Needle Felting Kits are Here!

bluebird needle felting kitSharing the creative experience of needle felting with students has been both creative and rewarding.  But what if I could package these classes into accessible forms that fiber enthusiasts anywhere could take home, gift, or share with family and friends?  It has been a real journey developing this product, informed by my teaching experience and what I would like to see, if I was the student, in a needle felting kit.

Here are some of the qualifiers:

  • Fun projects with a cute result that can be completed in 3 hours or less.
  • Video tutorial(s)–not a page with pictures and written instructions, as is common.
  • Vibrant colors using wool from our sheep.
  • Everything needed to start and complete the project.
  • Light on packaging materials (who wants to buy a bunch of stuff that just gets thrown away?).

For instance, many needle felting kits don’t include the foam work base or the sewing needle and thread for adding glass eye beads.  But what if you’re up at your Northwoods cabin or staying at a resort and want a fun project?  You might not have things like this ready for you to use.  Result?  Frustration!  The idea behind creating the kits is to add inspiration and creative fun, not invite frustration.  Ergo, the only thing the student needs is their hands and a scissors.

felting kit partsA real part of the adventure for me was filming the needle felting process–breaking the material into lessons, setting up to Go Pro, editing the videos.  Big thank you to Steve Barnes for helping that process happen and getting the tutorials online.  You can view the finished lessons on the Tutorials page of this site!

Another unique attribute used in my needle felting kits is a soft foam ball, upon which the bird body is built.  I have really come to love this method because it’s easy to spend an hour making a felt ball of the same size, when instead I can wrap the ball with roving and then get a running start at the fun parts of my project.  Students have appreciated this jump-start method as well, and the softness of the finished project is no different in-hand than if we had started with all wool.  It might be non-traditional, but that’s how innovations happen.

The Bluebird is only the first in a whole series of planned needle felting kits.  And as we slowly edge into spring on the farm, I know that I am looking forward to seeing the bluebirds again.  But why wait, I can needle felt my own right now.  You can too, with the kits available on my Etsy store.  Cheers to this new endeavor to help share the creative fiber experience, and happy felting!

finished felted bluebird

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Joys and Challenges of Weaving on a Round Loom

seahorse tapestry in studioIt is statistically likely that highly creative people have at least 15 projects laying about in various states of incompletion.  (I heard it explained once that creative people don’t have clutter, it’s just great ideas lying about.)  I’m certainly guilty of that situation, and now and then I get the itch to pick up a languishing project and make a point to finish it.  There’s a real glow when starting off on a new project, and sometimes the grind that ensues after the rush of vision and setup gets sidelined by the enthusiasm of the next new piece.

But  tapestry is incredibly patient, waiting without complaint until I return.  Part of the sidelining of this particular piece was the sheer volume of focused energy required to complete the unicorn tapestry “Deceiving the Hunters,” which left little room for working on the other tapestries in my studio.  But now it was time to pick up this little gem and figure out where I had left off.

Weaving on a round loom comes from the Navajo tradition and a technique I was eager to learn from mentor Fran Potter.  In order to weave a round tapestry, a strong round frame must be found–in my case, the metal base of a swivel chair.  After removing the cross-bars, giving it a good sanding and paint job, the next step was to create the warping board.  Tracing along the inside of the loom frame onto a sturdy board, I then drew out the warp spacing.  At each intersection of warp with frame circumference, that’s where a small nail was pounded into the board.  Zig-zagging the warp across the nails created the right shape and spacing, twining was added around the edge, and followed by lashing the twining and warp onto the frame all the way around with wax linen (a tedious process that’s pretty rough on the hands and fingers).  Then carefully, oh-so-carefully, the loom is lifted off of the warping board and is now ready for weaving.

seahorse cartoon

I’ve made several round loom pieces, which are charming not only for their very unique shape but also for the extreme portability of the loom itself!  I’ve even woven on mine while sitting in the passenger’s seat with the loom propped between my lap and the dash board.  For the cartoons, I hand draw them on paper that I then attach to cardboard to hold up behind the piece for reference, rather than lash the cartoon to the back of the tapestry.  This is due partly because this style of tapestry requires weaving from both ends and meeting somewhere in the middle-ish for finishing.  For this particular cartoon, I was playing with variations on a traditional Celtic zoomorphic seahorse with knotted mane.

