Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tapestry weaving differently

I have had a few experiences lately that have led me to believe that I weave tapestry differently than most people. This is honestly a somewhat new revelation... perhaps born of denial. I weave from the back, which in itself might be acceptable considering all the French tapestry weavers who also do this, but I also weave on a floor loom largely from side to side. By that I mean that I weave all the way across the fell line and beat with a the beater on the loom.

I can just hear the lot of you gasping in horror. Yes, what I mean is that I weave one. pick. at. a. time. All the way across.
It was a conversation I had recently with Susan Martin Maffei that sparked this particular thought jungle. Susan was in Santa Fe in June after teaching a class in Albuquerque. She gave a lecture titled Under the Influence or Is It Just Inspiration? in which we learned a lot about her process and how her work has evolved over her career. (If you don't know Susan's work, please go to her website right now and take a look. But don't forget to come back here!) I found Susan fascinating and wished her talk was hours longer than it was. She has woven on all kinds of looms in all sorts of orientations (front, back, low warp, high warp) and studied in France including at the Gobelins. She has studied many kinds of textiles including pre-Columbian, her partner is Archie Brennan whom she collaborates with frequently, she teaches and lectures frequently, and her work is quite fascinating. She currently weaves on scaffolds, moving her body up the piece so she can see the whole thing instead of rolling the tapestry in any way. And she weaves large complicated pieces without any sort of cartoon at all.

She has done a series of narrative tapestries which you can see on her website which include a piece called Morning Walk & River Tides, 12 inches tall, 19 feet long. This piece includes quipus which indicate the time of high and low tide. Susan also talked a lot about the marks of tapestry and taking into account the medium when creating. She talked some about her sett (6 to 10 epi) and how working at a coarser set forces you to work with the marks of tapestry and get in touch with tapestry as a medium instead of a way of reproducing something. I am definitely on board with this line of thinking and hope to explore it even more in my next series of work.

A few days after Susan's talk there was an opening in the studio of a local artist and I was able to go and see some of her work. Due to some unavoidable circumstances involving a job, I was quite late. Luckily for me, most of the other guests had left and I had a chance to talk to Susan. Because James Koehler was my mentor and she knew him, we talked some about him. She had mentioned in her talk that tapestry was all about building up little areas of color to make an image. James did not do this. He wove all the way across the warp one pick at a time and beat with the loom beater.

So then I went to the Pacific Northwest and spent a lot of time with weavers from that part of the country include a good studying of the Tapestry Artists of Puget Sound show (which you can see more about in THIS blog post). Most of these weavers weave on an upright loom, from the front, with bobbins, building up little shapes. I was challenged in Shelley Socolofsky's class to weave in this way (except for the bobbin part. That was asking just one bit too much.). And then I had some conversations with Mary Lane and Shelley about this. I watched Mary weave a little with her bobbins. I tried making little shapes out of my cartoon and building them up one at a time. And I realized that for this kind of image, weaving this way is much faster. There is much less picking up and putting down of tools and yarn.

Shelley talked some about the language of tapestry both in her lecture at the Small Tapestry International 3 opening and in the Traces workshop. Her class brought up again many questions for me about what can be said with traditional tapestry considering the existence of jacquard weaving. And coming from what both Susan and Shelley had said, my own questions about creating while considering the medium of tapestry and its (considerable) constraints.

I have been thinking about this for a few weeks now. Is my method of weaving really NOT tapestry? Well no. Is it traditional? Not in the medieval sense of tapestry, no. It is the tradition of the regional Hispanic weavers of New Mexico (though their techniques are different and I don't use them). I don't weave realistic images and I doubt I ever will. My work is somewhat driven by technique aimed at a certain effect and I can create that the easiest working from the back.

I think that what kind of image you are weaving should dictate the technique you are using. I really enjoyed weaving the sample in Shelley's class and intend to try weaving this way again if the image I am creating dictates that decision. I am excited to broaden my capabilities in various techniques. Am I going to change how I weave the current work I am doing? No. I feel that weaving broad color gradations that are climbing up the warp using continual hatching and color changes lends itself well to this "weaving all the way across" kind of work. And I frankly don't care if the purists tell me I am not weaving tapestry.

Here is the piece I am currently working on. The "gaspers" will be happy to note that I am going to use some eccentric weft and thus am building up some curves. Yes, I will have to use a hand beater. No, I will not be using bobbins.

