The Bayeux Tapestry

Feb 13th

The Bayeux Tapestry


We’ve just come back from a flying visit to Normandy organised by Number Two Son. A visit to the Bayeux Tapestry was a must!

Like the Mona Lisa, the Bayeux Tapestry is a French icon which we think we know so well and yet surprises us when seen for real. While La Jaconde may underwhelm by its diminutiveness, the cartoon of the conquest of England by Guillaume le Conquérant delights by its unexpected 3D quality. The photographs by which we think we know the tapestry render it flat. Another shock/surprise: those familiar photographs have clearly been selected to be family-friendly ie the lewd images have been censored!

The follow-on exhibition is a must for craft enthusiasts. Lesson one is that the Bayeux Tapestry is a misnomer. It is in fact wool embroidery on linen.

We learn that eleventh century embroidery wool was dyed as a fleece and then spun by hand into threads of variable thicknesses depending on whether it was to be used for stem or satin stitch. Three vegetable dyes were used. Dyers’ woad is from the brassicae family and used for blues. Dyers’ madder is from the rubaceae family and red pigment is obtained from its roots. Dyers’ weld is from the resedaceae family and produces a yellow dye. By combining the dyes and by successively soaking and air-drying the wool, the requisite ten colours and shades (not eight as often cited) are obtained:

  • Pink/orange red (madder)
  • Browny/purplish red (madder)
  • Mustard yellow (weld)
  • Beige (weld and woad)
  • Blue black (woad)
  • Dark blue (woad)
  • Mid blue (woad)
  • Dark green (weld and woad)
  • Mid green (woad)
  • Pale green (woad)

Interestingly, the original colours have changed little, unlike the colours of those used in restoration. The nineteenth century colours in particular have become garish.

Four stitches are used:

  • Stem stitch
  • Chain stitch
  • Split stitch (using two threads)
  • A satin stitch known as Bayeux stitch, used for filling in large areas of colour. (Large satin stitches are held in place by frets (barettes), with 3-4mm between frets, placed where two areas of satin stitch intersect. In turn, small picot stitches hold the frets in place. Changing colour every other line, they repeat every 3-5mm.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of the Bayeux Tapestry!

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