Aubusson is famous the world over though not for its picturesque town with winding narrow streets, lovely architecture, pavement cafés and quirky shops or the glorious countryside that surrounds it. Aubusson is known for its tapestries and carpets, for this is where a remarkable industry has operated for six centuries.
History of Aubusson Tapestry
It is thought that tapestry production emerged here in Aubusson around 600 years ago; many historians date it to 1457. Today that heritage is celebrated in the Aubusson Tapestry Museum where you’ll discover an incredible collection of old and new tapestries.
One of the oldest tapestries on show dates back, it is thought, to the end of the 15th Century. Experts say that as it depicts plants from the newly discovered America, it must be post 1492, but the colours and style are those of the late 1400s, early 1500s.
The river Creuse that runs through the town was by then already supporting manufacturing including linen and mills lined the river so it made sense to start a tapestry industry there too. Also, the acidic quality of the water was perfect for degreasing the wool that was used to make tapestries.
Tapestries were only for the rich, royalty, aristocrats, Bishops and the like. Tapestries were hung on walls and warmed up the palaces and manor houses of the wealthy and added colour. They were status symbols and designed to impress with their depictions of grand houses, knightly themes and mythical beasts. It was a hard physical job to do, pushing with arms and legs for 12 hours a day 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. Working in the tapestry industry was though, considered a good job.
The French Revolution brought huge changes for Aubusson’s weavers, since these objects of the rich were of course frowned upon. Then, mechanisation arrived and the industry no longer needed thousands of manual weavers.
The biggest tapestry in the world
Aubusson continued to make tapestries and indeed the biggest tapestry in the world was created there in 1960s. Commissioned to commemorate the bombing of Coventry Cathedral it measures an astonishing 263 m² – roughly the size of a tennis court. It weighs more than a ton and is the biggest tapestry to have been made in one piece, woven on a loom made of two enormous tree trunks. It took four years to make, features around 900 colours, roughly 144 stitches per square inch and was woven by 13 weavers at Pinton Frères at Felletin, near Aubusson.
It carries a 500 year guarantee against fading and moths!
There are weavers working in Aubusson to this day but, it’s still a rich man’s product, costing around Euros 2000 – 3000 per m² to commission a tapestry.
In 1981 a museum was founded in Aubusson to acquire tapestries and they now have more than 300 tapestries and 15000 weavers’ cards – the largest collection in the world. Looking at the collection you can clearly see French values mirrored in tapestries throughout history, the detail is astonishing. The more you look the more you come to understand how it is that it took at least ten years to become a master weaver and learn to pick colours, blend wool with silk, work by candle light, weavers fingers deftly threading.
The tapestries depict scenes of their day, mysteries, legends and life in France through colour, style and the images. There are some tapestries on display that are even quite cheeky! A tapestry that seems to show a rural party enjoying a seesaw (baloncaire) was apparently quite risqué, designed to allow viewers to look up the skirts of the ladies! Another shows what looks like a game of ‘blind man’s bluff’ à la 18th Century – an adults game designed to allow contact a sort of very early “what the butler saw”.
There are photos by the wonderful Robert Doisneau taken in the middle of the 20th Century, shelves full of coloured silks and wools, looms, tapestries being woven on site, ancient tapestries and new.
Take time to visit the pretty town and listen to the river as it flows on its way now as it did in the heady heyday of Aubusson tapestry making.