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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Re-Engagement and the Challenge of Faces

There’s no doubt that summertime is consuming:  farming, tending the Creamery, animals, visiting relatives.  Projects had to be “pick-up and put-down-able,” easy to carry around, and look like you actually made some progress after an hour (which would be about the time most I’d have for a sitting).  These parameters meant that tapestry wasn’t on the radar for the summer season.  By autumn, I really was feeling the need to refocus in my textile work–spending cherished Sunday afternoons (my dedicated studio time) going back to my roots:  Navajo tapestry weaving.

Navajo tapestry in progressThe discipline, the precision, and measured, sweeping yet delicate movements, percussed by the pound-pound of the beater returned those long-learned rhythms, awakening them from the cellular level of memory.  I was 13 when I first learned to warp and weave in the Navajo tradition, surrounded by a talkative tribe of grandmothers and my ever-patient teacher Fran Potter.  I sat on the floor for this weaving, just as I had done with my first project…just as so many Navajo women have done for generations.

I had also been making an effort to finish the score of partially-completed pieces about my studio and home.  First a peacock-themed rug punch piece, then starting in on this tapestry, which had been languishing at the three-inch point for a couple of years.  Poor thing!  It’s the largest Navajo I had yet attempted–at least 30 inches wide by 45 inches high.  Embracing a variation on the traditional “Two Gray Hills” theme, it also incorporates colors from Hope pottery–neighbors to the Navajo.

It wasn’t until March that I felt I had given my roots enough time to regenerate, for my hands to retrain in the rhythms of technique, and my heart to settle from the turbulence of last year’s busy season, that I felt ready to re-engage with the Lady and the Unicorn “Deceiving the Hunters” piece.

And this is what I found, with where I had left off last springlady continues.

I remembered why it felt to tremendously difficult to sit down and work on this tapestry once the demands of spring and summer had arrived.  I had worked my way up to the lady’s face, endeavored through one eye, most of the nose, and the mouth, then had to stop.  It’s a terrible place to have to stop and hope to pick it up again successfully.

Faces are tremendously difficult to convincingly execute in tapestry.  In the medieval studios, a master weaver or two would float from piece-to-piece, just doing hands and faces, while less-experienced weavers would create costume, flora, and fauna.  Having hands and faces that were relatable, expressive, fluid, and believable were considered the most difficult element of the art form.

When I first started attempting faces in tapestry, daunting is a relatively mild word to express my feelings.minstrel tapestry  lady winter tapestry

My original explorations into human figures in tapestry were on my Navajo round loom.  “The Minstrel” was abstract, with experiments in shading the cheek and using outline.  “Lady Winter” played with the idea of being lit from below (like when telling a scary story by flashlight), accentuating the cheek bones and above the eyes.  Some of the details had to be added after the weaving process with a needle because the space used and the warp count couldn’t accommodate the desired affect within the weaving process alone.

Nele tapestry detailWith “Nele and the Sea,” I opted to turn the face away from the viewer, with the greatest detail being her ear.  The viewer could then add her own imagined details to the face, as the story felt fit.  Maybe the figure could become someone she knew, or even herself.  This choice also helped keep the movement of the piece towards the sunset, rather than fully resting on the figure.

But in “Deceiving the Hunters,” a full face was necessary and unavoidable, cocked in the classic 3/4 tilt that is so prevalent in the era that inspired it.  Profiles and straight-on faces in tapestry are much less common in the medieval and Renaissance period (and when they do appear, much less convincing in their proportions and placement of key elements such as eyes).

I did specifically make the choice to set the tapestry on its right side on the loom (instead of the left, as is more historically common) in order to afford more time for the study of faces and development of technique before having to tackle my own.  This proved to be a critical choice, having all the workings of the unicorn’s mane and eye under my belt before framing the lady’s delicate hair and eye.  But now, as I came back to the work, I needed to continue the face in a way that would make it come alive in a dynamic, realistic way within the constraints of the medium.

the lady's face in progressFirst, I spent time with my detailed photos from faces in both the Unicorn Tapestry sets.  Very subtle uses of color (and sometimes using the same color but weaving them in separate parts to form the tiniest of lines through the natural shadows that occur between loops in slit weaving) were employed to bring out the highlights of a face.  When preparing for this piece, I was surprised how difficult it was to find convincing flesh tones in yarn.  Eventually, I found a variegated alpaca to augment my two main wool colors, breaking the skein apart where the colors began to shift from one subtle tone to another and laying out all the chunks as a gradient palate.  This gave me seven colors to use for the face shading, along with three tones for the mouth and cheeks.

