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Basic Information

A tapestry is a loom-woven textile art, generally pretty large and most commonly covering a wall (and sometimes used more like a rug). The oldest known extant tapestry was made in the 3rd Century BC, and the high-point of the tapestry art is roughly the 14th Century or 15th Century.

Their simplest and primary function is as artistic decoration. You can spruce up the walls of your home or grand hall with a few tapestries, and swap out the designs whenever you feel like a change. Though large and potentially heavy, tapestries were portable, so if you moved you could make your new home look and feel like your old familiar one. This also means that well-crafted ones are valuable, and a decent form of treasure. It was very common for them to transition from one castle or manor house to another over the generations, being traded, gifted, or stolen away. In cases where the new location was a different size or had doors in different places, it was not uncommon for tapestries to be cut down to size, or even to have door-holes or slits chopped out of them.

Some tapestries were made with cloth of gold, delicate thinly-drawn wires of gold woven into the weave of the tapestry. These made them far more valuable, but unfortunately also reduced the chance of the tapestry surviving to the modern day. If the golden tapestry were in a castle that fell by an army that didn't intend to hold the location in perpetuity, they might well burn the tapestry to melt down the gold and make the mineral wealth more transportable. (Indeed, this happened to most of the great tapestries of France during the French Revolution.) In those same circumstances, a tapestry without golden thread might well just be left on the walls when the invaders returned home.

Speaking of castles, another important function of tapestries was to sub-divide and shrink the size of rooms within them. Let's say you've built a large impressive castle that may need to house a sizable military force in times of war. It's got huge grand halls inside it's sizeable keep. So far, so good… until winter during a time of peace when the troops are home instead of mustered (or during a distant war when the troops are in some foreign field). Now you have a giant, empty, drafty living space that's hard to heat. You'll end up paying a fortune to the fueller to keep all those hearths going, and only the parts of the room closest to the fireplace will be even remotely warm. When winter comes, the smart move is to hang tapestries from the ceiling in the middle of the rooms, cutting the effective size of the liveable spaces down significantly to just the areas conveniently near those hearths. The tapestries form an insulating barrier keeping the heated air contained to the smaller space. The long walk from one "room" to the next will still be shockingly cold on those stone floors, but any place you plan to spend lots of time in can be kept warm for a fraction of the cost and effort.

This has the added side-benefit of hiding spaces and things behind large cloth barriers. This is more useful than just letting you hide your out-of-control hoarding problem when company drops by. You can hang a tapestry over a secret door, making it doubly-hard to find, or hang it over a normal door effective rendering it a secret one. There's even a word for an tapestry that hides an alcove: it's called an Arras. (You'll recall Polonius was concealed by an arras eavesdropping when Hamlet stabbed him.) If your castle has secret police or spies, you'll find them lurking in an arras, or listening-in just beyond the tapestry that's innocently reducing your heating costs. That said, the most likely thing to find behind a tapestry in a well run household is servants - hanging the tapestry a little away from the wall allows the servants to come and go unobtrusively - effectively acting as a set of service corridors. Likewise, a niche behind the arras allows them to be on call without cluttering the place up and preserving an illusion of privacy.

Another specific tapestry type found in castles is a Baldachin. This is a tapestry-draped canopy that surrounds (or is behind) a throne or dais. Essentially it's a canopy-of-State that reminds the viewer of which seat in the room has all the power and prestige.

Tapestries frequently have intricately woven decorative images on them. Common inspiration includes history, religion and mythology. Many scenes from the Bible have decorated tapestries, and other common iconography was drawn from Ovid's Metamorphosis or Homer's two major works, major war victories or the coat of arms of the person commissioning the tapestry. They are a great way to show off, so expect to see them in a Standard Royal Court.

It is worth noting that quite a few tapestries are actually examples of embroidery - not least the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Functionally the same but made by a different method1.



Game and Story Use

  • A great treasure for your game set in the ancient world or middle ages. It's transportable, but awkwardly so, and has the most value if you don't cover it with the spilled blood of the previous owner.
    • If half the party is carrying a rolled up artwork with gold thread out to their horses, they won't be ready to defend themselves if an ambush or sneak attack happens.
  • Cleopatra was introduced to Julius Caesar by being smuggled into his chambers in a rolled-up tapestry or rug. She may have been naked at the time.
  • The clues to a terrible mystery or secret could be just barely concealed behind a tapestry in a place the PCs frequent, without them ever knowing. Many sessions into the storyline, you have something else happen in room to expose it. "It was under our noses all along!"
    • Perhaps an unrelated murder or supernatural encounter in the room causes the PCs to do a thorough search that reveals the clues to the original mystery or plot.
    • A critical failure during a fight scene may result in a low-roller crashing into a tapestry, getting entangled and becoming momentarily vulnerable. Anyone who survives that round of the combat can now see the clue that was concealed until the tapestry was torn down.
    • An uncontrolled fire in the room requires the tapestry being torn down and used to smother the flames. Only after that initial panic does anyone notice the clue now staring them in the face.
  • Servants behind the arras act as a ready made source of witnesses for anything in particular … once you've established that there will be people wandering about unseen, you have to accept that you may never know exactly who is there and what they have seen.
  • Partitioning rooms can have other uses, too.
    • If you have full floor-to-ceiling partitions, you can hide just how large a room is. This might show up as a "secret room" within a room, or tapestries might be hung on walls to suggest that the room is larger than it really is.
    • If your tapestries are similar enough, you might be able to move them around while someone's walking nearby, and mess with their navigation.
    • Removing the tapestry can make a nasty surprise for unwelcome guests, as you reveal that you were moving your guards into a surrounding position.
    • As long as people can avoid doing anything that passes through2, you might use tapestries to make a series of primitive SCIF rooms.
  • What kinds of magic item might be based on tapestries?
    • A warming or air-circulation enchantment would seem obvious for those meant to shrink a room.
    • Changing patterns for the purely decorative.
    • Invisibility or some other illusion for those meant to hide things.
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