Friday, February 15, 2008

An Afternoon at Les Gobelins

As part of my guidebook-updating duties, I found myself at the Manufacture des Gobelins yesterday, the place where fabulous tapestries have been made since the days of Louis XIV. I had booked myself on a tour of the workshops, which was conducted by a very affable man who attempted to explain the incredibly complex process involved in weaving a tapestry. Well, maybe not so much complicated, as very detailed and very long. He pointed to a huge modern tapestry hanging on the wall and told us that it took the weaver three years to complete. Today’s tapestries are not filled with flowers and ladies and jumping stags—they are resolutely contemporary, complete with bright slashes of colors and puzzling motifs. In fact, each tapestry is a recreation of the work of an artist, who has provided the Manufacture with a massive painting as a guide. What’s more, none of these tapestries are for sale: this is a state-owned enterprise and the works are created to be hung in state-owned places like ministries and embassies. It’s a closed ecosystem. Louis’ original intent was a state-owned workshop to make tapestries for royal castles—today, in a nod to democracy, they make tapestries for castles and mansions owned by the people, sort of.

However one feels about the logic behind the enterprise, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by what goes on in the ateliers. We went into the first workshop and saw a row of about five or six giant vertical looms, each being worked by a solitary weaver. This courageous individual, with the patience of a saint, was carefully fitting a shuttle full of woolen yarn through a forest of hundreds of threads, half of which fall under the heading "warp" and the other "weft." By literally pulling strings, she would weave the one into the other. During this operation, she was carefully choosing her colors and trajectory according to the design that she had earlier inked on each individual thread, according to the model provided by the artist. This elaborate ballet is further complicated by the fact that she works on the back of the tapestry and can only see what she is actually creating by looking at a mirror placed in front of the loom. Once the shuttle goes through, she has to delicately tamp down every inch of yarn with her fingers or a comb. Then she’s got to verify that she didn’t mess up by comparing the design in front of her with that on transparent plastic guides.

In short, it’s completely insane. It goes against everything we’ve ever learned about getting things done in the modern world. It’s a desperately slow process that shows hardly any results in the short term. And yet the weavers do not look in the least bit stressed. On the contrary, they have an other-worldly serenity that would make me think of monks working on illuminated manuscripts if it weren’t for the iPods dangling from their ears. These hardy souls have survived four years of intense training for a job that they can pretty much only do here. In other words, they have signed on for life. They have made a kind of commitment that went out of style in the Middle Ages. They are a link back to the days of artisans guilds and apprenticeships, the days when your identity was literally defined by your craft—as in Mr. Miller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. Taylor. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” said a kindly looking weaver with a smile when a man from our group posed the question. “C’est un beau métier,” the man commented—literally, a beautiful profession. “You have to love what you do,” she responded, wisely.


jchevais said...

sigh... I loved visiting the "manufacture"... brought back super fond memories of my tapestry weaving years in art school...

Starman said...

Love the new look.

David said...

Another great post, and congrats on the award!

Abfab Art Studio said...

Congrats on the award!!

Ahhhhh tapestries, textiles, Paris has it all, such a fabulous history especially for silk!

I'm a silk artist (crazy Aussie woman :-) and I'll be back in Paris for most of June 2008.

I actually bought your book when i was in Paris last June - the ONLY guide book I've bought - and today I accidentally came across your blog when searching for something else - serendipity.

I know you probably get thousands of requests to meet you for a coffee or cocktail, but if you feel like chatting to an Aussie who is always on a search for the best coffee in Paris, I'd love to hear from you :D

PS - I'm staying in a fab apartment this year in the 11th, bringing my OWN coffee making paraphernalia, so if you'd like me to make YOU a great coffee, I'd love to!

ciao ciao
Teena in Australia
Abfab Art Blog

Margie Rynn said...

Hi Teena,

I'm glad you liked the book! I'm actually in the middle of updating it right now, but I may be able to meet up for coffee in June...I read your coffee posts on your blog and I know, it is hard to find good Italian coffee in Paris! I've passed by Cafe Milongo but I've never partaken, but now I'll give it a try. The French aren't as into coffee as the Italians, (or lots of coffee fans in English-speaking countries), but there is something unique about the French cafe experience...hmm...maybe you've given me an idea for a post...

Re: Velib, I really need to do a follow up post on that. I'll be checking into the tourist possibilities for the guidebook update and I'll definitely post something...

Abfab Art Studio said...

Hi Margie,

If you do have time for a coffee, we could meet at my current favourite, Cafe Kimbo de Napoli, 5 place des Ternes, 75017 Paris or anywhere you recommend.

If you'd like to email me privately, it's at

Ciao for now!