I had previously started the fishy tail and a little of the knotwork–enough to get a sense of the coloration I had in mind.  Along with using traditional lopi wool, I was also blending in novelty fibers for texture and sheen.  I wanted to get a sense of the sparkle of the watery world, of scales.  No shiny novelty fibers are used in the “shadows” where knotted parts weave behind each other, adding to the sense of depth that will become more apparent as the piece grows.

seahorse progress detailBecause the space is so tight in a round loom and there are no “sides” to the tapestry, the stick shed has been reduced to a strand of round elastic, and the pull shed has been abandoned.  I pick up each warp thread with the weft on a tapestry needle, one at a time, which makes the process feel almost like a tapestry version of embroidery.  But oh the fun when I get to take off all that waxed linen and the piece stands on its own, round and beautiful.  More progress notes to come!

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Mr. Rooster Complete

mr rooster needle tapestryThere’s a special dance roosters have when they’ve found a delectable treat.  They’ll drop one wing and prance about in a tight circle, calling the ladies in.  As the hens rush to eat up the juicy worm or grasshoppers or spilled corn or whatever yummy bit he’s found, the rooster will back off and let them have it all, gloating over his success.

It was this same dance that I endeavored to capture in the punch needle tapestry “Mr. Rooster.”  Made almost entirely with wool yarns from our sheep, the piece utilizes the Oxford punch needles “mini” and “mini with heels” to add three-dimensionality.  The variegation in the dyed yarns adds texture and the sense of layered feathers, while the background is the natural white of sheep, so as not to compete with the warm and cool tones of the rooster.  Framed in barn red and wood tones, he’s leaping out of the piece–defying the frame with his jaunty stance.

The face of any subject is always one of the hardest parts–it’s the element we focus on most (as the viewer) when deciding whether the character feels “right” or worthy of sympathetic emotion.  With a rooster, the balance of wattles, comb, eye placement (and sheen,) and the shading and shaping of the beak and nose become critical in believability.  I wanted the rooster to appear as though his face was closet to the viewer (therefore larger), which would also allow for the most detail within the constraints of the medium.

mr rooster detailBecause punch needle rug hooking accommodates curves much more naturally than tapestry weaving, I wanted to bring out that sense of movement in his dance, the sweeping arc of his tail, and the flex of his wing.  Feathers have a very rhythmic pattern to their placement on a bird (try plucking one sometime and notice the patterning of the follicles in the skin), and yet the bird itself is moving organically–twisting neck, lifting feet, flexing tail.  Feathers overlap and shift across each other to accommodate this movement.  All of this detail was worked while still using only wool!

While Mr. Rooster does not have the sense of depth of some of my other pieces, it’s a charming study of the nature and character of a handsome rooster (and you know he knows it).  Chickens have been close to my heart since I was 11 years old, so it’s not a wonder that they made their way into this medium.  Hello Mr. Rooster.  Welcome to my body of fiber arts work.  Keep on dancing for those ladies out there who would love to eat that corn you found!

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Needle Felting: Magic with Wool

needle felted pig and sheep

Wet felting can be fun in its own way, but it’s messy, takes up space, and is relatively unpredictable.  For me as a tapestry artist, a medium where the ability for precision is a cultivated skill, wet felting becomes very frustrating.  But when I tried needle felting two Januaries ago, I thought, “Yes, this is it!”  Working with pipe cleaner armatures, the class focused on forming creatures from wool roving using a single, barbed needle.  The process was dry, tidy, relatively controllable, and like magic.  That fiber arts magic of forming something from almost nothing (yarn, puffy wool) found yet another expressive outlet through this medium.

With needle felting, almost anything you can imagine can be created.  Barnyard friends that fit well in your hand, like this sheep and pig worked with the wire armature method, soon joined the creation experiment clutch.  But the wire can be frustrating as well–breaking needles if you strike it just wrong.  (It seems that frustration propels me to find new solutions in this story.)  Interestingly, when you’re needle felting, you work with a foam pad to protect your hand or the table top from the very sharp, barbed needle.  After a while, the wool will knit right into the foam, and you have to periodically rip it off and keep working.  Hmmm…

needle felted bluebirdWhat if, I wondered, you could actually use this tendency of the wool to knit into the foam to your advantage?  So I began with a foam ball as the core and developed my own songbird shape, which has been a popular hands-on class at Farmstead Creamery.  Starting with the ball saves considerable time from having to make that same form from wool, jump-starting the project to a much more interesting and creative phase.

