Whenever Gerda told the story about how she started designing needlework, she always mentioned how she was struck by the plants and animals of the Unicorn Tapestries that she saw at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. One of her first designs, at the request of the Handcrafts Guild, was a little rabbit based on one in the tapestries.
I recently received a book on Gerda’s stitchery, one I had ordered from Japan. It’s in Japanese, but the contents are pretty clear. One of the illustrations is a photo of that humble little pattern, with the areas to be stitched colored by watercolors. If you look closely, you can see the small numerals which indicate what thread was to be used for each area.
Next to this illustration is one of the design all stitched up. At this point, Gerda’s designs were being completely stitched, background and all. It would not be until later that she would decide that one strand of flower thread on loosely-woven linen would give the lighter, more delicate effect that best suited plants.
The tapestries Gerda saw in Paris were made in Flanders of wool and silk, about 1511. The set includes one tapestry for each of the five senses plus a larger one entitled À Mon Seul Désir.
Recently, I had a chance to see the equally famous set of unicorn tapestries, The Unicorn Hunt, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in New York City. The set of seven (in varying sizes, one represented only by two fragments) was woven of wool, silk, and gold sometime between 1495 and 1500, most likely in Brussels.
Though the Cluny tapestries have red backgrounds and the Hunt tapestries have dark backgrounds, and the Hunt series is much more detailed, the two sets share some strong design similarities, most notably the gorgeous millefleur back- grounds. Seeing the Hunt tapestries in person was a magical experience, especially in such a beautiful, castle-like setting. I can only imagine that I shared the same enchantment Gerda felt. It was a fresh breath of inspiration.
I also found, to my delight, a little rabbit among the blossoms of the Hunt tapestries. I think he must be a cousin of the one Gerda saw.