Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why would you weave a tapestry from the back?

"Really? You weave your tapestries from the back? How do you know what it looks like?"

I get this question a lot when students come to one of my classes for the first time. I try to let them know ahead of time, but many miss the message. I let them weave from the front. I even teach them how to do it. But I continue to make my work woven from the back.

If that isn't bad enough, I also use a low-warp loom. Yes. I weave my tapestries on a horizontal loom with treadles. And it even has a beater. And I use it. I know. Crazy.

For those of you who don't understand, I can only list the reasons why... and then shrug a little and tell you that this is how I learned.

Let me give you a few reasons why you might want to try it.

1.  For the first I'll defer to a true master. When reading Jean Pierre Larochette's new book The Tree of Lives recently (see excerpts in this post), I came across this passage. Given the well-deserved reverence for the name Jean Pierre Larochette in tapestry circles, I feel just a little smug in quoting this from page 317-8 (just in case you have the book and want to make sure I wasn't making this up).
I do not intend to eulogize low-warp weaving. But feeling the urge of a vanishing species -- the low-warp, weaving-from-the-back tapestry weaver -- I have to point out that there is an experience, regardless of the merits of the outcome there is a physical and mental experience that is unique to the practice of weaving from the back. Of course I am thinking about the weaver's experience, but to some extent this is perceived by the viewer, too. It is part of the enchantment and attraction that tapestry exerts on us. Weaving from the back allows for the inclusion of the intuitive, that which transcends the individual effect of any artist, beyond the analytical eye-driven decision making process. The sensorial wholesomeness of the traditional approach has inspired weavers of all ages. As in any art form, weaving is an attempt to capture and communicate an idea. The idea in the artist's mind, always elusive, can be expressed only by approximation, lyrical suggestion. The tapestry expression is best fulfilled when it retains its poetic spirit. In the effort toward visual control the woven image is often dissected to such an extent that, although we may admire its well-crafted quality, that which speaks to our emotions is lost.*
2.  Another giant of contemporary tapestry weaving, Archie Brennan, began weaving from the back. Somewhere along the way he switched to weaving from the front. He has frequently stated (or at least it is frequently repeated by tapestry weavers) that weaving from the back is driven by technique and weaving from the front is driven by image. In a world where WYSIWYG**, perhaps this is the way it should be. All I know is that mysterious quality that Jean Pierre talks about in the quote above is something that is important to me.

3.  Technique. Several techniques I use frequently are easier from the back. One is a jump-over technique which is just a form of regular hatching. I hate trying to fish those pairs of butterflies out from behind every other sequence and have much more success with their placement and color change from the back. Another is splicing. I love having a clean back to my tapestries. It makes them float in the air, means they can be thin and flat, and sometimes seen from the back. So I like to splice my tails so I can snip off the ends instead of sewing them in, and it is easier to splice with the tails coming toward you. And the one interlock join I use (see this video) leaves a flatter join when woven from the back. Other people use joins like the double weft interlock which also are easier from the back.

4.  When weaving from the front you are in constant contact with the front side of your work which makes it harder to keep it clean over the length of a project. This is probably more of an issue on a low-warp loom where the fabric goes across the breast beam than a high-warp loom.

5.  I get the surprise of seeing a piece I have never seen before when I cut it off. No matter how I think I know what it will look like, I don't. Fun, right?

6.  It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I like it my way.

I suppose the unfortunate majority of you who weave from the front will come back with something like, "but I can see exactly what I'm doing!" And in response to that, I send you back to Jean Pierre.
*Larochette, J.P., Lurie, Y (2014). The Tree of Lives: Adventures Between Warp and Weft. Berkeley, CA: Genesis Press.
**What You See is What You Get

Monday, November 24, 2014

The process... so much happens before you start weaving a tapestry

Do you ever get completely carried away with something and just don't want to stop? I started dyeing yarn for my new piece a few weeks ago and I just kept finding new colors I wanted to try. I was forced to stop by sudden sub-zero temperatures and freezing fingers, even in the garage. I considered cranking up the heaters, but decided the universe was trying to tell me, enough already.

Though I like to think that a new tapestry is something I can just jump into, it turns out my process is somewhat ponderous. Slow. Doesn't so much turn on a dime as pivots like an 18-wheeler. My current piece is no exception.

I wrote a bit about the design and cartoon process in THIS blog post. I had the first version of this piece ready to go when I had my studio in Santa Fe. Actually, I even started the piece last spring and had to cut it off when we moved. Then change happened and the design evolved and the new piece took awhile to arrive out of the ether or wherever new designs come from. (Hint: They come from a lot of very hard work.)