Happy weaving! Feel free to share your thoughts on all of this in the comments below.


  1. I agree with you. The image desired should dictate the technique. It should also dictate the loom used and whether bobbins or butterflies....

    I always prefer to weave from the back but when weaving a face I simply must weave from the front to ensure each dot of color is in the right place for the eyes to sparkle and the mouth to convey the right feeling. I would normally work the piece from the back and switch to the front at those special spots then switch back again.


    1. I am considering doing a piece like you describe where there is a section I would want to weave from the front on my upright LeClerc Gobelin loom so that I can switch to the other side to weave for a little bit. A great advantage of that loom I suppose! I definitely can't do that on the floor loom.

  2. How dare you accuse yourself of not weaving tapestry?! This was a very interesting and thought-provoking post, though. Thank you!

  3. Rebecca- I enjoyed your post and thoughts. Perhaps- you need to re-read the definition of tapestry before you say you are not weaving tapestry. Gaspers often times don't know what they are talking about and live in a preconcieved world in small boxes and aren't always accurate and should be ignored for the most part. The traditional definition of Tapestry is a weft faced weave structure, that covers the warp with the posssibility of not being woven from selvedge to selvedge or having a discontnuous weft. Aubusson weavers are also low warp tapestry weavers that weave from the back. Shelley's pieces could also have been woven straight across the fell line just as easily as being build up. We just choose not to. The imnportant thing about building up shapes is the continuity of thought you can achieve in weaving the shape up. It has the possibility of being more of a thought process allowing you to work on just that one design element when doing complex imagery that isn't necessarily even photo realistic.

  4. Lovely to read! I'm all about the finished piece and how successful it is.

  5. What a lovely dip in your weaving!

  6. personally I don't think there is a right or wrong way to weave a tapestry! there are so many different ways! Every individual tapestry weaver has their own idiosyncrasies of the way they work and it depends on the way you want your tapestry to look in the end product.

  7. Love this post, Rebecca!

    I found the comments Susan made about choosing a coarser sett extremely interesting. I was influenced to start weaving at a coarser sett during my studies with Silvia because she does (I was weaving at an epi of 10, then went to 7, now I'm using 5), but I soon realized a huge benefit-- it forced me to give up on rigidly trying to represent the subject & instead allows me to interpret it. Because of this I have begun to see there can be a big difference between representation & interpretation. And this has helped me to feel much more free & satisfied in my weaving.

    Early on, when I first started weaving, someone (maybe a gasper?) looked at a couple of my early pieces & said to my face, "You know, what you are doing isn't tapestry. You know why? Because your WARP is SHOWING". God, how humiliating... I felt like my butt crack was hanging out in public. But, later on, as I came to learn more about tapestry & see different weavers' styles... guess what? I saw warp showing, especially in the works of Helena Hernmarck & Silvia Heyden. Not sure that person would walk up to either of those weavers & say the same thing to their faces. Or to James either. If bits of warp show here & there, if someone weaves a pick straight across & beats every time... what is produced, as Kathe has pointed out, is still a weft faced textile. A tapestry produced by human hands, not a machine. Isn't that one of the reasons why we love our medium so dearly? I think that those folks who seem to have the time to nit pick & judge other's work in such a harsh manner may have a little too much time on their hands. Maybe they should spend more time weaving.

  8. Hi Rebecca! I have been thinking about trying tapestry on my floor loom, but I'm not sure what to do about the cartoon. Do you use a cartoon? How do you juggle it on the floor loom? Thanks :) -Janet

    1. Hi Janet! I do use a cartoon but I can't leave it on the loom. I have it rolled and I pin it onto the warp and trace it on periodically as I advance. I think this is a great question and maybe I'll do a little video about it this weekend. Then you can see for sure. I'll post it on the blog.

    2. Thank you for your response and for the video! I struggle with attaching a cartoon on a vertical tapestry frame, so I appreciate all the advice :)

  9. Nice post, Rebecca. I smiled at your opening sentence because "most people" don't weave tapestry. There are gaspers all over the weaving community which is a discouragement to bringing in new weavers.

    We all desperately need new weavers. If they never become tapestry weavers, they will at least appreciate what goes into a tapestry and will possibly become a customer. And if they weave at all, they will purchase materials and equipment that will keep the supplier that I have come to rely on in business.

    so never mind the gaspers....


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