, and lay people the message of the sacred story or a picture telling a history story with wonderful liveliness. Perhaps these illuminations provided the inspiration for the design of the Bayeux Tapestry. In looking at this piece of art, there is a wonderful concentration to details of what seemed important and a liveliness in the way the stitches and the colors interpret the action.
Among the nuns and monks, were well known artists who were often commissioned by the nobles to design a cartoon for the embellishment of embroidery stitches by a nobleman’s Lady. One such monk was St Dunston, archbishop of Canterbury (924-988). Perhaps one of his students made the designs for the Bayeux. The design, called a cartoon, would be drawn on the cloth in several ways. One way would be to draw a design on stiff paper, prick these lines every few inches with a needle or an awl. The holes would be smoothed with a fine sandpaper and the paper secured to a linen cloth with pins. A chalk powder would be sprinkled over the surface and would penetrate the holes. This is called “pouncing”. Finally the chalk lines would be reinforced with a fine brush and ink. At this point it is ready for attaching to a frame.
This linen design would be stretched on a horizontal or vertical frame. A 14 1/2’ piece (the longest one in the tapestry) when stretched on a horizontal frame might accommodate 8 embroiderers with four on each side of the frame. The modern counterpart to this would be a quilt frame which can accommodate as many as 6 or more quilters at the same time. If two frames were set up, more needle workers could be accommodated. If eight people were to work four hours a day, five days a week, the group would work 160 hours each week. By my calculations, it takes 150 hours to stitch one scene. I was able to arrive at this figure by keeping track of my stitching time. In 75 hours I was able to complete 1/2 of a scene. There are 75 scenes plus a possibility of two missing ones. The total stitching time would be about 11,550 hours or 14-16 months. In addition to the stitching time, there would have been the work of designing, spinning, weaving and dyeing. I believe the weaving of the linen cloth would have been done by professional weavers or in a convent/monastery or purchased at a cloth fair. The spinning and dyeing were aspects of everyday life for a medieval working woman. The design was probably accomplished by a very competent artist.
During the early middle ages, textile production was often centered in the convents or monasteries where they were carried out under the protection of the church. Perhaps it is these nuns/monks who first regulated the dimensions of woven cloth. Linen cloth was used as a rate of exchange. Much linen was woven in Normandy and Brittany. This woven cloth was bartered at medieval fairs which became a popular undertaking during Charlemagne’s rule in the 9th century.
One of the earliest recorded fairs was held at the Abbey of St Denis in France in the 7th century. This fair would open on the 9th of October and last for four weeks. The location was on the road east of Paris which was a main traffic route between the east and the west. Merchants came from all over Europe to bring and purchase wares. Among the items would be linen (the name of the cloth woven from flax), hemp, woad (a dye plane) and many other items. This fair became known as the Champagne Fair and drew large numbers of merchants.
The first fairs were devoted to the sale of cloth and later, the sale of leather and other goods. These fairs stimulated local cloth production. Weaving towns grew up around the cloth fairs. In the 11th century, cloth weaving flourished in Arras, France which is northeast of the location of Troyes. By the 12th century, five large fairs were established in France—Lagney, Provins, St Martins, Troyes and Bar-Sur-Aube with a fixed rotation from January to October with cloth as a medium of exchange. It would have been possible to purchase the Bayeux linen from any of a number of the Champagne or Normandy Fairs. This cloth would have been standardized as to width and length as it was being used as a medium of exchange.
Previous to the 11th century, weaving in northern Europe was women’s work and very laborious work. The warp weighted loom (vertical loom) which they worked on had a warp which was upright between two cloth bars. The weaver must stand up with a long beater which was used to beat the weft threads in an upwards motion—working against gravity. This took a lot of strength and skill. In addition a spinner–usually a younger women in the family–would produce the thread on a drop spindle. These spindles came in all shapes and sizes and are still in use today in many less developed countries or in specialized cultures.
On the right is a picture of a young woman with her left hand holding the thread to wrap on the spindle and her right hand making adjustments on the amount of wool (or other material) from the rolag which will feed onto the rotating spindle. In the 15th century the spinning wheel was invented and this process was done faster but not necessarily making a finer twisted thread. If one looks at the fine linen materials made for the mummies of Egypt, one can see how evenly and firmly spun are these threads—from a drop spindle.
In this picture one can see a vertical loom. The weaving is done by inserting a shuttle with yarn wrapped on it and then using a beater to push the threads upwards–very difficult. These looms were usually 45″ wide which would be large enough for rugs, blankets and yardage. There are weights at the bottom-sometimes rocks of an even weight-which give tension to the warp threads. The length of the warps on these looms would be approximately 4′-5′ (120 cm -150cm). These looms were in use in northern Europe. Today a few are still being used for demonstrations in mostly Scandinavian countries.
The horizontal (treadle) loom was introduced in northern Europe-probably from the Mediterranean area–around 1050-70. Weavers could have longer warps, more design opportunities, and sit down while weaving . This is supported by the writing of Grace M. Crawford who in reading the writings of Rashi (1040-1105– a Jewish writer and philosopher born in Troyes, France) mentions in his writings that men weave with their feet while women have a cane (beater) which moves up and down. Another recording mentions that the horizontal (treadle) loom was introduced into northern Europe in the 10th century by Count Baldwin of Flanders. The warp and weft were still spun on a drop spindle which women did. Men became the weavers as they saw the possibility of producing cloth faster, with less effort and more profitable.
