The Game of Thrones® tapestry – a curator’s blog

After a couple of years rest since its last exhibition, the sleeping giant that is the Game of Thrones® tapestry has awakened and uncoiled itself around the gallery walls at the Ulster Museum, where it will be on exhibition this summer for 12 weeks, from Friday 24th June to Sunday 25th September 2022.  

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The woven and embroidered tapestry was commissioned in 2017 by Tourism Ireland, in partnership with Tourism Northern Ireland and HBO, to celebrate Game of Thrones® becoming a part of Northern Ireland’s culture and heritage. The 87- metre long tapestry depicts events, characters and filming locations of the Game of Thrones®   television programme.  The tapestry is entirely hand woven, of linen, with cotton and metallic threads used to highlight hand embroidered details.

The tapestry is the latest in a series of craft works commissioned by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland over a number of years to highlight the significant role of Northern Ireland in the making of the Game of Thrones® programme. Previous craft work campaigns have involved the making of carved doors from wood felled (naturally) at the Dark Hedges, Stranocum, County Antrim, and a set of knives made using a centuries- old method of casting metal. The valyrian steel used for the knives contained a melted meteorite. The doors are on show at various locations around Northern Ireland and the knives at the OX restaurant, Belfast.

This short blog gives some insight into the making of this magnificent textile.

Making the tapestry

The Illustrators and colour artists Crim Nahaboo, Jacob Merrick – Wolf, and Rob House, of Jelly London, produced all of the artwork and design of the tapestry panels. Jelly London is a well-known design house with an international reputation for contemporary graphics.  The designers of the Game of Thrones® tapestry studied the Bayeux tapestry and have referenced elements of it in their artwork for the tapestry –including battle scenes, fallen horses, crowns, and shields.

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The tapestry was woven on a specialist jacquard loom by weavers Juliet Bailey, Franki Brewer and team at Dash & Miller in Bristol, hand weaving roughly four metres per day.  The linen yarn for the cloth was supplied by local firm Fergusons of Banbridge. The firm of Thomas Ferguson and Co.  was established in in Banbridge in 1853, for the hand weaving, and later power loom weaving, of linen.  Ferguson’s (John England, Banbridge Ltd.) is the principle supplier of fabrics to the Game of Thrones® programme, for costume and set design.

The word ‘tapestry’ is derived from the fifteenth century French ‘tappiserie’– a carpet or fabric covering, and the specialist loom used to create the Game of Thrones® panels is a small modern version of that developed by French man Joseph Marie Jacquard, the son of a Lyonnais silk weaver, in 1804.  Working to a loom width of around 59 cm, and with a limited colour palette, the weavers at Dash and Miller worked to a tight deadline, producing around 4 metres of cloth per day over a few very intense weeks in late June and early July 2017, and again in 2019, to complete the project.

 A question here – what has got 60 legs, 300 nimble fingers and is fuelled by regular intakes of coffee and teacakes? No, it’s not a strange beast from the phenomenally successful television programme but rather the small army of enthusiastic stitchers who used all of their needlework skills to add embroidered highlights to the magnificent Game of Thrones® tapestry.  

 

This team of stitchers, drawn from National Museums NI staff and volunteers from local textile guilds, worked together in 2017, and again in 2019, to collectively add over 1,000 hours of hand embroidered highlights to the tapestry.   Production of the first six panels of the tapestry, in 2017, took sixteen weeks in total from design to weave and embroidery.  The embroiderers included a recent graduate in textiles from Ulster University, former workers in the local textile industry, and a graduate from the Royal School of Needlework.

An acknowledgments panel at the end of the current exhibition lists the names of all of the volunteer embroiderers who worked on the tapestry.

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The hand embroidery on the tapestry is of an artisan style matched to the texture of the woven fabric.  The stitches used in the embroidery are couching, chain stitch, French knots, long and short stitch, satin stitch and stem stitch – all traditional stitches, many of which were used on the Bayeux tapestry.  The threads used are stranded cotton, with metallic embroidery yarns, for selected highlights.  Given the dynamic storylines in the Game of Thrones® programme it’s probably not surprising that the embroidery thread used most often was a vivid red – for blood spatters!

The tapestry is comprised of eight sections, one each to depict a series of the programme.  For exhibition the sections are joined in situ in the gallery to provide one continuous tapestry of just over 87 metres long, with a height of approximately 58 cm throughout.  For comparison, The Bayeux Tapestry is around 70 metres long with a height of around 50 cm.

From Belfast to Bayeux

The Bayeux tapestry is an embroidery of around 70 metres in length, 50cm height throughout, that depicts events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, led by William, Duke of Normandy, challenging Harold II, King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.  The cloth is believed to have been embroidered within a few years of this battle, and is widely accepted to have been made in England.  It is regarded as one of the worlds’ most significant works of 11th century Norman Romanesque.

The longest tapestry in the world is believed to be the Great Tapestry of Scotland at 143 metres, closely followed in size by the Prestonpans Tapestry, also from Scotland, at 104 metres length.  The Game of Thrones® tapestry is probably therefore the third longest, and by far the largest textile ever exhibited at the Ulster Museum.

In the summer of 2017 the tapestry (series 1 -6) went on exhibition for the first time, at the Ulster Museum, to coincide with the launch of series 7 of the programme.  The exhibition continued into the autumn of 2017, with the addition of a panel depicting scenes from series 7.  In 2018 the tapestry was again exhibited at the Ulster Museum.

On 12th April 2019 the European premiere of the eighth, and final, television series of Game of Thrones® was premiered at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.  The corresponding tapestry panel was then woven, embroidered and installed at the UM together with the preceding seven panels, to bring the textile to its final 87 metre length.

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In September 2019 the Game of Thrones® tapestry travelled to Bayeux where it was on exhibition for four months at the eighteenth century Hotel du Doyen, close to the museum where the Bayuex Tapestry is now on permanent display. The arrival of the ‘Irish cousin’ of the Bayeux tapestry caused much excitement at the time, with over 10,000 exhibition visitors in the first few weeks alone.

In displaying the Game of Thrones® tapestry again National Museums NI is also highlighting two traditional craft skills that are well represented in the textiles collections across NMNI, namely, hand weaving and hand embroidery. The textiles collection at the Ulster Folk Museum in particular includes many fine examples of damask linen and needlework from the last 250 years.

 

The Game of Thrones® tapestry was acquired by National Museums NI in 2020 as a donation from Tourism Ireland.  It is now part of the permanent collection of NMNI.

When the Game of Thrones® tapestry is not on public display it is stored, in sections, on padded rollers, wrapped in acid –free tissue paper and TYVEK covers, in a climate-controlled store for textiles at the Ulster Folk Museum.  In this way the museum hopes to preserve the tapestry carefully so that, perhaps like the Bayuex tapestry, it will still be seen by visitors in 900 years’ time!

 

Valerie Wilson

Curator of Textiles