AUBUSSON - The International City of Tapestry and Woven Art
Aubusson is a beautiful small city in the Limousin region of France, which is famous throughout the world for its wonderful tapestries that have been made in its workshops since the 14th Century. During a day out from our course we visit this historic site and find ourselves transported back in time!
The origin of the Tapisserie d’Aubusson is unsure. Some people believe that weaving was introduced by the Saracens who settled in Aubusson in the 8th Century. Others, like me, think that the art of weaving was introduced in the 14th Century by the Flemish weavers who settled in Aubusson when Louis I of Bourbon, the city’s patron, married Marie of Hainaut. Whatever the origin of the Aubusson tapestry it is undeniable that it began to flourish in the 14th Century with the Flemish weavers’ knowledge.
Aubusson was a great place to set up weaving workshops because the acidity of the local Creuse’s waters efficiently de-greased the wool and fixed the dyes.
Traditional Aubusson tapestries are known for their iconic Verdures. This style, mainly based on plant decoration such as trees and foliage, remained highly popular over the centuries. Another favourite theme from the 16th Century was hunting scenes and many antique Aubusson tapestries show unicorns, wild boars, wolves and even lion hunting! Religious scenes were also very popular and numerous tapestries represented mythological scenes as well as scenes from the Old Testament.
Tapestries were only for the rich, royalty, aristocrats and Bishops. They were hung on walls and warmed up the palaces and manor houses of the wealthy and added colour to the room. It was a hard physical job to do, pushing with arms and legs for twelve hours a day by candlelight and it took at least ten years for a man to become a master weaver. Women were not involved in the business of weaving until the early 20th Century.
Aubusson in decline
The French Revolution brought huge changes for Aubusson’s weavers, since these objects of the rich were of course frowned upon. Many of the workshops were ransacked and although weaving was revived a few years later eventually mechanisation arrived, and the industry no longer needed the thousands of manual weavers it once employed.
There are weavers working in Aubusson to this day but it’s still a rich man’s product, costing around €2000 to €3300 per m² to commission a tapestry.
We visit four locations during our day trip and you will be transfixed by what you see! Our first stop is the Musée Départemental de la Tapisserie, where we will see the evolution of the city's tapestry industry since the 14th Century to the present day through an extensive display of works.
The Aubusson workshops worked in collaboration with renowned artists and painters whose drawings were used as templates for the creation of their unique tapestries, so secondly we visit the Atelier-Musée des Cartons de Tapisserie, which houses a huge collection of the tapestry cartoons used as guides by the weavers. These cartoons are large, upside-down artworks which were either oil on canvas, gouache on paper or even drawn as a 'weave by numbers' design and placed underneath the warp threads .
Next we stop for a quick crêpe and liquid refreshment at a local café situated on the main cobbled street before visiting the Maison du Tapissier. Here we are plunged into tapestry-making as we watch weavers at work on horizontal looms in this 16th Century tapestry merchant’s house. We will stroll hrough time in the painter’s workshop, the weaver’s workshop and the tapestry seller’s office. The atmosphere in the different rooms and all the colours of the different wools used in the historical and modern tapestries on display will lead you into the magical world of this ancestral art.
The last stop of the day is for me the best stop! Manufacture St Jean was once a large Royal Factory called The House of Hamot that employed more than 600 weavers making both tapestries and rugs from the mid 19th Century until 1914. After the 1st World War the number of employees dropped to 100 and now only 10 work there.
It is like being in a time warp; huge rooms of dyed wools stacked floor to ceiling and horizontal looms made from massive tree trunks.
We are shown around and given demonstrations from a lady who now restores antique tapestries there. Her skill at repairing, what seems to me, unsalvageable tapestries is astounding! Here there was also an amazing display of contemporary tapestries housed in three exhibition rooms.