In the original tapestry sets, alpaca would not have been available as a fiber, though silk was readily employed.  In another post, I will detail the types of fibers I used in this tapestry, their origins, and reason for selection.  Some of these are novelty yarns that are not easy to weave in tapestry but offer a specific desired effect, such as the metallic threads in the mane and the lady’s gown and the “Origami” yarn used in her hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows.

taste dress detailFor her eyes, two tones of green (taking my cue from details of the originals) offer depth and dimensonality.  Layers of short two-rows in the cheeks (what in Navajo would be called “wavy line”) of the rose tone, while purposely allowing the weaving to build up in a gentle hill, creates the visual blend and subtle shaping to help color her face.  Dustier tones enhance around the nose and above the eyes, while a lighter color brings out the eyelids.

It is no longer popular in art to show the eyelids of ladies.  Instead, it is much more common to see them portrayed as neo-natal, with huge eyes, darkened around the edges to obscure any hint of eyelid.  This was not so in the late medieval/early Renaissance period.  Faces were often portrayed as quite pale, and eyelids offered ladies a look of demure demeanor.  Even when she is looking a little upwards (as shown here in “Taste” from The Lady and the Unicorn), eyelids are certainly present.

But if the lady in “Deceiving the Hunters” is ready to offer an alternative to the traditional narrative of the unicorn hunt, demurity is likely not her prominent characteristic.  So the eyelids are present but not overpowering–a nod in both cultural directions.

lady's jewels detailThe other reason it was prudent to weave the lady after the unicorn came in the influence of choices in her headdress.  Originally, I had colored the jewels framing her face in green on the cartoon (to accentuate her eyes), but the more I studied tapestries of the era, the more I noticed that green jewels are not portrayed, even though green thread was readily available.  Rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls predominate almost exclusively.  Perhaps sapphires were not as highly prized in this era?  Also, as the dominance of the green in the background became apparent, I was concerned that weaving green jewels would simply cause them to visually disappear.

Because of the dominance of red tones in her velvet gown, I felt led to lean towards blue gems, then realized that I had but recently purchased a novelty yarn in a soft blue that had beads and sequins spun into it at intervals.  This caught my curiosity, since I had already purchased freshwater pearls to stitch onto her gown and was using novelty gilt threads.  This would be yet another way to add sparkle and shine to the preciousness of her headdress.

And so, not only had I successfully tackled the hardest part of this tapestry, I had also adventured on my first major departing from the original cartoon.  Surely, there will be more adventures ahead as the weaving continues and this nearly seven-year project nears completion!

 

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Unicorn in a New Medium

heart rug in progressFor the past year and a half, punch needle rug hooking has been a new fiber medium for me.  After taking a one-on-one intensive session at the home studio of Amy Oxford (pioneer of the Oxford Punch Needle), I was soon poke-poke-poking wool yarn into a deeply textured pictorial form.  Originating in eastern Canada and New England, rug hooking began with a crochet-like hook that was used to pull loops of cut fabric strips or wool yarn up through a coarse fabric to the front face of the piece–creating an effect not unlike a berber carpet.  This process can be painstakingly slow and tricky to make all the loops the same height.  Amy, who was punching rugs professionally, was eager to design a superior tool that not only would help her work faster but also with greater precision.  She now supplies materials and instructions from her home in Vermont, but her student base reaches far beyond New England.  She certainly has an avid fan now in Wisconsin!

unicorn rug backingSince that first folk art heart with blossoms begun in that class, I’ve completed five additional pieces–some in the thicker rug style, others in finer detail with worsted and sport-weight yarns.  My latest piece brought this new medium for me into the stream of my ongoing exploration into the narrative and symbolism of the unicorn.

I started by drawing out the 16×16 inch design on paper, transferring it then to the monk’s cloth backing using our farm’s bakery case as a handy light table.  This backing is then stretched tightly over the loom frame (shown above with the padded cover to keep the tension-providing barbs from poking my wrist).  The backing should feel like a drum head when fully mounted.  This high tension allows the punch needle to glide through the backing with minimal effort.