More recently, the foam ball starter has also grown to include rabbits, sheep, ducklings, and other fun and adorable creatures.  I plan to soon create kits and video tutorials, which will be linked to this page!  It’s another exciting way to utilize the delightful wool from our sheep as well as encourage creative expression and three-dimensional thinking.  It certainly uses different parts of my brain than tapestry weaving (and with much quicker results).

needle felting studentsWhile I feel that I’m still just getting started with exploring the medium of needle felting, sharing what I’ve learned through area classes has been tremendously rewarding and a great way to practice the “learn and teach” model.  And what fun it is to see your project literally take shape!  Sharing the magic of fiber arts always leaves me with a great smile.

So if tapestry feels daunting but you want to jump into fiber arts, needle felting might be just the right mix of playfulness and technique study for you.  There really isn’t a wrong way to do it, so long as you keep your fingers away from that needle!  I’ll continue to post as the journey continues.  More felting adventures to come!

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“Trout and Swallows” Recognized by The Oxford Company

trout and swallows tapestry

Each month, Amy Oxford of The Oxford Company has been requesting submissions of finished punch-needle rugs and wall tapestries.  My piece “Trout and Swallows” was the chosen submission for October.  Here is what appeared on their website:

Punched Rug Contest Monthly Prize Winner

Our Punched Rug Contest winner for October is Laura Berlage from Hayward, Wisconsin. Laura’s winning rug is called Trout and Swallows. Congratulations Laura! Your rug is gorgeous!

Trout and Swallows. Designed and Punched by Laura Berlage from Hayward, Wisconsin. 38” x 25”. Punched with a #14 fine “Mini” and #14 fine “Mini With Heels” Oxford Punch Needles. Wool, alpaca, Navajo churro wool, wool mohair blend, and gold shimmer thread on cotton monk’s cloth.

Laura tells us, “I made this piece as a wedding gift for my mother and Steve Barnes. Each element in the design has symbolic meaning, and the perspective of looking down on the stream from above offered a real creative challenge. People love the fish shadows! Like a pointillist painting, the further you step back from the piece, the more the three-dimensionality pops out at you.” 

trout detail

More of the Story Behind the Piece

As alluded in the description submitted, each element in the punch needle tapestry has a symbolic element, special to the celebration of Ann and Steve’s union.

Rainbow Trout—Strong reason to go forward with conviction.  Strong in family and morals.

Tree Swallow—Protection, warmth, home, and proper perspective.

Dragonfly—Personal maturity for understanding the deeper meaning of life,

Oak Tree—Strength, wisdom, maturity, and steadfastness.

Pine Tree—Truth and longevity.

Maple Tree—Wisdom of balance, promise, and practical magic.

Beech Tree—Tolerance, patience, and lightness of spirit.

Water—Life.swallows detail

The diversity of colors and fiber textures used offered many visual layering options when building the sense of depth in the piece.  For instance, the swallows are closest to the viewer, conceptually, followed by the leaves and dragonfly, then the level of the water, then the fish and stones in the stream.  The use of shadows and shading were critical in creating this sense of depth, as well as choices in where to use warm and cool color tones.

But the biggest challenge was in deciding how to represent the flowing water.  The fish are under the water, but I wanted them to be clearly visible.  In a shallow trout stream, the pure water often does not posses any color at all, except where it is disturbed in its course around objects.  This is how I came to using the gentle blue lines to show the movement and hint at the water being there–allowing the viewer to fill in the rest of the “idea of water” in their own mind.

Due to the size loom that I had, the piece had to be worked one-half at a time, starting with the trout side.  However, the center trout’s head was right at the loom edge and had to be worked once the piece was moved on the frame.  That meant saving bits of each of the shading colors and staggering the ends of rows I worked, so that there would be an even blending and no sense of a harsh splicing line to the viewer.

The two punch needle sizes add some actual physical depth.  The swallow, closer leaves, and dragonfly are made of longer loops than the rest of the piece, so they cast their own small natural shadows too.  Textile arts are never fully two-dimensional, which for me adds to their magic.

This was only the third piece I had ever attempted in this medium!  It is certainly one of my favorites and an inspiration for future works to come.