Weaving centers were located around Normandy and the cloth fairs of Champagne. Here there would be opportunity to purchase long lengths of linen material. It is likely that the linen cloth of the Bayeux was purchased at such a fair or woven in England on a treadle loom. It is also possible that the width of this cloth was 24″ which would have been a standard width for a floor loom.
The Bayeux has 7 different lengths that are sewn together to make the 231′ full length. The longest of these lengths is 14 1/2′, which would be done on a treadle loom. A treadle (horizontal) loom has a cloth beam in the front and a warp beam in the back Here the warp can be rolled for a distance of 20 yds (apprx. 1800 m) or more. I believe the Bayeux cloth may be one of a very few museum examples of a cloth woven on the treadle loom in 12th century northern Europe.
Here is a summary of these lengths— seven pieces of linen as follows:
|Plate #’s 15 and 30||13.5 m||44.5′||14.5 yds|
|Plate #’s 39 and 47||6.5 m||21.75′||7 yds|
|Plate #’s 53 amd 60||8.35 m||27.52′||9 yds|
|Plate #68||5.75 m||17.5′||6 yds|
Note: The “plate” refers to the scenes in the Bayeux. It is believed that #68 has some panels missing.
Cloth was used as a medium of exchange at the middle age fairs. The width of cloth was established in England as an “ell”-the length from the wrist to the opposite shoulder-about 45″. This width was often the width of the warp weighted loom and today it is a standard width for many horizontal (treadle) looms . However the width of the horizontal loom varies from 24″ to 45″ or 60″-the comfortable length a man’s arm could reach with the weft shuttle. It would be interesting to see the reverse side of the Bayeux cloth. How wide is it? Does it have selvage edges. If not-are the edges cut from a wider cloth? In answering these questions, the original width of the cloth can be determined. If it was woven on a 24″ horizontal loom, there would be just a few inches on the reverse side to mount it on a frame-very economical.
This is a contemporary horizontal (treadle) loom with eight shafts and 10 foot treadles. It is 36″ wide. Standard floor looms today are 24″, 36″ 45″ and 60″. These widths are very similar to those of the early treadle looms.
Flax is the plant from which linen is processed. In Medieval Europe, linen and wool were the most important raw materials for textiles. As early as 800, Emperor Charlemagne decreed that every peasant shall be required to plant a plot of flax. The growth of flax is particularly well suited to the area of present day Belgium. It is believed that flax has been cultivated there since the time of the Romans who may have introduced flax to northern Europe. The processing of flax takes team work with women, children and men doing the various steps to remove the outside stem material and expose the inner, silky fiber for spinning. This is a very arduous process.
In 1977 a group of Glastonbury weavers decided to plant a small plot of flax seed that we purchased from a fellow weaver in Maine. We used a plot of land in South Glastonbury which a local company loaned to us for this project. One member of the group kept a journal of our endeavor. Here are some of the excerpts.
- We sowed the seeds in late May and by June 29 the flax was 10” high and we weeded.
- In mid August we pulled the flax (pulling maintains the maximum length of the plant stalk) and hung it on the existing wires above the field to dry.
- September 5 we rippled the flax using 19th century equipment from our local Historical Society. We wrapped the flax in bundles in tent cloth (open weave canvas) and placed in Roaring Brook, which ran through a member’s property. The cloth was weighted with rocks. This process is called retting.
- On Sept. 12 we pulled the bundles up on the bank to get rid of the excess water before laying the flax in a field. We had left the flax too long in this cold water and much of it was rotted.
- We persevered and unwrapped the bundles and spread the flax on the grass to dry. We threw out about half of the rotted flax.
The following spring we held a demonstration on the lawn at the Historical Society’s 19th century house using their 19th century equipment to do the processing.
First there was the flax brake—-a back breaking job as we pounded the flax to separate the line fiber from the outside bark.
The flax was scutched with a board and wooden knife to remove more of the bark.
The fibers were drawn through a hackle to straighten the fibers and remove the short pieces that are called tow linen.
The long fibers were wrapped onto a distaff. This is called “dressing the distaff”. If the spinning was done on the drop spindle, a woman would tuck this distaff in her waist band or hold it and from there would pull out fibers to spin on the drop spindle.
Flax in the 11th century was spun into a linen thread on a drop spindle. A very fine singles thread was spun in this way. The linen warp of the Bayeux is probably a singles warp and weft. This can only be determined by a close examination of the cloth. A cloth with 50-57 ends per inch (epi) would be considered a medium fine cloth today.
Around the 14th century the spinning wheel reached northern Europe. This was the Great Wheel which does not have a treadle. That invention came later. Now it was quicker and easier to spin threads but not very portable.
We spun our flax on a castle spinning wheel and wove a curtain using our precious handspun linen for the weft and purchased linen warp material. Today these curtains may be seen at the Glastonbury Historical Society.
Linen will withstand the ravages of time, moisture and pressure better than any other natural fiber. The part of the cloth which has deteriorated is the last panels. Since the tapestry was once rolled on a wooden drum, the part which came into contact with the drum would have been “eaten” by the chemicals in the wood. It is a miracle that this cloth has survived as well as it has with all of the mishandling over the years. There has been some repair work with mending of holes, restitching threads and adding a backing. The restitched threads are dyed with aniline dyes which was done around 1842. These colors are very stark–not the soft color of the natural dyes.
My hope in sharing this detailed knowledge of the linen cloth and looms is for a better appreciation for how this cloth was made in the 11th century.