Once the design was largely finished I started the process of finding the right colors. I have quite a lot of yarn on my shelves, but it is all leftover from old pieces, dye experiments, and teaching. Most of the balls are no longer tagged and I have no idea what dye formulas I used to create them. In a large piece like this, I have to have enough yarn and I wanted to be able to replicate the colors should I run out (frankly unlikely since I dye enough to cover castle walls though I don't have a castle).

I was having so much fun dyeing, it went on and on.
Eventually I created this matrix of purples. This are three different purple formulas with two further options for each color, one toned with black and one with brown.
I did some sampling with these yarns and eventually I decided on the specific combination for the piece and dyed five more intermediate colors for a gradation for four of the sets from that matrix.
I also dyed a bunch of these fall-like colors for another aspect of the piece.
The weather has gotten warmer again and there were a "few more" colors to dye (turns out a few is 30 for me). There was a large part of the design for which I was going to use a set of colors from another tapestry. After sampling, that idea went out the window. There was too much black in it and I needed something lighter.

So today was a 12-pot day. Thirty colors, three days. Normally I wouldn't do 12 colors in a day, but I couldn't bear one more day of it. The glittery fun that is dyeing my own yarn lost its luster about 15 pots ago.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Untitled/Unjuried piece... Personals

I think I got exactly zero comments on my piece in the American Tapestry Alliance's Untitled/Unjuried show in Rhode Island last summer. Perhaps it puzzled people. Perhaps it wasn't interesting. Or perhaps they just didn't want to ask if the word "lesbian" was really woven into it.
The answer is yes.
The piece is called Personals.
I wove this piece years ago and for whatever reason felt that this was the opportunity to put it in a show.

Posting this piece on my blog is a bit of a risk. It shouldn't be, but it still feels that way. I haven't made the fact that I am married to a woman a secret in this space, but if you really wanted to ignore it, you could. It is a risk because my livelihood rides in large part on people respecting me and what I do. And lets face it. There are many people out there who don't understand people like me.

People like me.
You know. The LGBTQ (sometimes there are more letters added... just go with it) people. Fortunately the world in general has lightened up a bit in the last decade on this "issue". Thank goodness for that. (Frankly, I just hope that we've finally realized there are FAR more important things to spend time debating than the gender of someone's partner.)

This piece was woven quite a few years ago. It was conceived of years before that. Before I met the love that I spend my days with now. Back when I was lonely and wandering through northern New Mexico wishing for connections of some kind somewhere. In one of those lonely swirling moments, a friend I worked with saw me pumping gas at a little station in Taos, pulled up next to me and said (though she is fiercely straight), "Lesbians. Wanted. Here." It was a lovely, sweet, friendly thing to do in a moment I really needed someone to tell me that I was okay.

I scribbled this little design down in my journal a few days later and there it lived until I resurrected it on my first Mirrix.

So there you have it. Lesbians wanted here. It was intended as a question. One design of this piece had a large transparent W at the beginning of the word here, which is, you may have noticed, already backwards.
Where indeed?

Perhaps this was exactly the perfect piece for a show called Untitled/Unjuried. Personally, I'd prefer to be both.

The Untitled/Unjuried American Tapestry Alliance show was lovely. A huge thanks to Janet Austin and her team for putting it together and displaying it at Convergence in Providence last summer. It was a show full of delightful things and I recommend, if you're a catalog collector like me, that you get one for yourself and see what marvelous little things people made for it. I wrote more about it HERE.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jean Pierre Larochette, Yael Lurie, and The Tree of Lives

I found the house with the help of a crumpled flier and the GPS in my iPhone. There were excited, jolly people gathering outside on a back street in Golden, CO in mid-October. I was welcomed into the crowd and ushered into the large-windowed splendor of Sally’s house. We were there to attend a book signing by Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie. Jean Pierre and Yael are a weaver/designer tapestry team whose influence on the medium in the west is legendary. This was something I knew intellectually, but after diving into their newly released book, The Tree of Lives, their influence and story came alive in my mind.
I have enjoyed many long hours reading Jean Pierre’s stories over the last few weeks. He grew up in Argentina and the string of stories he tells brought me right into his young life. He and Yael also talk about her early life in a kibbutz, their meeting, and their decades of adventure since. Their lives have been full of travel, friends, and art. When reading the book, I felt the same genuine love and sense of wonder at the world that I felt in their presence.