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The Finished Masterwork: Deceiving the Hunters

finished tapestryThe Unicorn Tapestries have been a fascination for me since I was a teenager.  The design and inspiration for this tapestry, though, began in graduate school.  Lovingly called “the five-year project” that has just been completed for this entry in year seven, the layers of research, of storytelling, of technique studies and couture and culture are beyond the scope of this present entry.  I have endeavored to capture the highlights, while my studio website offers a more expansive and ongoing look into the project’s full backstory as an “alternative narrative” piece.

In the tradition of the Flemish tapestry studios at the turn of the 16th Century, after a long apprenticeship, a weaver would have to create their own “masterwork” to present to the guild.  If the piece was found to be of exceptional quality, the weaver would be allowed to join the exclusive guild and achieve “master of the craft” status.  As my most detailed, most researched, most immersive tapestry project to date, this is my “masterwork.”

pearl detailsRich in color and texture, sparkling with gilt thread to bring out my imagined view of the original tapestries when still new, “Deceiving the Hunters” is also studded with freshwater pearls and delicate beads—adding glint and three-dimensionality.  Even each choice of yarn has a backstory and mini adventure associated with it!  And the journey to see the original series that inspired this work?  All these and more are chronicled on this site.  Dig as deeply as you like.  The story continues!

hand and beard detail

jewel detail

tapestry portrait


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The Tapestry Stitchery

tapestry restorationThe weaving may be complete, but the Lady and Unicorn tapestry is not ready for the wall.  Unlike Navajo weaving where, once off the loom, only the corner tassels need tying and it’s ready to go, Flemish style tapestry (including techniques from the medieval period) utilize “slit weaving,” which allows the weaver to focus on a particular part of the tapestry (unlike Navajo, which works the entire width each row).  This “slit weaving” method, I have found, makes a crucial difference in my ability to focus on a highly complex portion of the textile image at a time, rather than trying to remember my shading and dynamic intent across the whole of the piece at once.

The trouble with slit weaving is that, when released from the tension of the loom, you can often stick your finger between the colors!  This does not make the piece durable or able to hold its own weight when hung.  This is especially true for Flemish style tapestries that, like “Deceiving the Hunters,” are woven on their side.  When mounted, the weft threads rather than the warp bear the weight.threads

So what to do with all those slits?  Working on the back of the piece, they have to be carefully hand stitched together using threads that match the colors of the slits being worked.  The goal is to create structure and rigidity but remain invisible, so that only the weaving shows on the front, not the stitching.

In Navajo textiles, the rule is that the special “interlock” method that allows these tapestries to come off the loom with no need for stitching is used whenever two colors touch for four or more row ends (eight rows).  So when stitching my Flemish tapestries, I follow this rule and stitch together any slits four or more loops high.  In a piece as complicated as “Deceiving the Hunters,” this was hundreds and hundreds of places!  From stabilizing the lady’s eyes to around every leaf to the strands in the unicorn’s mane and everywhere else, the task was considerably daunting.

back stitchingIn some places, the work had become so fine, the weaving involved wrapping the weft around a single warp for many rows.  To stabilize these parts, I would catch the loop on one side, go through the wrapped warp, then catch the loop on the other side and come back.  With one hand underneath the piece to feel if the needle was coming through and the other stitching away, endless hours of attention to detail ensued.  But the resulting strength, rigidity, and durability to the piece is certainly worth the effort!  After a careful steaming and securing the warp ends (as shown left), I stitched on the freshwater pearls carefully saved to adorn the lady’s headdress and sleeve cuffs.  Now it was time to add the backing to the tapestry.

working backingIt is not traditional in Navajo tapestry to sew on a backing, since these were originally designed to be worn as blankets, but I had read that medieval tapestries were given a linen backing and saw that other contemporary tapestry artists were still using this technique.  It helps to also disperse the weight of the piece and protect the back from moths that would attack the wool.  Using a quilting “running stitch,” the backing is basted onto the piece every two inches to keep it from “pillowing” out and act as a single textile.  A pocket at the top holds the wood slat that allows the tapestry to be hung evenly upon the wall.

backing detailStitching, stitching, stitching away…  I had a dent in my right middle finger for a week from pushing the needle through!  Who knows how many yards of thread the process required.  But as the last seam was complete and the eyelets screwed into the mounting wood, finally, finally the tapestry was ready for the wall.  It has been a long time coming for that moment when I could stand back and see the piece as a whole, in its rightful orientation (instead of sideways, as it was while weaving) in the way it will be viewed for the rest of its lifetime on this earth.  Time for a photo shoot!

