The Bayeux Tapestry at the Smithsonian? Yes, but who made it, when, where and why?

This is probably one of the most elaborate table runners you’ll ever see. It is a needle lace runner made entirely by hand with innumerable tiny buttonhole stitches. Over 30 feet long and almost four feet wide, it is a part of the Textile Collection of the National Museum of American History. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous embroidered historical record of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, this runner was recently photographed, allowing us to appreciate its intricate details. This closer look, however, hasn’t brought us closer to identifying who made this runner, why they made it, or when it was made—these answers remain a mystery.

Cross section of table runner, showing part of both sides and center section. Photograph by Duane Heaton.
Overall photo of the Bayeux Tapestry in needle lace

A little more is known about the original tapestry, which is beautifully preserved and displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum (Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux) in Normandy, France. It is thought to have been made in Bayeux, France in the last quarter of the 11th century. The embroidered hanging worked with colored wool on linen fabric is 70 meters by 50 cm (approximately 230 feet x 20 inches). The story it tells begins in 1064 when King Edward of England is close to death. It illustrates the struggle for succession to the English throne between William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex. When Harold is killed and his army defeated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror becomes King of England. This 1898 book by Frank Rede Fowke, and numerous other online and print versions, can be consulted for the story, or this much less serious animated version. (Note that the illustrations in the Fowke book begin after page 139.)

This summer I was fortunate to travel to Normandy and see this masterpiece, which UNESCO has added to the Memory of the World Register. It is amazing to think that it was embroidered over 1,100 years ago and is still in good overall condition. It was fascinating to compare the needle lace motifs to the original embroidery. Both versions show a lot of movement and texture. The needle lace version is much newer, probably made during the late 19th to 20th centuries. 

Using a very different technique, the large needle lace table runner in the Textile Collection of the National Museum of American History depicts the same sequence of events as the original embroidery, and places them around a geometric-patterned center section. The compartmentalized scenes along the outside on all four sides correspond to the original depictions of battles, soldiers, horses, ships, supplies, feasts, etc.

Cross section of table runner, showing part of both sides and center section. Photo by Duane Heaton
Cross section of table runner, showing part of both sides and center section. 
Lace table runner inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry: battle scene and detail of battle scene
On the left is a battle scene. On the right, a detail image of the scene.

In May 2012 the table runner
was photographed DSCN3780 for blog by Textile Collection volunteer Duane Heaton. That was no small task, as it is over 30 feet long. Duane built a special rack to support his camera above the lace. We cleared the floor in a large conference room and laid down black paper before carefully rolling out the lace. Only two feet of extra space was left in the conference room, which allowed us just enough room to get around the lace at both ends. With a helper, Duane moved the rack in short increments along the lace and snapped photos at each stop. Afterwards, 25 high resolution images were combined for the overall photo. In addition to the full-length photo, Textile Collection volunteer Beverly Wolov took detail photos. Having a very good overall photo as well as many detailed photos makes it easier to study the textile without damaging it.

Some of the scenes are skipped or shortened in the needle lace version, but the scenes that are included are accurate representations of the original embroidery. Two and three ply, S-spun linen threads are used throughout (ca. size 60/2 for the motifs and 20/2 for the center).

Close-up of a face depicted in the table runner inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry
Close-up of a face depicted in the table runner

The designer makes excellent use of different stitches to indicate motion and texture and the workmanship shows it was made by very skilled lace makers. Great attention was given to detail and many different types of filling stitches were used to create a lively overall effect. The table runner was donated in 1984 by Mr. and Mrs. Carl Gewirz, who purchased it at auction in Washington, D.C. Regretfully, no catalog was printed for this sale and no further records were kept.

On the left, a view of the geometric center section. On the right, a close-up of the top of a helmet and corner of center section.
On the left, a view of the geometric center section. On the right, a close-up of the top of a helmet and corner of center section.

Where, when, and why was it made? It is difficult to imagine that one person could have undertaken this gigantic project. It is possible that someone commissioned a designer and a European lace workshop to make this show piece for a specific occasion. But which workshop and which occasion? Was it for an anniversary of the Battle of Hastings? Or maybe for a major exhibition? Perhaps someone reading this blog will help us solve this mystery.

Close-up of the center section
Close-up of the center section

The lace is currently not on public display, but a portion of it can be seen by signing up for one of the monthly behind-the-scenes lace tours. Call 202-633-3826. Tours in 2012 are scheduled for September 27, October 25, November 15, and December 13. Questions and suggestions are welcome at thompsonkh@si.edu.

Karen Thompson is a volunteer with Textiles, working with the lace collection in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History. In the past, she has blogged about the finer details of the Hapsburg Imperial Bridal Veil. Photographs by volunteers Duane Heaton, Bev Wolov, and Karen Thompson.  

Posted at 8:41 am EDT in From the Collections