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If you’ve ever visited the Palace of Versailles, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the fabulous tapestries hanging on the walls and the rich carpets in many of the rooms. Amazing, right? Well, the Manufacture des Gobelins is where these amazing textile artworks were — and still are — made.
The history of Les Gobelins begins in the 15th century, when a fabric dying workshop owned by the Gobelin family set up shop on the banks of the Bièvre river, down in what is today the 13th Arrondissement. Back then, the area was a smelly suburb where tanners, dyers, and pig farmers took advantage of the water flowing in the small river.
The neighborhood soon became renowned for its colors and the Gobelin family bought up much of the land and workshops in the area. The family’s name and reputation remained, and in the early 1600s, King Henri IV bought the workshops to create a royal factory for tapestries and furniture, called Les Gobelins.
Fast forward to Louis XIV, his grandson, who needed to spruce up his château in Versailles, and the long tradition of fine tapestry and carpet manufacture began.
Even though I’m not particularly interested in sewing or tapestry, I have always been intrigued as to what is behind closed doors of this factory, and I wasn’t disappointed!
Only open to the public for guided tours, it feels very special to get a glimpse inside the historic factory where this ancient art is being kept alive as it was then.
The studio itself has hardly changed since the day of Louis XIV. Yes, the workshops are now housed in a 1960s building, the workers no longer live on site, and the river Bièvre is now underground, but the spirit — and the techniques — remain the same.
30 people work here, are trained on site and work only during daylight hours to make the most out of the large studio windows. Watching the select few artists at work, tying knots, pushing each knot down countless times to create carpets and tapestries according to original designs and blending colors just so, is quite honestly astounding.
The dedication, the patience, the skill; it’s incredible to see. They are currently working on a carpet for the Salon d’Apollon of Versailles which will take several years to complete. A modern tapestry on show in the stairwell, designed by artist Tania Mouraud, took an incredible eight years to complete.
Whether modern commissions or classic designs, all of the carpets, rugs, and tapestries of Les Gobelins are incredible works of art and devotion. A visit here is like watching history in action.