The Game of Thrones® Tapestry

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Question – what has got 60 legs, 300 nimble fingers and is fuelled by regular intakes of coffee and teacakes? No, it’s not a strange mythological beast from the phenomenally successful television programme Game of Thrones® but rather the small army of enthusiastic stitchers who have worked tirelessly over the last month to add embroidered highlights to the almost 77 metre - long tapestry hand woven to illustrate scenes from Season 1-7.

The Game of Thrones® tapestry exhibition opened to the public at the Ulster Museum, Belfast on 22nd July and will be on show there, in gallery Art 3 on level 5, for the next six months.

This blog will provide a museum curator’s insight into the tapestry project and a ‘behind the scenes’ look at some of the challenges faced, and skills employed, in getting this huge piece of contemporary textile art from loom to gallery wall.

The tapestry is the latest in a series of craft works commissioned by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland over the last few 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.

National Museum NI already has a strong association with Game of Thrones® , with the very talented Ulster Folk & Transport blacksmith Gerald Monaghan having made props for the programme, and staff across the museum’s sites having worked as assistants on the programme at various times, in relation to set design, costume, and make up. Our very own Web Manager for National Museums NI, David Milnes, appeared as an extra in episode nine of Season 2 (as a deckhand, since you ask!).

The tapestry itself is comprised of six 11 metre long panels of hand woven fabric, to which will be added a further seven panels, each 1.5 metres long. The six long panels each depict scenes from the first six series of the television programme. The seven shorter panels each depict an episode from series seven. These will be added to the gallery display on a weekly basis as the programmes are aired. The new additions will each be added around 1 week after transmission to allow for new weaving and embroidery, so there will be a natural time lag - and no spoilers in the gallery display!

When complete, on September 5th, the tapestry will be one of the longest in the world, and the largest textile object ever displayed in the Ulster Museum.

In displaying the Game of Thrones® tapestry the museum is highlighting two traditional artisan craft skills that are well represented in the textiles collections across National Museums NI, namely, hand weaving and hand embroidery. The textiles collections at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in particular include many fine examples of damask linen and needlework from the last 250 years. A selection of these museum artefacts will accompany the tapestry on exhibition in due course, to provide additional context for the fabric content and technical skills employed in the construction of the tapestry itself. The opening date for this small accompanying exhibition ‘Warp and Weft’ will be advertised nearer the time on the museum’s website and preparations for it will feature in the curator’s blog over the coming weeks.

The tapestry panels have been hand woven on a specialist jacquard loom, using linen yarns from Thomas Ferguson and Co. Ltd. of Banbridge. Fergusons was first established in Banbridge, County Down in 1854, for the hand weaving of linen fabric. In 1867 the firm introduced power driven jacquard looms for the weaving of linen damask. John England (Banbridge) Ltd., since 2015 a sister company of Fergusons, regularly supplies fabrics for major theatrical and film productions, including Game of Thrones®. Over its 170 year plus history Fergusons has not only woven fabrics, both plain and damask but supported a related industry in the decoration of linen handkerchiefs, bedlinens and table linens. The textile collections at UFTM include some very fine examples of embroidery on Fergusons linens, including a group of early to mid-1900s monogramed handkerchief samples.

The hand weaving of all of the tapestry panels has been undertaken by a team of highly skilled textile artists at Dash and Millar of Bristol, working in collaboration with Fergusons of Banbridge. In the Ulster Museum gallery, and online, time-lapsed film footage shows the panels ‘growing’ as the weavers pass the shuttles to and fro in time-honoured fashion. The word ‘tapestry’ is derived from the fifteenth century French ‘tappiserie’ – a carpet or fabric covering.

The loom used to create the panels is a small modern version of that developed by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard, the son of a Lyonnais silk weaver, in 1804. His development based on earlier work by fellow Frenchmen Basile Bouchon in 1725, Jean Baptiste Falcon in 1728, and Jacques Vaucason in 1741. Put simply, a jacquard loom is one in which a series of punched cards each corresponds to a row of the design to be woven, allowing for a greater definition of motifs. The punched cards operate a mechanism attached to the loom, controlling the pick-up of weft threads as the design evolves. In the case of the Game of Thrones® tapestry it has allowed the weavers to introduce a rich palette of colours and considerable level of detail throughout the work.

Jacquard looms have often been credited with inspiring the development of the very first computers. The English mathematician, engineer, and inventor Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) is believed to have been inspired by jacquard loom mechanisms in his development of the first digital programmable computer.

At the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra, Ballydugan Weaver’s Cottage is the setting for regular demonstrations of hand weaving of linen on an early 1900s draw loom. 

The same location also houses an impressive jacquard loom for hand weaving, for those who would welcome a more detailed explanation of this technique, in an appropriate setting. As the times for the weaver, Roisin Aiston’s, demonstrations may vary, please check in advance of your visit to avoid disappointment.

The museum agreed not only to host the exhibition of the tapestry, but to add texture to the finished weaves with traditional hand embroidery, on scenes and motifs selected for this treatment by the tapestry designers. With a tight deadline looming (no pun intended) and up to 60 motifs per panel to be stitched the call went out from the museum for volunteers to help with the needlework required.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum has a thirty- year close association with six textiles guilds that meet on a monthly basis between September and June at Cultra. These keen stitchers responded to the call enthusiastically and, together with textiles specialists at the museum, they formed a team of 30 needle workers who, over a period of almost four weeks have, collectively, put in over 1,000 hours of sewing on the Game of Thrones® Tapestry.

Follow the GOT Tapestry curator’s blog over the coming weeks to learn how this embroidery project developed and to meet some of the stitchers involved.

Valerie Wilson

Curator of Textiles.