Aubusson craftsmanship

Cartoons restoration


The restoration and the study of the old cartons is compulsory to the study of Tapestry production along the centuries.

A tapestry could not have been weaved without the intervention of a cartoon-painter, who drafted the sketch of the piece to be weaved. For a long time considered as mere tools, the painted cartoons take little by little their place in art history. The restoration of old sketches is a way of pushing the work of those specialized artists back to the forefront. The consideration of the tapestry cartoons into the collections is a key point of the production of knowledge regarding tapestry and its know-how. The interpretation phenomenon can be studied for example through the evolution of the work, from the artist’s sketch to the tapestry cartoon, and then to the weaved work.

The cartoon is placed under the warp threads to guide the weaver all along the weaving process, and endures degradations due to its repeated use: pin holes, doodles and weaving indications etc. The old cartoons have sometimes even been cut out to sample an element of the setting or characters, becoming stencils to draw these patterns down to new creations.

In a same way as for the paintings, the preservation and the restoration of old cartoons, often rediscovered at random in Creusois attics, needed the intervention of restoring experts, mostly graduates from art schools and experimented in the field of objects of collection.

Aubusson craftsmanship

The tapestry restoration


The tapestry is destined to last through time and this often needs the intervention of restoration or conservation experts. These stages of a tapestry’s life are without a doubt the less known. Yet, only they can guarantee the preservation of an ancient textile heritage and it is often advised to call out the restorers to take care of more recent works.

The textile's alteration is due to several causes: the humidity and temperature gap, the ultra-violet exposition and an unsuitable lightning, a bad suspension or a bad conditioning of the work, the presence of insects etc. The fiber becomes brittle; shortages can be notified, burnt threads, disappearance of intermediaries (finishing stitching made to repair the weaving interruptions necessary between two different colors), a loss of colors or mildew.

The restorer gives a new lease of life or gives back their whole aesthetically pleasing coherence to hanging tapestries, weaved by hand Aubusson rugs and every type of tapestry and stitched-up rugs (canvas), by cleaning them, reviving their colors, sometimes by re-weaving the damaged parts. Through preventive works of conservation, he is the warrant of the tapestry’s durability.

According to the aspect of the work, the wishes of the owner and the opinion of the restorer, the choice will go towards a full restoration, that is the altered part will be re-weaved in favor of the aesthetically pleasing aspect, or towards the conservation, where only treatments destined to stop the degradations will be conducted, to favor the authenticity and the historical importance of a work.

The restoration workshops in Aubusson offer a high level of expertise in terms of textile handling and conservation. As real laboratories, they work thanks to an experimented staff, with a precise know-how.

The professional center of the Cité internationale de la tapisserie welcomes the National Furniture restoration workshop, one of the two public restoration workshops of tapestries in France (the workshop is available for group visits by appointment).

Aubusson craftsmanship

Low warp weaving


The task of the weaver is to “wool” the artist’s work. This craftsman combines technical skills (handmade movement of the weaving) and artistic skills, implemented in the “textile translation”, the interpretation through the research of fibers and colors combinations. This “harpist”, as called by Jean Cocteau, juggles both of these two arts to offer a work where material, warmth, contrast, texture and variations play with the imagination and the emotions.

The weaver is the craftsman, who carries out the weaving on a loom. The French name “lissier” (or “licier”) comes from the term “lisse” or “lice” (heddle in English) which designates a loop of cotton twine fixed to a warp thread to link it to a “treadle” (pedal) activated by foot to separate the even- and odd-numbered threads of the warp, which allows the passage of the weft thread through (a tapestry being made through the full covering of the warp by the weft) with the help of a “flute” (low warp bobbin), generally wooden.

On a horizontal low warp loom, the “lissier” (weaver) weaves the future tapestry weft-faced and can check his work only partially (the tapestry is rolled in as the weaver goes along) by placing a mirror between the warp threads and the cartoon guiding the weaving. An Aubusson tapestry then keeps all of its mystery during the whole weaving process. The weaver himself, as the artist, only discovers the work in its whole when they cut the warp threads to “free” the tapestry during the event known as “tombée de métier” (“fall out of the loom”). Only remains the finishing stage with the sewing of the edges and the intermediaries, which are interruptions in the weaving due to the color changes

Parallel to the mastering of the weaving gestures, the weaver must be able to converse with the creator of the model in order to make the best technical propositions and interpret at best the sketch during the conception phase of the cartoon of the future woven work. The artist suggests, by way of sketches, his own creations, in very diverse formats. From the sketch, the weaver does weaving attempts; he carries out researches about the colors, the material etc. and makes propositions of interpretation to the artist. Primary drawings on scale with the tapestry are made next to obtain the “cartoon”, a left/right reversed reproduction of the sketch (for the work on the inside of the tapestry) which will help the weaver to find his way throughout the weaving process.

