How to Identify an Antique Tapestry

Antique tapestries had three functions to fulfill: decoration; the addition of warmth and insulation to cold palace and manor walls; and portability between the many homes of the wealthy. The larger the tapestry, the more likely it is that it's an old one. Manufacturing facilities during the Victorian Age churned out hanging textiles for the middle class meant to replicate the furnishings in the homes of the wealthy, but these tapestries were much smaller and looked different.

Medieval tapestry detail
credit: DurdenImages/iStock/Getty Images
A detail from a medieval tapestry.

Country of Origin

Passed in 1890, the McKinley Tariff Act set new laws and fees for importing goods into America from other countries. To identify items for this tariff, imported goods were required to have a mark that indicated their country of origin. Hand-woven tapestries from 1891 to 1913 only have the country's name stamped on the back of the tapestry, usually in a faded blue ink, but in 1914, the words "made-in" were added that can help identify an imported tapestry's age.

Tapestry Construction

Though the word tapestry historically represents hand-woven textiles, say the experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not all tapestries are handmade. By the Victorian Age, the middle class, in replication of the home furnishings of the wealthy, turned to newly manufactured tapestries. These tapestries appeared more gray with pastel colors to simulate age; plus, they have a continuous weft -- horizontal threads on the backside. Hand-woven tapestries have discontinuous cross-woven strands. Examine the fabric to determine if it is hand-woven or manufactured, as this can help narrow down its age. Turn the tapestry over; if it's hand-woven, you should be able to see the pictorial design on its backside.

Color Quality

Antique weavers, bereft of the synthetic dyes available nowadays, used plant-based dyes to achieve the vibrant colors in the tapestry. With exposure to light and time, these colors begin to fade, losing their richness. If the front of the tapestry appears faded, but its backside still reveals bright, rich colors, the tapestry is old and handmade. Manufactured tapestries replicate the look of fading, but they won't show a bright color on the opposite side, as they often used pastel or similar colors in imitation of fading.

Subject Matter

Hand-made and even Victorian manufactured tapestries tell a story. Ancient tapestries focused on religious or mythological stories; whereas Victorian-age manufactured tapestries might depict scenes from foreign or exotic lands. Late 19th- and early 20th-century tapestries often displayed a European pastoral scene or rural life.

When All Else Fails

When you cannot identify the age of your tapestry, a professional appraiser with experience in quilts, textiles and wall hangings can help you establish the age of your tapestry. The professional may even provide you with guidelines for its care or recommend a conservator who can repair and clean it for you. Tapestries that are 100 years or older require special handling and care; do not hand-wash or put these items into a washing machine if you want them to last.