In the typical medieval castle, it was not uncommon for the walls to be roughhewn timber or perhaps exposed stone. It was virtually unknown for the interiors to be painted or finished. However in an effort to decorate the interiors of the castles and other buildings, tapestries were hung as decorations to bring some style and color to an otherwise bland environment. In addition to providing decoration, tapestries also were hung around beds, to partition rooms or to provide warmth as castles had a tendency to be cold, damp and drafty.
Initially, the church saw the benefit of depicting stories from the scripture in the tapestries and began producing them in an effort to bring the stories of the bible to the common man. However, tapestries became the fancy of the wealthy and soon became a status symbol as the art form spread though Europe. Tapestries guilds were formed and the art became a recognized industry form. At the peak of production, it is estimated that more than 15,000 artisans worked in the creation of tapestries. As the weaving of tapestries was a skilled profession, fathers passed their skills and businesses on to their sons as apprentices. It would take 12 years for an apprentice to become a master of the tapestry process. Women were, by rules of the guilds, prohibited from participating in the weaving process with the exception of the spinning yarn.
New technology, specifically, newer looms for weaving, allowed for larger, more ornate tapestries to be made from the 14th century on though some of the weaving and detail work was still done by hand. Most of the secular medieval tapestries were created in luxury workshops where they were done for the nobility. Frequently, tapestries were made to commemorate significant events, battles or other important occurrences. As well, biblical and mythological stories were often portrayed. As a result of the commemoration of historical and other significant events, it is not uncommon for tapestries to be consulted when researching the history of specific events, regions or historical figures.
In addition to being a skilled weaver, the tapestry artisans had to be experts in the science of dying. In medieval times, there were a limited number of colors available for dying – not more than 20. So the artists had to be creative. The craftsmen would also use gold and silver thread to enhance the scenes they were creating. Using sketches and their creativity, the craftsmen would slowly work their art giving their own interpretation to their work. It was not uncommon for it to take two months for a square foot of tapestry to be completed. For larger works, teams would work on individual sections that would later be joined together.
It is believed that tapestries worked themselves to Europe through Spain perhaps originating with the Moors. The European weavers took a textile art form that was already a thing of beauty and expanded it to the art form that many study today.