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The Sacred Unthinkable: Cutting the Warp

inside the studioI purposely keep my textile studio low on the technology scale.  There isn’t even a phone there (unless I bring it in from the house) and rarely does my laptop make an appearance.  Just the wood and canvass, the looms with their whispers and thuds as they work, and one old CD player with a big book of my favorite albums.  There’s something about paring things down to the basics–enough warmth, enough light, some Celtic companionship, and my work–that helps the studio be a haven for the making process.  Through the thin walls of my studio yurt, I can hear the songbirds twittering in trees and marshlands, the roosters making their afternoon pronouncements, and a ewe calling for her lamb.  It’s a way of connecting back through the layers of textile production and the hands and hearts of ancestors who have carried it forward.

Sometimes I count how long I am in the studio by how many albums I play before departing back to farm duties.  On a quick day, it’s a one-album stint.  On a typical day, it’s a three-album stint.  But this day was a five-album marathon!  That’s because the finish was so close, so tangible, that stopping was just not an option.  I’ll admit, I was working so furiously and the night growing so dark, that I did not have a chance to take pictures in the thick of the event, so I’m borrowing a couple of photographs from when “Nele and the Sea” came off the loom to illustrate this entry.

The horn was finished.  The lady’s hat was finished.  The weaver’s mark was finished (more on what a weaver’s mark is in a later post).  And the lady’s shoulder was finished.  When I sat down to the loom, only less than a square foot remained of the verdure above the horn.  That was all that remained of the pattern (cartoon)!  All these years, all these hours, now here was the finish.  I wove with a concentration that isn’t always easy to grasp in the studio, checking myself that I wasn’t getting too carried away to lose any depth of detail in the work.

binding offHours later, the paper cartoon ran out of lines for me to follow, and the color work was officially finished.  But the weaving wasn’t finished yet–there was still the immensely important salvage to weave to keep the piece from unraveling once tension was released.  This is made with cotton cording, matching the warp threads.  The very last row or “binding off” includes two lengths of the cording, twisting over each other as you draw them alternately through the warp.  It feels very finalizing, binding off, with the tapestry below and the raw warp above.  By this time, my shoulders were completely worn out, and I’d bind off a few inches, then let my arms hang, bind a few more, and repeat.

But then comes the real, unavoidable, and almost unthinkable finale to the process–the tapestry comes off the loom.  In Navajo textiles, this means slackening the tension, undbinding the tapestry from the heavy dowels that kept it stretched, knotting the corner fringe, and it’s done.  Literally done.  But in Flemish tapestry, the process is completely different.  After binding off, the textile is still attached to the rollers, top and bottom.  What to do?  Cut the warp!

I remember my very first tapestry on the Gobelin loom.  Months of work, and this moment had come.  I’d never woven a tapestry without a continuous warp before.  What if it all sprung off and unraveled?  What if I couldn’t get the ends knotted in time?  What if it ended up a messy pile of yarn on my lap?  Of course, none of these things happened, but still the thought of taking a scissors to those carefully tensioned warp threads (which have been the weaver’s backbone for the piece since its beginning) is almost terrifying.  At this point, there is no going back.  No unweaving to fix something.  No additions.  After the warp is cut, it’s over.

cutting the warpI fully expected at this point in the process to be crying.  Seven years on this loom–this was a monumental moment.  But I wasn’t crying–instead my hands were shaking.  I took up that scissors and worked my way across the piece, leaving ample fringe.  First the strands went limp, cut-by-cut, then the corner went limp, until at the end, the whole piece fell into my lap as if overcome by exhaustion.

It was then time to loosen the bottom “cloth” beam.  Part of the tapestry was now rolled onto it, so this would be my first time seeing the work as a whole.  As I cut loose the textile from its anchor, I could feel the full weight of it in my arms for the first time.  It always surprises me how light tapestry feels, considering how much material is packed into the warp.  And as I laid out the piece, horizontal for the first time, my first shock was how small it seemed.  Somewhere in this seven-year journey, the piece had become larger-than-life.  Now here it was, in its wholeness and actual size.  I laughed at myself for a moment, at how I’d thought that somehow seven years of engagement ought to look bigger than this.  “It will look bigger on the wall than the floor” I reminded myself.

bare loomNow it was quite dark and time to roll up the precious treasure and take it inside. After a few days, when venturing back into the studio, something didn’t look right.  After seven years, I had grown so accustomed to seeing this tapestry on the loom that coming in to find it empty looked startling, even deserted.  Carnage in the studio!

