Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art

April 2–August 4, 2013

Tapestry Technique and Materials in Islamic Culture

Text and fiber microscopy by Florica Zaharia
Conservator in Charge, Department of Textile Conservation

Tapestry was the first type of weaving that allowed for the execution of multiple motifs by an interchange of colors in the weft direction. The techniques used to join the wefts and delimit motifs are slit-tapestry, dovetailing, and hatching, as well as single and double interlocking. Tapestry weaving reached its apogee in western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when monumental wall hangings competed for prominence with paintings and frescos.

In the Islamic world, the tapestry method was used to weave fine carpets, hangings, and costumes; particularly favored were dovetailing, double interlocking, and slit-tapestry techniques (figs. 1, 3, 4). While hatching was crucial to the depiction of light and shadow in the illusionistic imagery of European tapestries, the stylized and geometric patterns of Islamic examples were achieved through color gradations. Additionally, in contrast to the more common plain-weave technique, a unique twill double-interlocking weave flourished in India and was used to create Kashmiri shawls and saris (fig. 2).

The materials used in Islamic tapestries, including silk, fine wool, cotton, and metal thread wound around a silk core (figs. 5–8), were exceptionally fine, allowing for the creation of the most intricate and delicate tapestries known today. Examples of all these techniques and materials appear in the exhibition galleries.

Fig. 1a, b. Plain weave, double- interlocking, front (left) and back (right). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Fig. 2a, b. Plain weave, dovetailing, front (left) and back (right). Photographs by Florica Zaharia 

Fig. 3a, b. Plain weave, slit, front (left) and back (right). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Fig. 4 a, b. Twill weave, double-interlocking, front (left) and back (right). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Left: Fig. 5. Silk fiber, longitudinal view (400x); Right: Fig. 6. Fine wool fiber, longitudinal view (400x). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Left: Fig. 7. Cotton fiber, longitudinal view (400x). Photograph by Florica Zaharia; Right: Fig. 8. Metal-wrapped silk thread, longitudinal view (200x). Photograph by Janina Poskrobko