Where Age-Old Techniques Produce Timeless Beauty.
Her name was Camino, meaning “path”, and she was our charming tour guide at the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. Her demeanor was professional, but her appreciation for what she was showing and telling us was clear: the function, product and history of an 18th century factory commissioned by and for Spanish royalty.
Throughout our tour we had the privilege of viewing and touching original masterpieces in progress and ready for sale: tapestries, carpets and coats of arms.
Before taking us into the workshop, Camino showed us how patterns are drawn on paper, and used as templates by the weavers as they fashion stunning tapestries.
The factory’s most famous employee was the Spanish master painter, Francisco Goya, He was in his 20’s when he began his 20-year stint as a designer. Many templates used today, are based on his oil on canvas paintings, which were copied on to paper by one of his apprentices. And that was how paintings such as The Pottery Salesman, and the Parasol were reproduced in silk thread. Some of Goya’s original templates can be seen in the Prado.
Road to Madrid
The Royal Tapestry Factory was established in 1720 by King Philip V of Spain, following the country’s loss of all its Belgian territories. This included Flanders, where the tapestry workshops had been prolific producers of finery for the enhancement of walls and floors of Spain’s numerous palaces and fine houses.
Originally built on Santa Barbara Square, the factory was relocated to its current spot, approximately 100 years later. The building and its function are of historical interest. And, in 2006, was designated a Bien de Interés Cultural
Cutting the Rug, Madrid Style
When Camino ushered us into the main workshop, the weavers were somewhat taken aback by Otto’s presence. Although Spain is an accommodating country when it comes to service dogs, he was the first visitor ever to enter the workshop on four legs. But surprise quickly turned to delight, as they were all dog lovers.
The workshop was a surprise to me with its lack of technology. Looms, tools and talent were utilized to fashion treasures as they were made since the 17th century. Some of the looms dated back more than 200 years.
Camino showed us how100 per cent wool strands are combined to achieve the desired thickness, then knotted around the threads comprising the warp on the loom. These vertical threads are made of cotton or linen, which give the finished carpet strength.
Once a row has been completed, it is pushed down against the previous row. Each row has a strand of jute woven through the warp before the next row of knotted wool is pushed down. The ends are cut off with square-nose scissors.
Although the wool comes from Toledo, the dying is done at the factory. Another surprise was that synthetic dyes are used rather than natural solutions, because they are more durable and less likely to fade. Camino told us that the use of natural dyes stopped in the first quarter of the 20th century.
It takes 4,000 knots a day to make one square meter of carpet a week, which sells for €1,200. Of course, these carpets are luxury products, and out of reach for most of us. Even at this price, the factory often loses money. “We don’t do it for the money,” Camino explained. “We do it for other reasons.”
The Wondrous Woven Tapestries
Moving on to the tapestries, we found both similarities and differences in the weaving techniques and materials. The tapestries are made from silk threads, and the warp is made of two strands of a finer cotton or linen than the carpets.
Unlike the carpets, which are knotted, tapestries are woven. Also, when knotting carpet, the weaver faces the front of the piece. When tapestry is being woven, the weaver is behind the loom, and uses a mirror in order to see the work as it progresses.
Graphite is used to copy the template on to the warp, and the weaver’s agile hands begin to work their magic.
A gadget known as a Lazy Kate is used to wind individual and blended colors on to spindles. It is the weaver. who decides which colors will be used to create the tapestry. “This is not a mechanical activity,” said Camino. “This is a creative, artistic one. You can have 100 identical templates, and each tapestry will be unique”.
Cut threads are left on the back of the completed tapestry for possible future restoration. It takes eight months to complete one square meter, which sells for €12,000.
But Wait, There’s More
We then saw how coats of arms are created. Some of the materials used include silk, velvet and gold tissue paper. The pieces are finished with silk cord.
The individual pieces are patterned using paper that is perforated in the desired shape, then sprinkled with talcum powder. When the paper is removed the outline of the pattern can be seen and cut out. A sailmakers needle with a hooked point is used to appliqué the cut out onto a backing.
The factory also restores carpets. In fact, any carpet, even if it is machine made can be repaired. Jute is threaded on to a large needle, and pulled through with pliers.
A Sad Truth
The factory has 40 employees, 25 of which are weavers. “Ten years ago,” recalled Camino, “there were hundreds. They want to do this, but it is not profitable.”
At the time of our visit, the workers hadn’t been paid in five months. With little support from the government since 2008, the future survival of the factory and the magnificent pieces created within its walls looks bleak.
The Royal Tapestry Factory tour takes a half hour, but what you will see, touch and learn will extend far beyond the time spent. The experience was especially precious to me, thanks to Camino’s attention to making sure I was able to interact with machinery, tools and fine works in progress. You can imagine my surprise when she told us I was the first person who was blind she had guided through the factory.
As fascinating as this working museum was in its own right, Camino’s presentation and personality gave true depth and meaning to all we witnessed..
A visit to the Royal Tapestry Factory will be the only opportunity you’ll have in Spain to observe craftsmen and women weaving tapestries and carpets using traditional tools and techniques to create genuine works of art. I strongly encourage you to take it.
If You Go
The Royal Tapestry Factory is located in central Madrid, in the vicinity of Atocha station. The nearest Metro station is Menéndez Pelayo.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 2 PM.
Guided tours are available in Spanish and English every 30 minutes. The last tour begins at 1:30 PM.
Admission: Adults, €4. Children 6-12, €3.
Royal Tapestry Factory
Calle Fuenterrabía 2
28014 Madrid (Madrid)
Phone: +34 914340550
Have you observed artisans at work? Did the experience give you a new appreciation of their craft? Let us know in the Comments.