The cartoon is still there and the piles of weft yarn.  My hand tools still rest where I set them last, as if waiting for the next call to weave.  But the dangling, cut warp threads are a testament to the work that once was, for so long, such a dominant part of my textile practice.

cut warp on rollerIt really was off the loom, irrevocably.  I really had finished weaving a piece imagined during my graduate studies at Goddard.  But just as the shock of graduation takes time to sink into the psyche, so too I think will the sock of this piece being complete.  Perhaps that will become more real once it’s hanging on the wall–but there’s a lot of stitching between now and then.  The tapestry may be woven, but it’s far from ready for the wall.  More on that process in the next post.

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Amazingly Close!

When speaking of Navajo tapestry, one weaving friend described the finishing process as “the last month of pregnancy, which is always the longest one.”  This is in part because Navajo tapestry features a “continuous warp,” and those last rows are packed in so tight, with hardly any room left even to see what you’re doing.  The very last row goes one warp at a time with a needle, pulling as hard as you can.  And, when you’re finished on a Navajo tapestry, you’re really finished.  There is simply no more room to weave!lady's full face

This is quite different with Flemish style tapestry.  With the warp on rollers, there’s never a real feel of finish, except by matching up with the end of the cartoon.  Tremendous progress has been made in reaching that goal just in the last few weeks!  Leading up to the lady’s hair, the shading of the neck proved to be more of a challenge than I had expected, blending together colors from the face as well as the hands.

Returning once more to my books of detailed images from the original Unicorn Tapestries, I noted a detail that had not previously caught my attention.  On all of the young ladies, there is a delicate shading line distinguishing where the neck meets the shoulder.  Not quite a “collar bone” line, it was more curving, as if to show a sense that the neck was round without drastic side shading.  I decided to honor this tradition and added the light line just above her decorative collar and hand.

Then it was time for her hair!  The origami yarns I was using (which are bundles of smaller threads and strands, wound with a dark thread) offered great dimension but were troublesome to work with and stiff compared to wool.  And, while most of the weaving happens in a back-and-forth horizontal fashion, this part (in order to create the sense of her curls) involved building up the part to the left and weaving at a 30 to 45 degree angle.  This technique requires focused effort in order to avoid greatly distorting the warp threads.  It was a technique I saw used on a period tapestry at the Cloisters Museum to portray the harp strings in a scene with King David, so I’m certainly not the only one to have found this technique useful in pictorial works!

unicorn horn progressNext was to complete the unicorn horn.  This means filling in all the beech leaves to the right to build up the tapestry to accommodate working the remainder of the long horn all in one sitting.  Here I have the cartoon held up with a clip, showing how the remainder of that section is to be worked.  How exciting to see that the horn section brought that part of the tapestry so close to the top of the piece!

That was the first moment when it started to feel real–that this immense project was really going to be finished soon.  And when that taste of the finish line comes, it’s hard to keep me away from the project!  Almost every day now, I would be in the studio one to three hours each afternoon, and piece-by-piece, the tapestry grew and matured, and I internally celebrated the magic of watching a new part of the tapestry come together.

lady's snood in progressAfter finishing the horn, it was time to return to the lady, including her intricate headdress (which was inspired by the lady in another historic tapestry, as described in a previous entry).  In design, it is very like a snood (beaded hair net, which I often make for my performance costumes) only made of an embroidered fabric with a floral and lattice design.  This, along with her collar and cuffs, will sport freshwater pearls once finished, but I chose to weave the golden thread at the “flower” centers to add some shine around the base of where the pearls would sit.  I knew that the headdress should be blue, but which blue?  The sky color turned out to be perfect, shaded with the royal blue of her cuffs to add dimension.  This created just enough color distinction between her hat and the jewels, but subtle enough not to be glaring.

Oh, so close!  Just her shoulder, leaves, branches, and the last of her headdress left.  How many more hours?  Oh dear, don’t think about that part…  Still, “Deceiving the Hunters” is really coming together.  I can taste it!

