what is a tapestry?

Len and I have had some interesting discussions recently with textile collectors who have suggested that what Surayia called “nakshi kantha tapestry” is a misnomer, since “tapestries” are woven and not embroidered.

It’s an interesting point, and it calls to mind Surayia’s stories about how some people in Bangladesh argued that her work should not use the term nakshi kantha since traditionally kantha were meant for household and ceremonial use, not as art to hang on a wall.

Surayia uses the term “nakshi kantha tapestry” for several very good reasons.  First, the pieces grow out of and draw on the rich tradition of Bengali kantha: they are done on several layers of fabric quilted together, often using the running stitch of kantha.  Second, they are meant to be displayed on a wall as is a tapestry.  So the resulting artwork comes from several traditions but brings them together into a new form.

Some might call her works “quilts” rather than “tapestries,” while others insist that they are not really quilts in the sense that we use the term in North America.

In the end, we prefer to stay with the terminology Surayia uses and that has become the term generally accepted for her work in Bangladesh.  It’s also interesting to note that “The Encyclopedia of Needlework” by Therese de Dillemont says:  “Under the heading of tapestry are  included nowadays all kinds of embroidery on counted threads in which the fabric is entirely covered by the stitches.”  That definition certainly encompasses Surayia’s amazing textile art.

Furthermore, one of the most famous pieces of embroidery in the world is the Bayeux Tapestry.

And isn’t it interesting to think of how early medieval Europe and pre-European Bengal developed beautiful — but very different — art using the same basic materials and the inspiration and skill of embroiderers?  Indeed, stories in narrative textiles have been, and continue to be, told the world over.   And they bring beauty to our lives and can build community and sustainable livelihoods, regardless of how they are called.

What does “tapestry” mean to you?