Madrid's Real Fábrica de Tapices - the Royal Tapestry Factory - is not so much an industrial plant as an artists' studio. Even in the 21st century, everything is done by hand, continuing a tradition that was established in Madrid nearly 400 years ago.
The factory was founded in 1721 by Felipe V. He may have got the idea from his grandfather, the French king Louis XIV: tapestry workshops had existed in France for 100 years. Felipe recruited a Flemish weaver from Antwerp, Jacob Vandergoten, who moved to Madrid with his family and began making tapestries. Everything was done by hand, the craftsmen working according to the templates - known as cartoons - created by draftsmen and court artists. Among these was Goya, whose original sketches are on display in the Prado museum; they include a series of rural scenes, picnics and outdoor dancing. Other tapestries woven according to Goya's designs still hang in the Bourbon apartments of the Monastery of El Escorial.
Today, tapestries are still made using the 18th-century method. The dimensions of each piece are established, and vertical cotton threads in a neutral colour are attached to a wooden frame. The design is transferred on to these threads, and then the picture is created by weaving coloured wool and silk horizontally across the vertical threads using a pointed wooden shuttle. It is a slow and painstaking process; stand and watch a craftsman at work, and you will need to be there for some time before there appears to be any sign of progress. It takes one craftsman more than three months to complete a single square metre of tapestry, and it isn't unusual for several craftsmen to work together on the larger pieces. They sit on stools in an airy workroom, with piles of wool lying all around them. The wool comes from all over Spain, and it is dyed in the factory to create exactly the right shade to suit each tapestry design.
Inevitably the demand for fine, hand-made tapestries is not what it was, although a number of wealthy people still hang them in their homes; but these days more effort goes into restoring old pieces than into creating new ones.
Carpets are also made here, a cheaper and easier process where the wool is attached to the base fabric with different styles of knots. To get an idea of what the finished product can look like, pop into the Ritz Hotel in Madrid's Plaza de la Lealtad and look at the carpets in the public areas: they were woven at the factory.
The factory's workshops are busy enough to provide work for around 50 craftsmen and 40 students, but they also form part of a living museum. Visitors are welcome to look around the factory, see the craftsmen at work and admire the old tapestries on display.
At the end of a visit, you may be inspired to take a tapestry home, but like any other work of art it won't come cheap. The factory is happy to take commissions, and potential customers can choose either an original design or one created centuries ago according to the drawings kept in the archive. If you like the idea of a tapestry for yourself, expect to pay €12,000 (£8,570) per square metre. Carpets are cheaper at €900 (£643) per square metre.
The Royal Tapestry Factory is at Calle Fuentarrabia 2 (00 34 91 434 0550; www.realfabricadetapices.com). It opens 10am-2pm Monday-Friday, and admission is €2.50 (£1.80).Reuse content