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Yarns: A Tapestry’s Palate

yarn ballsIn a tapestry, the warp (usually a plain, white, sturdy yarn or cording) is the structural framework for the piece.  It’s the backbone, but it doesn’t actually appear anywhere visually in the finished weaving.  This is part of what sets tapestry apart from other forms of weaving–complete concealment of the warp (vertical threads) within the weft (horizontal threads).

Weft threads, unlike warp, are colorful, have more body, and are less tightly spun.  This is the real skin of the tapestry.  It’s what people see, feel, interact with.  It’s what paints the pictures, captures the light, and shares the weaver’s story or idea.  While warp is like an interactive canvass in painting terms, the weft is the paints.  Selecting weft threads is akin to making a palate–only instead of oils or acrylics, the medium is wool and other natural or novelty fibers.

I’m always on the lookout for good weft yarns.  They can be harder to find than you might imagine!  One of my favorite companies is Harrissville Designs, which offers a nice array of colors with a little bit of speckle in the shades (rather than a straight, boring solid), available in larger cone quantities.  For my Navajo-style works, I have grown to like Brown Sheep Company’s “Lamb’s Pride” line.  The Navajo method requires a single ply weft, so the Lamb’s Pride works out quite well, with a softer feel and appearance than the traditional churro wool.

For “Deceiving the Hunters,” my foremost goal was to bring out the sense of brilliance, shine, and fresh texture that the original Unicorn Tapestries would have carried when they were fresh off the loom.  Soiled, battered, faded–they have carried their age quite well, but imagine what they would have looked like upon the walls new!  I wanted to splash in the deep blues and lustrous reds so characteristic of tapestries of the era.  The subtleties of shades of green.  The glint of gold and silver thread.

The process of collecting weft threads for this piece has spanned years (many more than the weaving has taken).  From bits saved of Navajo vegetal dyed wool my teacher Fran Potter would bring to class, to interesting novelty fibers usually designed for knitters, to castaways from someone else’s project, each yarn has a unique story and reason for selection in this piece.  Let’s take a moment to investigate that rabbit hole and celebrate the palate that makes “Deceiving the Hunters” possible.unicorn yarns

The Unicorn:

An all white animal, with a creamy-white horn–that doesn’t leave a whole lot to colorful imagination!  But I did want to stay true to the original tones of this wonderful chimera–not adding any rainbows or fantastical elements…except to sneak in a violet eye.  This adds a magical hint, instead of the natural brown eye of the original tapestries.

The violet was from a wool blend I’d been using in a punched rug piece.  Variagated, with flecks of gray and white, it offered several tones to use for expressing the eye, along with a deep black that was left over from the heraldic commission.  For tones of mane and flank, I started with a Harrisville Designs natural white and two tones of natural gray, then added a Navajo natural gray, a Vermont handspun off-white (with an interesting, silky feel and slightly lumpy texture), an almond speckled lopi, and a soft gray two-ply from New Zealand.  But these tones were all quite muted, and I wanted to create some highlights.  I therefore added a silvery embroidery thread (couldn’t afford real silver gilt, and this won’t tarnish), which proved to be a real challenge for weaving!  And then I found a bright white vintage nylon yarn discarded at a thrift store, which makes the mane and horn visually pop.

verdure yarnsVerdure and Background:

In the original Unicorn Tapestries, the verdure has drifted towards tones of yellow or blue.  This is part of the natural aging of green, with woad (blue) and madder (red) holding strongest to their colors over time and exposure to the sun.  Blended colors tend to list in one direction or another over time, like a faded sign that eventually loses all hues but a denim blue beneath the sun’s intensity.

So I had to imagine how the original greens might have once appeared, from the deep hues of the thicket to the shiny, waxy tones where the sun splashes upon the foremost leaves.  Using an array from Harrisville Designs ranging from a light seafoam to a rich emerald, I had to find that darkest forest tone from a Wisconsin handspun I’d squirreled away in the stash left over from my very first tapestry on the Gobelin loom.  A denser, bluish single-ply was a cast-off from a local charter school, where I had been teaching history and cultural studies classes.  For a tapestry demonstration project with the students, one of the staff appeared with a bin of yarn, proclaiming, “If you see anything in there you like, take it!  No one ever seems to use this stuff.”  That fluffy teal and a lumpy gold (coming up later) subsequently came home.

