This post comes from Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham University.
My hangings all of Tyrian tapestry;
In ivory coffers I have stuffed my crowns,
In cypress chests my arras counterpoints.
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions bossed with pearl,
Valence of Venice gold in needlework.
The Taming of the Shrew, II, 1, 351-56.
This sixteenth-century textile fragment was originally thought to be part of a wall-hanging, often called an arras. An arras was a tapestry, usually of rich fabric, that was hung around the walls of households providing light insulation against the British weather as well as providing a decorative aspect to the domestic interior. Figures or narrative scenes could be woven into them. An arras was often hung from the wall at such a distance that a person could easily pass between the wall and the hanging and in this way an arras worked as a material partition or screen. In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are filled with references to people concealing themselves behind an arras: In order to spy on Hamlet, Polonius hides himself behind an arras in Gertrude’s closet, Falstaff falls asleep behind the arras in Henry IV, Part I, and Borachio whips himself behind an arras and eavesdrops on a conversation between the Prince and Count Claudio in Much A Do About Nothing. It appears that in Shakespeare’s plays, an arras was employed for much more than simple wall decoration!
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has recently identified this textile fragment as Dornix. Dornix was originally a mixture of wool and linen and was heavily damasked. The damask was often a simple pattern, usually a flower or simple figure, formed by crossing the pattern thread in a different direction to the surface which made the textile reversible. Dornix was used in Church vestments and altar hangings but was also found within the domestic household.
The presence of textiles in the home drew attention to the owner’s social position, wealth, learning, and knowledge of current fashions. Only the higher social orders would have owned woven tapestries. Phillip Stubbes, writing in the 1580s, comments directly on the use of textiles in English houses, “for as cloth of gold, arase [arras], tapestrie, and other riche ornaments, pendices, and hangings in a house of estate serve not onely to manuall uses and servile occupations, but also to decorate, to bewtifie [beautify], and become the house and to show the rich estate and glorie of the owner.”