Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Chagall... and Linen Tablecloths

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus, circa 1530

Analysis of the pattern of the tablecloth in the painting,
courtesy of Helena Loermans

A weaving drawdown similar to the tablecloth pattern

A few months ago, I wrote a post about a weaving pattern known as "The Earl's Canvas" -- a 14-shaft Gebrochene design that had been discovered in a 17th-century painting of the second Earl of Mar in Scotland. The painting was of less interest to weavers, actually, than the pattern of the canvas itself, which had been a tablecloth, most likely linen.

A linen tablecloth! I assumed that the poor artist had no choice but to use a table linen instead of a real canvas. Little did I know. 

Recently, through a chance conversation with someone in a workshop I taught, I learned that there are many centuries-old paintings woven on tablecloths in similar patterns -- patterns that are described in weaving terminology as twill diaper design. 

My friend pointed me to the writings of Helena Loermans, who researches these canvases and has a blog devoted to her work: (The full name for the project is the Laboratory for Handwoven Canvas Odemira, based in Odemira, Portugal, where Loermans has lived for some 30 years.)

Her research, to date, has looked at masterpieces by Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Chagall. Weaving on an AVL computer loom, she recreates their canvas patterns in fine linen, emulating and revealing the beauty of the original fabrics.

Reconstructions of canvases used by Titian, woven by Helena Loermans

She also offers gift boxes of her reconstructions for sale, to raise funds for her research -- available by clicking here.

I reached out to Loermans via Zoom and asked her why these masters were using such fabrics for their work. She responded that, while no one yet really knows why, she theorizes that tablecloths were among the few fabrics wide and long enough to serve, without seams, as canvases for large paintings. (Loermans suspects that these linens were in fact seamed, but so expertly that no one can detect it.) 

In a larger sense, the material of the canvas might have been a reflection of the value of the painting. We explored how, just as art deserves a beautiful frame, the culture of the time may have viewed the canvas itself as a statement of luxury and status. Loermans observed that fine linens were often owned by churches, in an age where the church and the nobility were closely linked -- and were perhaps the only groups that could afford great works of art.

An interesting footnote: Loermans told me that the oldest known record of weaving drafts is a collection from 1677 by Marx Ziegler, Weber Kunst un Bild Buch (roughly translated, "The Weaver's Art and Drawing Book"), which is available on The collection holds many patterns similar to those she has reproduced.

In conclusion, for your weaving delight, here is a painting by Velázquez, along with a drawdown of the pattern of his canvas.

 Velázquez, Supper at Emmaus, 1599-1600

Weaving drawdown, courtesy of Helena Loermans

Thanks for reading!

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*Warning: This post is just partly about fiber. Remember those test patterns on your old black and white TV? They were typically accompanied...