Journey through history with the Royal Tapestry Factory, which in 2021 will celebrate 300 years since it first opened its doors. At the heart of its mission is the production and restoration of rugs, tapestries and coats of arms, in addition to conserving Spain’s textile heritage. Its guided tours invite us to discover how today’s master weavers work using centuries-old techniques.
Weaving a tapestry by hand is delicate work, and can take anywhere between six and twelve months per square metre. The process begins with the creation of a cartoon” – a scale model of the tapestry – which is used by the weaver at all times as a guide. The Royal Tapestry Factory was founded by King Philip V of Spain in 1721, with this year marking its 300th anniversary. At the end of the War of Spanish Succession, back in 1713, Spain lost its territory in Flanders. This loss meant that all commercial ties between the two regions were severed, putting an end to the export of the much-coveted Flemish tapestries. The monarch immediately decided that Spain could make its own tapestries, and for the task he chose a building very close to the former Puerta de Santa Bárbara gate, which was located by today’s Plaza de Alonso Martínez. Jacopo Vandergoten, who brought his family of accomplished craftsmen to Madrid from Antwerp, was named the first manager of the factory.
One of the first of the royal manufacturers, the Royal Tapestry Factory was established with a view to produce luxury goods under the mercantillist policies of the Enlightenment in Spain. Others included the La Granja Royal Glass Factory and the Buen Retiro Royal Porcelain Factory, which was built within the gardens of the former palace, close to where the statue of the Fallen Angel stands today. Before long the factory had acquired great prestige, above all thanks to the introduction of high-warp looms that boosted the factory’s production capacity and enhanced the quality of tapestries, which principally still followed Flemish designs.
It was under the reign of King Ferdinand VI of Spain that both the style and subject matters of the tapestries began to change, with the pieces soon being used to illustrate traditional customs, historical events and mythological motifs, all with a certain Italian air. However, it was under King Charles III that the Royal Tapestry Factory came into its own. The monarch’s first chamber painter Anton Raphael Mengs was also responsible for the factory’s artistic direction. He introduced Neoclassicism into the designs, which soon began to portray Spanish scenes, styles and landscapes. And he wasn’t alone. His work was supported by the architect Francesco Sabatini and, later, the painters Mariano Salvador Maella and Francisco Bayeu, who took over from Mengs.
Around the same time, several young artists were hired to create tapestry cartoons, among which Francisco de Goya, who had recently arrived in the capital from Zaragoza, stood out. The Aragon-born painter delivered his first series to the factory in 1775 and his last in 1792, many of which are on display today at the Prado Museum. On its walls hang, among others, cartoons as famous as The Parasol, which was intended to decorate Infante Carlos of Spain’s dining room in El Pardo Royal Palace, Blind Man’s Buff, for the Infantas’ bedrooms in the same palace and The Meadow of San Isidro, which is actually a draft.
As the city of Madrid continued to expand, at the end of the 19th century the factory was relocated to the outskirts of the city. The site chosen for the construction of the Neo-Mudéjar building was a piece of land known as the “Atocha olive groves and gardens”, and is where the factory still stands to this day. Three hundred years since it was first founded, the factory’s mission is still the same: to respect artisan trades, to conserve Spanish textile heritage and restore historical textiles, and to promote all cultural activities that raise awareness of the art of tapestry.
Thanks to its programme of guided tours, the Royal Tapestry Factory offers the chance for visitors to step inside these historical workshops and see the work of its weavers up close. This truly unique experience is a journey into the past and the present of a profession that holds many a secret. As the tour guides explain, once a tapestry design is approved, the skeins of silk and wool are dyed individually in the Dyeing Room. Quality in the dyeing process is crucial when it comes to guaranteeing an optimum result on an aesthetic level, and to ensure that the colours do not fade with the passing of time. The weaver uses bobbins with fine threads of wool and silk to convert the pictorial details and nuances of the cartoon into a tapestry. Each piece is adapted to suit the clients’ personal tastes and needs, and they often actively participate in the selection of materials and colours. The result is a one-of-a-kind piece of art.
In addition to tapestries, this spectacular manufacturer also makes coats of arms, which are stitched using appliqué embroidery, and rugs made by knot weaving. This ancient technique consists of knotting wool threads of different colours over cotton warps and results in a pattern similar to tesserae mosaic tiles. The Royal Tapestry Factory boasts a large collection of rugs and tapestries of pieces made at the factory and others that are in storage. Also on display is a selection of the tools used for this craft, including looms, spinning wheels, spools and a range of cartoons from the factory’s picture archive.