Here is a taste straight from Jean Pierre’s vision:
Verdures are tapestries of great attraction and meaning to me. Since my earliest childhood they became the representation of a natural world I longed to discover. Before I was old enough to be allowed to go hiking into the mountains, or camp out with my friends, or start weaving, I built for myself a pocket-size survivor’s kit. It contained fishing line, hooks and a box of matches. Armed with my kit I felt I could adventure safely into the landscape of the Verdures, stepping into the tapestries in a fantasy journey full of mysteries. Walking at the edge of a ravine upstream following the soft rolling hills, going past the oak trees toward the distant castle, alert to the signs of animal life, hiding from hunters, in my imagination I discovered the lure of traveling the ancient way, with just me, a walking stick and my survivor’s kit.*
They gave a short talk about their book, tapestries, and lives that night at Sally’s house. And wonder of wonders, they brought two tapestries we could examine. Yael’s designs are, as Jean Pierre describes them, baroque in nature. They are dense with activity especially images of birds and hands. They have completed many tapestries for synagogues and there are color plates of four of their Tree of Life tapestries in the book. Jean Pierre says that he envisioned this book as “a tree with branches symbolizing the lives that have touched us – family, friends, places, relationships – that even if distant in time, have helped shape our lives.”

Jean Pierre finishes the book talking about the cycles of life. Each February and March he and Yael create a new piece in the Water Songs series, “Foreshadowing the arrival of spring, the process has become a rite, a woven evocation.” And in each decade they have completed a Tree of Life tapestry. “The recurrence of this symbolic theme has given us a sense of continuity, of moving forward, stimulating our resolve in times of uncertainty.”

The Tree of Lives: Adventures between Warp and Weft is a fascinating account of two adventurous souls and the place tapestry has in their journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet these two wonderful people and happy that they put their stories into print for the rest of us to enjoy.

*Larochette, J.P., Lurie, Y (2014). The Tree of Lives: Adventures Between Warp and Weft. Berkeley, CA: Genesis Press.

UPDATE 11/15/14: If you'd like a copy of The Tree of Lives, you can email Jean Pierre to order. He hopes eventually to have them available online. Email jplarochette (at) earthlink (dot) net

Monday, November 10, 2014

The importance of being open to continued learning... no matter what

I learned pretty much all of my foundational tapestry skills from James Koehler. He was a wonderful teacher in many ways. Many of you have also studied with him and you know what I mean when I say he was an exacting teacher. He had his way of doing things and he stuck to them. This method has value when you are a beginner. I didn't know what I didn't know. I followed his rules and I learned a great deal. I became a tapestry weaver who could produce a beautiful flat fabric which looks much like James' tapestries did. (I'm not saying I'm James, I'm saying he taught me well.)

But I firmly believe in the value of diversity. It is important to broaden your horizons throughout life. I had a therapist once who asked everything in terms of whether it made my world bigger. "That huge decision you're talking about, does it make your world bigger or does it box you in? Does it present an opportunity for growth or does it perpetuate the stagnation you are experiencing right now?" Actually I doubt she said stagnation. She probably just told me what I was doggedly worrying on for years and years was bullsh*t and I needed to pay attention to what was really important.

This perspective is important in relation to continued learning in tapestry and art. It took me awhile after James died to realize that I had to move forward with my art in my own way. He wasn't here anymore for me to follow, and in a lot of ways, this was a gift. I started paying much more attention to the wider tapestry community and was able to make my bubble bigger.

Here is a specific example. I took a workshop from Joan Baxter in September. She creates breathtakingly beautiful work which is very grounded in the land, narrative, and subtle color shifts. Her work is misty and questioning and full of depth, very different from mine, and I adore it. Changes in the foundations of what I've been doing for many years like the thickness of the warp, the style and bundling of the yarn, and design ideas were eye opening for me.

I am smack dab in the middle of a lot of change in my own process... wait, that is called being an artist, isn't it? I have been dyeing yarn for a week and loving almost every minute of it (the questions of the clerks at Walgreens when I go to get a propane tank refill at 10 pm are getting a little old... they always ask me if I'm grilling tonight as in, "Grilling in this snow?" or "Little late for a barbeque, isn't it?"). Piles of new colors are making their way through a sampling process. Soon I'll have some final picks and the big loom will be warped.

What changes do you experience in your process which are started by a new teacher or a new discovery? I'd love to hear about it! (Comments! They're below!)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Mary Cost, tapestry artist opening at the Contemporary Tapestry Gallery

LaDonna Mayer has embarked on an ambitious project in Santa Fe. She has opened a new gallery devoted to fiber art called The Contemporary Tapestry Gallery. LaDonna is the architect of the 51 American Cities project (read more about that HERE). Her vision for the gallery is a place to showcase contemporary tapestry art. I was able to see a wonderful show of Bengt Erikson's tapestries there in September and her upcoming line-up of shows should prove to be inspirational.

