The Unicorn in Captivity is one of the tapestries many people think of when they think of tapestry. Created in the Netherlands around the turn of the 16th century, it is on permanent display at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. The Bayeux tapestry dating from the 11th century is another celebrated European work. It tells the story of the Norman conquest. Every continent has examples of both contemporary and ancient tapestry weaving traditions. Weavers use yarns of wool, silk, cotton or linen to create many types of the thick fabric paintings.
The oldest known tapestries were created by the Egyptians. Textile historian, D.T. Jenkins, in "The Cambridge History of Western Textiles," writes that three fragments of tapestry dating from around 1400 BC were found in the tomb of the pharoh Thutmose IV. Examples of ancient tapestries can be seen in Navajo blankets as well as wall hangings from medieval Europe. The ancient Chinese wove silk in an intricate style they called k'o-sssu. The pre-Columbian Incas created tapestry tunics.
Kilim carpets, though an ancient art, are still created in the Middle East today, and are a form of tapestry. The art form of tapestry has experienced a number of revivals throughout history. During the 20th century, tapestries were created in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus school. A famous contemporary tapestry is the Quaker tapestry -- made by a collective effort of 4000 people, it depicts the history of the Quaker faith. Today's tapestry weavers work on hand looms and on mechanized equipment.
Most types of tapestry are hand woven. Looms and yarns change with location and time, but the process of hand weaving has been a constant in most forms of the art. Wherever tapestry is created, the process includes working weft yarns -- discontinuous threads -- through warp yarns that are stretched on the loom. Through this method, the warp threads are invisible in the end result. It is the weft threads masterfully woven that create the picture. On the warp yarns a drawing is placed, and weft yarns are woven into the area to fill in the color to the drawing.
Tapestry was revolutionized in 1801 when Joseph-Marie Jacquard took tapestry weaving out of the hands of weavers. He developed a loom that used a system of punch cards and hooks. The California fine arts studio, Magnolia Editions, in their paper, "Two Thousand Years of Tapastery," explains that the cards had rectangular holes punched in them. Hooks and needles guided the yarn through the holes and through the warp yarns. Using this loom, intricate patterns could be created quickly. A debate ensued about whether or not this mechanized process was really weaving. Nevertheless, it led to today's computer-generated looms that some artists use.