Norwich Tapestry Design – Case study

Norwich Castle is an iconic landmark on the city’s skyline, but it is also one of Europes most important early Medieval castles. ‘A Royal Palace Reborn’ is an exciting, Lottery funded project that will restore the original rooms and floor levels to the castle Keep, giving visitors an opportunity to  experience a Normal Royal Palace for themselves. 

Within the Keep, the kings courtroom is being recreated. In 2017 I was commissioned to design and 18 metre long tapestry to be displayed within its walls. 

Norwich Castle

The Brief

The Tapestry would be in the style of the historical Bayeux tapestry, and use the same long-forgotten Bayeux stitch.

It was to use a similar colour palette to the original tapestry and colours would be restricted to 14 – mirroring the original as closely as possible, using modern thread. 

It would be a community project, and embroidered by a team of volunteers, each being tasked to perfect the Bayeax stitch before embroidering their section. These pieces would then be joined together to form the tapestry. 

It was to tell two stories, both researched and interpreted by the curatorial team at Norfolk Museums Service, and would tell the tales of two east Anglian rebellions against William the Conqueror. Beginning with Norwich Castle being commissioned. 

The first story tells the story of Hereward the Wake, and his rebellion against William the conquerer over Norfolk and the fens. The second story centres around three Earls, and Emma De Guader, who held Norwich Castle agains the Kings army in 1096.

Hereward (with the yellow beard) leading his rebellion

The Work

This was a completely new challenge for me, but one that I was more than happy to rise to. I’d recently begun studying an MA in Childrens book illustration, and had been exploring the realms of sequential visual storytelling in the form of picture books and comics. I was finding many parallels between these modern storytelling techniques, and those used within the Bayeux Tapestry. I bought myself a copy of the tapestry book and got to work studying it. 

At first glance, the job seemed relatively straightforward, but as work started, there were a few hurdles to overcome. 

Firstly, the stories were fairly complex, when I began to lay them out, we found that they were too long to fit within the allocated 15 metres. The characters and borders had to be a certain height to fit the style, so there were a limited number of scenes we could illustrate. I worked alongside the team, helping them to simplify the stories in order for the story to flow, while allowing space for text. To help us, three extra metres were added to the length of the tapestry to allow us a little more room.

Working out the imagery we would use on the tapestry

The next consideration were the materials and colours to be used. I met with the head of the embroidery team, who outlined the great care and attention that had gone into choosing the materials used to create the tapestry. Together we narrowed down the colour palette and formulated a way to make it simple for the embroiderers to follow my design. 

They highlighted technical considerations I needed take into account, such as the frequency of the colour changes. It was crucial to make sure each colour was made the most of, before having to be changed – Minimising the amount of ends to tidy on the back of the tapestry and keeping fiddly details to a minimum. 

The colours would also need to contrast well with their neighbours to prevent getting lost in the piece. To help me visualise how they would look when alongside each other, the team helpfully embroidered up some sample swatches for me to use, using the Bayeux stitch. I scanned these in, and chose a digital palette based on them, Numbered each one, and used it to work from. 

Getting to work

Once the story was simplified and I had plotted the whole piece out with some stick men, I got to work mocking up the first panel – It was crucial that the embroiderers had something to begin working on, in order to practice the stitch and begin the work. 

They did an incredible job, and produced a great body of samples using the initial panel as inspiration. They’ve sewn them together and created promotional material, including banners, cushions and even a waistcoat! 

The volunteer embroidery team showcase their work at the Norwich Makers Festival in Feb 2020 (Pre covid!) ©Norfolk Museums Service

Once the first panel was signed off, I got the go ahead to finish the rest of the work. I studied the Bayeux tapestry to stay on style, and got to work fleshing out the designs, firstly using just black linework, and once this was approved, I added colour. 

I supplied the files as both linework, for the embroiders to trace, and as colour separations so that they could follow the colours easily. 

The Outcome

It’s been an incredible privilege to be a part of the tapestry project. It’s been absolutely amazing to see the design brought to life by the embroidery team and I’m totally in awe of their skills. They have been busy over the past few years, (and especially through the lockdowns of the past 12 months or so) recreating my design as the final tapestry. They’re making excellent progress, and I for one, can’t wait to see the final result. Building work has also now started on the castle keep, and over the next 5 years or so, it will be transformed into a beautiful royal palace. Complete with bespoke, hand embroidered tapestry, telling local tales of rebellion, which will hopefully last for centuries to come. 

You can find out more about the project by visiting the Norwich castle website and the articles below:

https://fionagowen.co.uk/norwich-tapestry-design

https://www.norfolkmag.co.uk/out-about/norfolk-s-own-bayeux-style-tapestry-1-6491357

https://www.edp24.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/norwich-to-get-new-bayeux-tapestry-1480090

https://www.edp24.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/embroiderer-completes-panel-for-castle-tapestry-6417852

Photos of the embroidery and the team are all ©Norfolk Museums service

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s