If wool and silk remain the preferred materials of the tapestry, any method and material experimentations are worth considering nowadays. The only necessity is the fact that those materials must remain “weaveable” (metallic stained-glass window tapestry, fiber-optic…)

Beyond the choice of colors and materials, the tapestry-craftsman can intercede with the weaving variations, transposing and interpreting the artist’s intention. Contrary to the mechanical weaving, the manual one on a low warp loom allows an infinite number of colors and allows the weaver to adjust his movements permanently. Thus, the technique of the Aubusson tapestry can produce a huge diversity from effects and textures within a single production.


The relationship, typical to Aubusson, between the artist who is the conceiver of the model to be weaved, and the weaver-interpreter, is the guarantee of a high-quality production. Aubusson has always been a place of dialogue between the art of movement and the most contemporary creations. The tapestries are a four-hand work, with two signatures, product of the collaboration between a weaver-craftsman and a creator, whether he is a painter, plastic artist, designer, architect or decorator.

“Everything is a question of fair relationships and honesty; not a conceited competition, but rather a mutual respect for the best profit of a common work. So were the collaborations between the Tabard workshops and Mathieu Matégot, the Goubely workshops with Mario Prassinos and Michel Tourlière, the Legoueix one with Louis-Marie Julien, the Picaud workshops with Emile Gilioli (amongst others)”, Jean Lurçat

The textile interpretation labor of the artist’s work is the expression of the weaver’s know-how, as much through his technique as through his sensibility and his comprehension of the artistic intention. The excellence of a tapestry is made of the success in this relationship between the creator, who expresses himself through his own medium and the weaver, who imagines the weaved writing.

Then, after the 17th Century, the contemporary creation irrigated the productions from Aubusson, wall hanging, furniture and even fashion accessories. The workshops in the region of Aubusson were stimulated thanks to the input of well-known artists, who came to make original sketches weaved. Thus, one can find in the collections the most prestigious signatures back in the days, from Isaac Moillon to Garouste, by way of Picasso, Léger, Cocteau, Vasarely or even Le Corbusier…

Aubusson craftsmanship

Custom-made dye


Opposed to industrial dyeing process, the craftsman-dyer works by hand, using visual trichromatic printing: he creates the desired shade by adding progressively in small doses the powdered pigments of primary colors (blue, yellow and red), without any machine.

In Aubusson, the dyer carries out a real research on shades, which he produces in small amounts. This small production of very specific tints corresponds to the needs of the low warp weaving.

In the case where the artist numbers its cartoon after a range of pre-dyed wools, the work of the dyer is simplified. His new dye will be applied on a material (wool) equal to the basic sample.

But when the artist produces a colored sample on paper or canvas, the task of the dyer becomes more delicate. He will measure the difference between a color (gouache or oil) and a dyeing product on a material such as wool.

Some even call them “colorist”, as the precision of the dyer allows him to reproduce exactly the tint looked for by the weaver or the artist.

According to the demand of the artistic creation, the colorist can put forward a palette of almost infinite tints, made of the pigments of the three primary colors only: blue, red and yellow.

The craftsman only trusts his eye, his experience with chemical reactions and his steady hands to obtain the desired colors. He is the only judge when it comes to adding colorants, bit by bit, and of the “cooking” time: his expertise must guaranty the longevity of the color over time.

Dyeing workshops can be found within great weaving manufactures, but most of them call on a craftsman-dyer or a spinning mill, which has a dyeing workshop available.


Aubusson craftsmanship

“Think wool”: the cartoon painter


The cartoon painters are the masters of the graphic language of the tapestry. They execute the “cartoon” (or “carton”), which constitutes the working material of the weavers: it is a model, the work of an artist adapted to the dimensions of the future tapestry – whether it is wall-hanged, on the floor or an upholstery. Slid under the warp yarn of the low warp loom, it guides the craftsmen all along the weaving process.

“As ancient as it, I doubt that neither the weaver’s technique nor the looms can be changed […] but the painters can vary the style in creating the cartoons, the form, the subject, the colors […] The eras which have increased the amount of colors in one single wall-hanging, have not increased their wealth to do so. Nowadays the excessive austerity which aims towards simplicity, risk to drive us to a poverty which is retrieved only through the input of weaved material, but without taking advantage of the colored vibrations and the velvety and warm values of the wool. It demands a particular writing […] which is not at any time neither a wall-painting, nor an enlarged easel canvas. […] And when the weaver collaborates to the establishment of a work, the collaboration needs to be complete, and the painter must think “wool”, that is to say his cartoon must be exclusively conceived toward this aim and should not be executed unless by using this method, and he should make the most of what its wonderful qualities can bring him.” Louis-Marie Julien (1904 – 1982)

Originally, the painters provided models in the form of oils or gouache, or in grisaille painting leaving to the care of the ateliers the adaptation of the sketch to the dimensions of the tapestry.

