Tapping into Belgium’s tapestry scene

Traditional Belgian handmade lace and tapestries shop | Photo by Vaidas Bucys via 123RF.
Traditional Belgian handmade lace and tapestries shop | Photo by Vaidas Bucys via 123RF.

Tapping into Belgium’s tapestry scene

by Jessica Zen
Stripes Europe

The tapestry scene in Belgium is entwined with a lengthy history that stretches far past European borders. Tapestries have been used worldwide for centuries. Egyptians used them as shrouds to bury their dead. Greeks and Romans used them as wall hangings in sacred temples; and the Chinese would use tapestries to decorate garments and wrap gifts. When Belgian weavers came into the picture, they used the tapestries to cover castle walls or in religious buildings. Today, the visual art form of tapestry weaving is still in existence. Learn about the fascinating history and then pick out one of these masterpieces for yourself! 

Tapestry history

Tapestries are incredibly intricate works of art with ornate details that were once used as status symbols. The exceptional quality and design of the tapestries made them quite expensive. A tapestry was an investment and a display of wealth for noblemen and rulers. They were often used in castles as insulation from the cold, damp air, or in religious buildings on special occasions. This form of insulation was particularly nice because of its portability. Anyone who owned a tapestry could simply roll it up and move it to another location. 

These magnificent creations are a form of textile art, traditionally woven on a loom. Weavers generally used wool, linen or cotton, but also included silk, gold and silver into more elaborate pieces. Brussels has been a center for tapestry art since the 14th century. During this time, famous reproductions of religious paintings were created. These reproductions were generally smaller than other tapestries because they mirrored the size of the painting they portrayed. By the 17th century, Belgium was the center of European tapestry productions. The main tapestry hubs were Flanders, Brussels and Bruges. 

Depictions in the tapestries vary, oftentimes influenced by the time period. Each century has a different style or focus. For example, the 15th century featured the mille fleurs theme, as well as biblical and mythological scenes. These Gothic tapestries were made by Flemish weavers. A famous example from this time period is “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over time the scenes on the tapestries became more complex. By the 16th century, hunting and games were featured, as well as battle scenes. Weavers also incorporated more colors and borders at this time. Other themes seen in these rich, colorful works of art are enchanted castles, forests, angels, flowers and even family crests. 

By the end of the 18th century, wallpaper replaced tapestries and plain fabrics could be mass-produced. The plain fabrics were easier to make, so the price of tapestries dropped, but intricate scenes remained very expensive. In the early 1800s, Joseph Marie Jacquard developed a new type of loom using “punched cards” to position the threads used while weaving. As the years passed, Jacquard looms became more and more sophisticated, allowing more flexibility for creating new tapestries.   

Where to find Belgian tapestries

The fine art of tapestry weaving is still going strong today. Belgium is a great place to procure a masterpiece of your own. These four locations are great places to shop for a treasure. 

Flanders Tapestries, Wielsbeke - This company has been producing Flemish wall hangings for the last 24 years but is located in a region that has been producing tapestries since the Middle Ages. Here you can have custom tapestries made, or purchase some of the local favorites. The entire manufacturing process is completed within Belgium at Flanders Tapestries.  

Mille Fleurs, Bruges - The name of this company means “a thousand flowers.” After 21 years of service, Mille Fleurs is still going strong. They use weaving mills in Belgium and throughout Europe. Here you’ll find items like wall tapestries, tapestry cushions, runners, brocade doilies, throws and plaids, bags and more. 

Belgian Treasures, Ghent - This treasure chest is full of tapestries that vary in size and price. Here you’ll also find Belgian cushions, lace, handbags, souvenirs and reproductions of glass and decorative weaponry. Walk out the door with a new tapestry or have it sent straight to your house. 

Lace Jewel, Bruges - This shop has been a family-owned business for four generations. Shop for anything from lace, tablecloth runners, and curtains to antique lace. Of course, they also have a large range of tapestries, cushions and bags, all made in Belgium. 

Many famous tapestries can be found in museums or private collections today. The craftsmanship and artistic style is something to be preserved and treasured. Some famous tapestries include “The Lady and the Unicorn,” “The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries” and “Apocalypse Tapestry.” Whether you want a tapestry for yourself or just want to admire the designs, Belgium is the perfect place to brush up on your history and take in the beauty presented in this magnificent visual art form!

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