Earlier this month I visited the Gobelins in Paris, where tapestries and carpets are still made by hand using techniques that have hardly changed over centuries. After the history-for-tourists preamble by our guide we were taken on a tour of the workshops. There was something mesmeric about the row of weavers working with only the simplest of tools: a shuttle to pass the thread back and forth, a comb to press the threads flat, a pair of scissors. One of their more surprising tools was a mirror. The tapestries are woven back to front and the mirrors are inserted under the frame so the weaver can see the image they are creating.
Another surprise was the contemporary design of the tapestries and carpets. The Gobelins do not replicate historical artefacts but produce new work based on pictures and photographs by contemporary artists. The resultant pieces are extraordinary: richly textured, they arrest the eye. Some use hundreds of colours. I saw one weaver working on a detail using perhaps a dozen different shades of purple – every possible variation from aubergine to plum. Nothing made at the Gobelins is for sale. Once the tapestries and carpets are finished they are taken to a central store, where they wait to be assigned to a public building.
Watching the weavers clock-off at 4.30 – they weave in natural light if at all possible – made me think about the rhythm of their work. Our guide had told us that in the case of complex designs a skilled weaver might only produce a few centimetres a day – a statistic I find profoundly reassuring when I compare it to my own efforts to inch my current novel forwards. Perhaps if – like the weavers – I keep weaving away at my words, the moment will come when I’ll turn the whole thing over and a marvellous picture will emerge.