The cartoon painters transform a sketch into a cartoon, on scale with the future tapestry, left/right reversed to match with the inside out weaving. It is a rewriting of the original work, adapted to the specificity of the weaving techniques, which will give weaving indications to the weaver. This primary work to the tapestry can be considered as a mere tool, which is to be thrown away if it is too worn out by dint of being hooked under the loom, after having done a “clean” copy.

The 20th Century has transformed the way we consider the cartoon. The tapestry renovation initiated by Aubusson’s National School of Decorative Arts, and then by Jean Lurçat, modified the elaboration method of the cartoon. It allowed many artists to receive education in cartoon writing, becoming true “cartoon painters” integrating the materiality of the wool within their creation process and distinguishing themselves from the other painters, who painted only small sized sketches. From the 1980’s onwards, from mere pattern, the cartoon has sometimes earned the statue of artistic work. Some public sales have mirrored this evolution, with cartoons whose selling price sometimes exceeded the price of their weaved double.

According to the type of sketch and the will of the artist, the work method, the size and the ateliers headcount, if the person realizing the cartoon makes the weaving herself or not etc. this translation in preparation for “wooling” varies a lot. The cartoon can be more or less truthful to the original work, from a mere enlargement on scale with the tapestry with a few indications, truthful transcription of the image pattern and its colors as conceived by the artist, to a complete translation of the work, whose variations, gradation etc. are transposed into graphic codes indicating particular weaving techniques, and the colors can be replaced by numbers. Each number then matches with a shade of wool coming from a string of assortment obtained thanks to the researches of a colorist.

Nowadays, even if the cartoon makers are still skilled designers, most of those cartoons are made through numerical impressions or photographical printing.

Aubusson craftsmanship

Wool spinning


The role of the spinner is to select the best suited wool for weaving, to produce a thread corresponding to the required level of quality for Aubusson tapestries.

Handmade spinning suits very well smaller orders from artistic professions, such as weavers: the thread thickness is adapted to its weaving use (25 to 26 micrometer).

The wool sometimes comes from New-Zealand or Australia, but for some specific realizations, in order to match at best with the weaver’s demand, the spinner could rather use the products of a French wool worker. Creuse and Limousin are thought of as historical ovine breeding territories. The breeders and the wool craftsman always integrate in this sector.

The first step of the spinning is the carding, where the wool is detangled when going through the drums of the card. Filled with very thin steel peaks and turning at full speed, the card allows dividing and paralleling the wool fibers. Following the size of the fiber and the destination of the thread, the wool is spun directly coming out the card or, in the case of extra fine wool, combed once more.

Strands and ribbons of wool are then obtained and will be turned into yarns. It is now time to stretch them on the spinning frame to refine them progressively. This step is called roving and at this point, the obtained thread is not resistant at all and can be ripped off by only pulling on it. It is actually the twist born from the threading with a couple other strands which increases its resistance and make it more regular (the ply yarns).

Thin, rather elastic and warped, the yarn is generally white or off-white (except in the case of naturally brown or black wool) and can thus goes to the vat of dye.

Aubusson craftsmanship

Fleece's washing


Once they are sorted by fiber type and quality, the fleeces go through different preparing treatments before getting ready to be spun.

These wool-priming steps are conducted by specialized firms: wool washing. There is only a few remaining washing centers in France, among them the Lavage de Laines du Bourbonnais, right next to the Creuse department.

In its raw state, the wool contains a percentage of impurities that goes from 30 to 70%. To be able to be spun, it has to get rid of the maximum amount of foreign bodies (sand, soil residue, vegetal fibers, seeds etc.) and of most of the grease. This grease, called “suint” in French (wool grease), is produced by the sheep to protect himself. It is sometimes collected during the washing process, to be refined for the cosmetic industry (lanolin).

The washing process occurs in two steps: skirting (“louvetage” in French), which is a dry-cleaning treatment to dust the wool, then scouring, which is the passage of the wool throughout a series of hot baths (50 to 60°C/122 to 140°F) of water, soap and sometimes lye or any other degreasing base. The washing is progressive. Soaking comes first to eliminate soil residue and the water-soluble wool grease. Then the soap degreasing part allows the elimination of the non-water-soluble grease (the “suintine” in French) which only dissolves under the influence of soap. Then the wool gets rinsed and dried.

However, it is important to leave a tiny amount of lanolin, because when the wool gets too degreased, the following steps of carding and spinning would cause a problem and the weaving would be more difficult. Indeed, some clothes, tweeds for instance, need to keep a huge amount of grease.

Finally, some wools can be chemically whitened during the oxygenation phase. The wool can then get in the hands of the spinner, who will transform it in threads.



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Les métiers de la Cité de la tapisserie


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