Contact the Mobilier National in advance either by phone: 01 40 13 46 46 or by email:
reservation.publics @ rmn.fr and they will arrange for an English-speaking guide.
The tour is officially only by “fonctionnaires” (government employees).
You can make arrangements to have a translator along with you on the normally scheduled French tour (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) at 1:30 p.m. Notify them that you will be bringing someone along as a translator and the guide will speak slower.
Or you can come along on the regular French tour and listen in French and have a copy of my guide with you.
Eve Lambrecht (contact numbers and address above) is the person to contact.
Manufacture des Gobelins Tour
A long time ago at Manufacture des Gobelins, in the 1660s, Gobelins tapestries hung outside these buildings, from hooks, as banners decorating the walls to greet Louis XIV and other dignitaries.
They hung inside to warm the walls of a room and replicated paintings.
It would take one worker (licier) one year to complete one meter square of a tapestry (just over a square yard).
Using both high warp and low warp looms and lots of patience,the craftsmen (all women that I saw during my visit) continue working today on tapestries, wall hangings, upholstery and carpets; and the workshops are always recruiting. They work full and part-time after four years of training and competition for positions to become government employees here at the workshops.
She reminds us during our visit that the “Manufacture des Gobelins” (Gobelins Tapestry Factory) is not a museum but an actual workplace.
Taking the Tour
The tours are given in English at a group rate – See Touring Manufacture des Gobelins. Otherwise, you tag along on the French tour.
I have decided to give you my version of the French tour, albeit extremely condensed. Note: This tour dates from a few years ago. Since then, changes may have taken place.
If you take the one and a half hour tour, then you will have a general idea of what is going on.
Most of my group was a mix of nationalities with English as a common language. While taking my notes, I gave quick translations and may have found my next profession (“métier”) – guide translator.
When you buy your ticket, they present you with the history of the royal factories in English
I recommend arriving early so you have time to read ahead. In addition, there will most likely be a crowd.
The fabrication of Gobelins, Beauvais and Savonnerie products is for the French government and not for sale. The works are made as diplomatic gifts or produced through some formal government arrangement. No one can place an order to buy these works of art.
Now, follow along with me on this engaging visit to Gobelins:
The first room
The guide, Sylvie, speaks of why the factory is here and how they manufacture the tapestries. You may take photos during the visit, but no flash. If you would like to take one of the weavers/ licier’s photos, first ask permission. They were all receptive the day I visited.
On these weavings, notice the Gobelins signature: the G and the broche (the tool used for weaving). Each of the three factories has their own signature.
We are in a low building from 1660 where the Gobelins tapestries are made. Sylvie will demonstrate the tools used in each of the three types of weaving as you go along.
In this studio, they are using wool and the high warp loom, facing the natural light (the Beauvais will be low warp – they bend over the loom and use pedals; the Savonnerie is high warp and their backs are to the light).
If you see yellow thread on a piece of work in this studio, it marks a particular date of work and how much has been done since that time.
In the courtyard
Sylvie spoke of the buildings around us. None matches the other. They evolved over the centuries. Even now, the factories are being renovated to make way for a formal museum.
The first building is an original from the Louis XIV, Colbert and le Brun era of 1690.
The entry building where you bought your ticket is what is left of another building – the rest having been destroyed in a fire along with Gobelins tapestries.
Facing the 1600s building is another done in various styles with ornate decorations. Tapestries often hid these decorations. If you look closely near the roof, you will see hooks (crochets). The tapestry banners that I referred to earlier hung from these hooks.
In the chapel
Prior to 1662 a family called the Gobelins lived in this village and were tanners not weavers. The chapel is one of those buildings left from this village of workers.
Just behind the chapel is the route of the ancient Bièvre river where the Gobelins family and other tanners constantly dumped their dyes and other waste. (It is now covered by asphalt. We will cross over it later.)
Our guide proceeds to explain the two tapestries hanging on the wall. These will be the only two ancient tapestries you will see during the visit and are products of the late 17th century and early 18th century.
The one depicts a fire in Rome and the Vatican based on a painting by Raphael. It also demonstrates the framing style that came into vogue with decoration woven into the tapestry.
You will notice also the threads are very fine, much finer than used today.
The other tapestry is using artistic license. It is historically incorrect and depicts some people that were not involved in the scene; it is beautifully done anyway.
The Gobelins signature on these tapestries is the fleur de lis (the emblem of royalty which is in fact an iris) and the G.
Mobilier Nationale (National Furniture Storehouse)
Crossing the street (formerly the Bièvre river) we entered into another courtyard and the Mobilier Nationale, a 1937- era building. This storehouse is run by the Minister of Culture and cannot be visited.
Its contents are most likely fascinating. The most precious state-owned objects will visit here at one time or another for restoration: furniture, chandeliers, carpets, and decorative arts of all kinds.
The destination of these objects after restoration and the carpets and tapestries currently in production are not revealed or might not yet even be known. Everything is state-owned and destined to be used in municipalities all over France.
This activity maintains the creativity of those working here and keeps alive many traditions that would be lost or altered under private ownership.
Our next stop was up the stairs to the Beauvais section, named after a village in the Oise.
As you can see by the handout, Beauvais was incorporated into the National Furniture Storehouse in 1936. But due to WWII bombings moved into the Gobelins enclosure and then into this particular building in 1968.
The Beauvais style is low warp and their signature on the tapestries is MBN (Manufacture Nationale Beauvais).
These tapestries are not lined because they are fire-retardant treated. The guide will most likely show you the reverse side that posts the work’s title, the artist’s name, the dimensions and the signature of the weaver.
The one we were shown took four years to complete.
The Beauvais tapestries use cotton instead of the wool that is found in the Gobelins and Savonnerie works. The Beauvais weavers use pedals, working on the backside of the piece with a mirror underneath. These pieces are usually for upholstery.
If I understood the guide correctly, the name Savonnerie became synonymous with carpeting around 1820. In the Chaillot section of Paris (I would guess around Alma-Marceau area) they manufactured soap and orphans made rugs.
The hand out says in addition that “the Savonnerie Factory gets its name from the old Soap Factory situated on the right bank of the Seine at the foot of the Chaillot hill which Louis XIII bought in 1626 to be used as a carpet manufacturing atelier.”
The Savonnerie style is high warp and this time the weaver works on the correct side of the work, but stills controls the reverse with a mirror.
These weavings take more wool are larger and harder work (involves cutting to produce the velour effect) than the tapestries we saw previously.
Most of the work done nowadays is contemporary in style in order to keep creativity alive. Ancient patterns are used as well, usually to refurbish upholstery, tapestries and carpets already in use, Versailles for example.
I hope this summary will help you on your next visit to Manufacture des Gobelins. (Use Google Translate)