In days of yore, large tapestries decorated the castle walls and helped to ward off the winter chill. There was no central heat, if you recall.
Most of those early hand-woven tapestries never made it to modern times. Many disintegrated from the dampness and the stress of being nailed to stone. Those that survived are cherished by museums and other august institutions.
Such early tapestries were large, too large for today's homes. Even if they weren't, they'd cost a king's ransom. But machine weaving has reduced the art form to manageable size and affordable decor. A machine-made tapestry usually costs less than a framed print of similar size.
"While I wouldn't use tapestries in a chintz environment, they fit into many other types of rooms, including minimalist rooms to which they add texture and interest," says Rick Livingston, an interior designer in New York.
Those without access to a designer will find plenty of tapestries in home furnishings catalogs. The selections range from copies of museum pieces to fanciful reinterpretations.
One choice in the Past Times catalog from Boston is a copy of "Woodpecker," a famous tapestry now in the William Morris Gallery in London. Morris, a proponent of the Arts & Crafts movement, was a major force in the revival of tapestries in the late 19th century. The copy of the original measures 39 inches long by 19 inches wide and retails for about $200.
The Ross-Simons' Gift & Home Collection features five tapestries, including a wine-making scene in 16th century France, a copy of a Cezanne still-life and a contemporary design by Anne Merlier. A custom option in the holiday catalog offers one initial woven into a tapestry based on a 16th century design. The work, about 6 1/2 feet by 4 1/2 feet, starts at $1,300.
"Tapestries are a sophisticated alternative for those who like traditional design," says Mary Morris, vice president of merchandising for the mail-order company in Cranston, R.I. "We have been selling tapestries for about three years, and in that time prices have come down and styles have grown."
Tapestries at Neiman Marcus Direct in Dallas start at about $1,500. Jo Marie Lilly, advertising and creative services executive, says interest in large tapestries was renewed about five years ago with a trend toward larger homes and traditional decorating.
Some of these new tapestries are nearly 8 feet long. Others are unusually wide at 6 1/2 feet. "They go into the two-story entryways that are popular in new homes being built in many areas of the country," she says.
Most tapestries are smaller. A popular size at Ross-Simons is just more than 3-by-5 feet. The pastoral scene is about $180. "The size works well in a number of rooms--over the master bed, above a couch, or over a dining room sideboard," Morris says.
Both the Neiman Marcus and Ross-Simons catalogs show their tapestries on decorative rods with fancy finials and tassels. These 20th century additions enhance the decorative effect of tapestries originally hung flat against a wall.
While some textile artists continue the labor-intensive technique of weaving by hand, most tapestries sold at retail are machine-made. Many come from France, Belgium or Italy, which from the 14th century were centers for handmade tapestries.
The most popular designs are copies of originals now in museums and castles around the world, says Nancy Herman, founder and president of Tapestries Ltd., a wholesaler in High Point, N.C. Tapestries Ltd. imports about 300 European designs and sells them to mail-order outlets and home furnishings retailers. Retail prices range from about $100 to $4,000 for tapestries in cotton and rayon or wool and rayon blends.
Despite the new methods and materials, Herman says the tapestries can be reproduced with surprising accuracy, "even down to the fading that comes with aging."
* For more information, Past Times can be reached at (800) 621-6020; Ross-Simons at (800) 458-4545; and Neiman Marcus Direct at (800) 825-8000.