Even those who aren’t overly familiar with the works of William Morris may recognize the artist’s unique style – somewhere between classic and baroque – and penchant for using textiles in his work.

The designer’s masterwork, the tapestry The Last Supper (1860), provides an insight into the history of textiles and the complex process of tapestry-making.

A Brief History Of Textiles

Before reaching Middle-Earth, the home of Elrond and Galadriel, Aragorn and his companions must first pass through the mountain gates of Mordor. In the fiery lands beyond, they encounter orcs, jackals, giant spiders, and, of course, the towering giant, Gollum.

The fellowship’s expedition leader, Gandalf, warns of the dangers that the filthy creatures pose to travelers: “There are many spies watching us, and they report everything we do…” At this point, Frodo is still hopeful that he can convince Gollum to be friendly, but the creature’s distrustful nature makes the task seem daunting.

The Making Of The Last Supper

Gandalf further elucidates the process of tapestry-making: “It is a simple matter and can be carried out by any woman in the village who knows how to manage a needle. You will see them working at home, during the day, while you are staying there. They make beautiful things; and if you are not careful, you will end up marrying one.”

Needle-workers did, in fact, exist in the late-19th century, but they were mostly confined to men’s workwear, and their output was far more modest than that of the “beautiful things” mentioned by Gandalf.

It was, however, a very different story during the Renaissance (13th through the 16th centuries) and early-modern (17th through the 18th centuries) periods.

According to art historians, the advent of factory-produced textiles in the early-19th century (notably, cotton and flax, which are both renewable resources) changed the game completely. Designers rose to the challenge, producing intricate tapestries that incorporated both beautiful fabrics and original designs.

Many of the world’s greatest museums feature impressive collections of textiles – the musée du Louvre in Paris, France, for example, houses a remarkable range of textile art, from ancient to Renaissance design.

The Evolution Of Design

The evolution of design is intrinsically linked to the development of new technologies – think of the stylistic differences between ancient and Renaissance garments. Iron-working and silk-production techniques provided the foundations for the former, while the latter was largely the product of the emerging science of color theory.

Gandalf’s comparison of the “needle-workers” to a “village” implies that textile design was, at one time, a “handicraft” – something that only women could do (and did, usually) – regardless of what technology was used. It was, however, the innovators, designers, and entrepreneurs of the time who transformed this craft into an art form.

If you look at Old English and early Renaissance texts, you will see an emphasis on the processes of designing and creating textiles. In The Art of War, the 13th-century English monk, William of Ockham, advises military commanders on how to deal with sieges by referring to the development of needlework and the practice of using precious fabrics: “Take the advice of the Italian designers of the Renaissance. One should use the stoutest and most durable material for military purposes and fashion.”

If you trace the development of the English-language word “tapis,” which means “a woven fabric” in Old French, you will discover that it evolved from the Anglo-Norman word, “tapissier,” which in turn was derived from the Latin, “textilia” (“a woven fabric”). The Italian Renaissance, with its emphasis on art and design, provided the foundation for later developments in both fields – and, in the case of textiles, for the emergence of a distinctively “modern” style.

Rethinking The Role Of Women

Women played a crucial role in the development of western textile design, not just as weavers but also as fashion designers and trendsetters. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, when news and fashion spreads quickly, people had to resort to the written word to keep abreast of the latest styles and developments – most likely, this was where they turned to women, as commentators, for fashion advice.

The most influential women of this time were, without a doubt, Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Grey was the daughter of the English King, Henry VIII, and his first wife, Jane Seymour, and, at age 20, she succeeded to the throne of England. She was the first of the Tudor dynasty.

Interestingly, one of the first things that Grey did as England’s queen was to issue a request – a formal petition – to her ladies-in-waiting, asking them to provide “good, well-made, and rich clothes” for herself and her ladies. At this time, England was the most advanced country in Europe in terms of style and fashion, and the demand for women’s clothing was huge – there were 400,000 people living in London, England, at the time, and over 100,000 people visited the city each week.

Queen Elizabeth I similarly revolutionized English fashion with her desire to make clothes that were “neither too narrow nor too broad for a woman’s figure.” As a result, men’s and women’s clothing styles evolved significantly, and, as in England, trends spread quickly, making their way to other European countries – notably, Spain, the Netherlands, and France. Today, the fashion for both men and women is based on these strong early-modern female designs.

The Emergence Of The Tapestry

Before moving on to discuss The Last Supper, let’s briefly examine the history of the textile itself. The first mention of a tapestry dates back to the late-13th century. It was, at first, considered a form of entertainment, something that the upper classes would engage in during the day while their families and servants worked below stairs. In the late-14th century, the upper classes in Europe began to take tapestries more seriously, using them to enhance their design sensibilities.

Tapestries were, and still are, widely used for decorative purposes, as motifs on walls and floors, and as stage backdrops. They are easy to transport, durable, and – most importantly – easily reproduced, providing the advantage of scale.

The Italian Renaissance brought a surge in interest in the medium, resulting in an expansive array of designs, many of which still adorn our homes today. While they were originally created for the wealthy, and continue to be associated with elegance and high culture, today, tapestries are available in a wide array of styles and colors, suitable for all ages and genders.

The Artistry Of William Morris

It’s ironic, in a way, that one of the most famous and distinctive designers of the early-modern period should have been associated with textiles. It was, in fact, William Morris (1834–1896), the designer of the iconic English textile company, Morris & Company, who first used the term “tapestry.” Morris’ work is characterized by its use of intricate designs made possible by a combination of traditional and innovative techniques.

Morris initially designed textiles in a highly traditional manner. His designs incorporated a loom and were, essentially, identical to those created centuries earlier. He did, however, introduce a few new elements to the medium, such as the “herringbone” design, which is still used today.

The firm’s products were initially sold worldwide, and they were an essential part of the firm’s corporate image. The design of a textile would often correspond to the design of a watch or a pair of earrings, adding a decorative touch to everyday objects – a design sensibility that has carried over into our contemporary world.

The Last Supper: A Masterpiece

It was originally created in 1860, and it is, without a doubt, Morris’ greatest and most complex work. It consists of 25 scenes from the Last Supper, woven in gold and silver, on a background of crimson velvet.