November's show features the work of Mary Cost in a series of pieces entitled Fractured Light. Knowing Mary's warm and inviting color palette and her ability to manipulate hue and value in her soft and inviting architectural forms, this show will be wonderful.
Mary Cost, Suddenly the Sun
Fractured Light: effects of sunlight and shadow on New Mexico's enduring adobe walls.

Mary says this about her work:
It was when I moved to New Mexico that I discovered tapestry. My earliest tapestries reflect the strong colors, bold contrasts and essentially straightforward approach to design acquired working in stained glass. Since then, my work has grown and developed to encompass both pure abstraction and figurative imagery, subtle gradations of shade and hue, and deliberate manipulation of the varied textures and techniques unique to the art of tapestry.
Mary hand-dyes all her own yarn and weaves on a Macomber floor loom from her Santa Fe studio.

Fractured Light will be showing at The Contemporary Tapestry Gallery from November 9 to December 6, 2014. There is an opening reception Sunday, November 9th from 3-5 pm.

Mary Cost, Rain Over the Mountains

Mary Cost's website:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Online tapestry classes... a fun way of learning how to create your own weavings

My online tapestry classes have been running for about 8 months now. I started the frankly monumental project of creating these classes because I wanted another way for people to learn about tapestry. I love teaching in-person workshops and feel that a mix of learning face to face and online is a great way to go. The online classes give students a chance to practice and have instructor feedback over the long haul. I have had so much fun teaching in this way. I'd love to have you join my online tapestry community!

Below is a video of some of the student work over the last 6 months. (Psst: If you click the YouTube icon in the lower right corner, you can watch the video in a larger version and subscribe to my YouTube channel while you're there!)

Registration for the January class is open now. This class is all three parts in one class and is called All-Three-In-One. This allows you to access all of the material at once and work at whatever pace is right for you. The preliminary information about materials and tools for the class is available as soon as you register. The rest of the material is released on January 5th at 10am MST. Wouldn't a class like this be a great holiday gift? (NOT to rush the holiday season... but who needs more stuff when education is available?! ...of course you'll need a loom and some yarn which I'm sure Santa can squeeze in his sleigh.)

If you prefer to take the three parts of the course separately, there is a great Part 1 class running right now. Due to various mathematical errors made by yours truly, this class runs until June 30th. So there is still plenty of time to jump into it. Part 2 opens in January and Part 3 in February again with plenty of time to finish before the summer. It is snow time in Colorado and that makes me want to mess around with yarn. If you live in the southern hemisphere, consider bringing your loom to the beach.

For more information about all of these classes, a trailer video, a FAQ page, and student testimonials, visit my website at I can't wait to meet you all!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The importance of Skill... knowing what you're doing instinctively and nailing it in a critical moment

I suppose we all have moments that we wish hadn't happened. We wish we had taken a different turn or decided to do something else that day. A Friday a few weeks ago was one of those days for me. It was, all in all, a brilliant afternoon. Beautiful fall weather, a nice hike in the high country, a drive through the Colorado mountains to a weekend family retreat. But then that one thing happened. We came around a corner on a two-lane mountain highway and saw a couple cars pulled haphazardly to the shoulder, several people running fast toward a person lying face down at the edge of the road, an SUV on the shoulder, and a motorcycle in the ditch... debris spread for a 100 yards along the road.

First on the scene of an accident is not on the list of happy events in any day, especially when you have medical training and know you can't just drive by and feel okay about it. That moment when I was running toward the guy on the shoulder and 5 people stood over him asking who had medical training and I heard that there were two paramedics and an RN there, I was very very thankful. I would have done my best, but in this situation, paramedic and RN trump OT every single day of the week.

Skill is something that takes a long time to acquire. The off-duty medical personnel at the accident had tremendous skill. It isn't just knowing what to do, it is having the experience to be able to do it. This also true in tapestry weaving. Creation of a tapestry involves a learned knowing in the muscles of your body. That doesn't come just through intellectual understanding. It comes through years of manipulating warp and weft and through the doing of it, gaining understanding about the material, the color, and the form.

My tapestry students frequently are people who want things to be correct. I find that many weavers are like this. They want order and they want it to happen quickly. I struggle with communicating to them how long it takes to learn the nuance. It takes repetition over years and years to make the skill flow from your fingers and perhaps even bypass your brain. This is important and the only way to get to it is practice.

Sam's injuries were extensive. I don't think any of us who have medical training and faced each other over his body in that first moment thought he had a chance of leaving that road alive. He was pronounced at the scene. He was 50. That RN in her purple print scrub top and white white pants had skill. She was a bad-ass who called the shots and did everything exactly right. Those pants were so white even while everything else was covered in blood.