Three tones of brown–a deep chocolate Navajo with orange flecks, a heathery Harrisville Designs soft browns, and a sandy Navajo with flecks or brown and gray–make up branches and bark.  The stiffness of the Navajo lends itself well to the texture of bark, catching the dappled light as it comes through the leaves.  The “cornflower blue” of the sky was also a point of choice.  In the original Unicorn Tapestries, the sky is a surprisingly brilliant blue.  I decided to go with a softer tone because, while the sky is important, I didn’t want it to become a distraction for the intent of the scene.  When working the colors of a tapestry that is significantly smaller than a historic inspiration, such necessity of choices can “make or break” the effectiveness of the piece as it stands alone.

lady yarns, part 1

The Lady:

Selecting yarns for the lady not only demanded the most diverse array of colors and shades but also proved to be the hardest range of yarns to acquire.  The skin tones alone caused considerably searching, head scratching, laying in, and taking out.

At left (following the bark colors) are two “Origami” yarns I selected for her hair.  In the original Unicorn Tapestries, finer weft and closer warp spacing allows for high-detail work like hair to be formed of individual strands of weft.  With my 10 dpi (warps per inch) and yarn-like weft, such details would be more clumsy.  So instead of working individual strands, I found this interesting novelty yarn that is a bundle of individual strands, coiled with a black thread.  I wanted the lady to be a redhead (spirited, independent, Celtic in heritage), rather than the perpetual blond of the historic tapestries, but I also wanted to catch the idea of light and sheen, waves and strands.  While flecking and variegation appears already in the yarn, combining the two colors greatly added to the affect, even if these yarns fought the weaving process!  Oh the joys of wool…you forget how wonderful this natural fiber is until you turn to a synthetic fiber!

Then it was all the flesh tones:  the hands, the face, the cheeks, the eyelids, the shading around the nose, the outlines, under the eyebrows…  Starting with some Navajo vegetal dyes, I ended up having to turn to baby alpaca for the rest of the tones.  This included taking skeins of variegated yarn and breaking it where the colors appeared to be changing and arranging them in piles by hues.  Some, like the fluffy two-ply pink, only appear in tiny “wavy line” rows in her cheeks–accents to add to the dimensionality of the most complex aspect of this piece:  the lady’s face.

lady yarns, part 2The colors move onto lips and eye, with more saved bits of Navajo vegetals, along with a soft teal my grandmother gave me, left over from a knitting machine sweater she made.   The fineness made the detailing in the iris possible.

The Gown:

Oh the colors for the gown!  Here’s where those classic blues and reds come to play, including a cobalt wool lopi with tiny flecks of yellow and green that was a high school graduation gift from a friend!  A lovely rose and rich scarlet from Harrisville Designs are paired with a deep purple from a tiny yarn shop in Vermont to form the tones of the velvet.  High contrast was crucial for creating the look of a plush fabric.  Just because the gown is “red” doesn’t mean that all the colors one sees when looking at it, at its sheen and shadows, are truly red.  Impressionism takes this concept much further than medieval tapestry, but it’s still key to the representative process.

Then there’s the crown of jewels.  Originally, I had planned to make these green, but further research noted that green jewels do not seem to make an appearance in late medieval tapestry!  And, just as I was preparing to weave these jewels, I found a unique novelty yarn called “Tiara” at a shop in Colorado.  Mixed with the wool and mohair, bits of sequins and glass beads had been spun into the soft blue fiber.  This combination would bring a completely different texture and glint to the gems.  Perfect!  And the shading comes from tones in the unicorn’s eye–bringing the two together.

The lumpy gold-and-white thread (also from the charter school discard pile) adds the shiny gold accents to the lady’s attire, while being quite texturally different from the smooth silver of the unicorn’s mane.  In the original tapestries, gold or silver wire was wrapped around silk for the gilded weft, so I imagined that sometimes the silk might want to peak out as well, hence the white bits felt right to me.  This was also a tricky weft to choose and involved two to three times as many rows to fill in the same space as one row of wool.  Tedious, but so worth it for the shimmering effect.

Remnants, discoveries, breakthroughs, compromises, all are part of the process of developing this tapestry’s palate.  Devotion to the originals yet divergence from them in choices of colors and fiber types also parallels the story being told in the imagery.  The alternative narrative of “Deceiving the Hunters” trickles down to the very yarns involved.  It’s part of what makes this medium so endlessly magical for me.  Start with a pile of yarn–end up with a textured painting that can be experienced with the fingers as well as the eyes.

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