Not unlike the Gothic tapestries, punch needle rug hooking is worked from the back side of the piece.  But completely unlike tapestry, you can start pretty much anywhere on the design.  No methodical bottom-to-top process.  Curves are graceful and natural, lending the medium well to pictorial designs.  Outlines, I found, are a little tricky if you’re looking for a thin line, but they are more convincing than the stepped approach of tapestry.  This is why it’s so fascinating for me to have fluency in many mediums–each have their strength and weaknesses.  Each medium can take the same idea and say it so differently or, most importantly, one might lend itself better to the expression of the idea than another.

punching unicorn rugOnce the punching process begins, the piece comes to life with the colors and textures chosen.  Woolen yarns work best, but I have used wool-alpaca, wool-mohair, and wool-silk blends with success as well.  When blending or shading colors, the process is somewhere between theories you might use in embroidery and pointillist painting.

For this project, I was playing with a fusion of Celtic (the Trinity knots, deep greens and royal purples) with an Art Nouveau approach to the “bust” of the unicorn.  The creature appears to be looking out from a portal–part joining us on this side, part obscured.  It’s fitting for the state of the know and unknown elements of its story today.  The mane is quite whimsical, which adds to its magical allure.

For the background, face, and horn, I used the Oxford “mini” and for the mane the “mini with heels.”  The heels version makes slightly longer loops, creating a more three-dimensional texture, which can be best observed in the detail photo.  Overall, I love the sense of movement, of energy caught in stillness, and the overtones of royalty.

finished unicorn punch rug

unicorn rug detail

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Being Unicorn

I’ve recently been leading a series of creative writing workshop, based on Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.”  One of her challenges is to do a timed free-write starting with the prompt “Be an animals.”  Of course I chose the unicorn.  The following is somewhere between poetry and stream-of-consciousness.unicorn illumination

I am a unicorn—graceful, curving, smaller than a horse, larger than a sheep.  My horn and hooves a glinting silver.  My tail, plumed, twitches as ears perk, alert to the sounds of forest and meadow.  I know the way of the animals—their fears, their dreams.  They know me too, though these days man would say that I do not—could not exist.

A few young damsels, pure of heart and chaste of form, they know me.  But gradually they fade away as they grow older.  The men, they would capture me, tame me, use me for their own purposes.  But they have yet to learn that the unicorn cannot be captured—it would first be slain than bound in the castle at man’s bidding.  And so, in their discouragement, they seek to shame me, that I am not real, that there could never really be

a unicorn.
Not anymore.
Maybe in stories
But not here.

But I know who I am—I run with the moonlight, I dance with the wildflowers, I sing clear and silvery with the birds of the air.  The animals gather at the waters, waiting for me to drive the vile poison from the stream.  Their daily wars they set aside for a moment of peace—a time of calming—an oasis in a crazy, sordid world, where violence and greed rule with an iron hand.

A world with no room for unicorns
no imagination
no space for the inner peace of pure song

Some look into my eyes and never see me—see right past to the erected stories and scripts they drag with them through their days.  They choose a blindness that feels safe to them, even if it renders me invisible.  But sometimes there is a flash, a moment’s recognition, a stirring in the soul.  They taste something in that moment of sharing the space—something they haven’t known since childhood.

If even then.

Unicorns have no need for noisiness, for pushiness, for great deeds to prove their might.  Who but the prideful folly of the lion would challenge the pure, the clean, the single-horned?  But lions are all fuss and looks, tearing apart that which makes them feel small.  I am not afraid to face them with presence, with compassionate firmness, to stand my ground.

I am the unicorn.

Often, I find myself alone, in the forest, in my thoughts, in my company.  I have yet to meet another unicorn—imposters, yes; pink or purple horses prancing about with rainbow-striped horns strapped to their heads.  They claim the title, but they’ve never walked the narrow, winding path up the mountain, shrouded in mists.  Met the sphinx upon that path and talked of poetry, called the harpy from the clifftops to laugh at the folly of men, danced with centaur, played tag with pan.  Pretenders never learned the way to Avalon—they weren’t here before its sinking beneath the waves, lifetimes ago.

Nobody really knows how old I am

My feet are nimble, my ankles tufted with soft, white hair.  Walking is dancing, resting meditation.  Sometimes I race the shooting starts just for fun.  My eyes, deep and violet, reflect the stars even when they are asleep.  In the morning light, the songbirds come to greet me, knowing that I will always greet them in return.

I am the unicorn

I am beyond names, beyond a label or a position or even some of the constrictions of language or pen.  I look across the back of time towards the mystery of existence.  Do you ever watch for me, in the gloaming, in the mists?  Would you know me if you saw me?  Or would you pass me off as a wish, a dream, a mirage, an imagining?  You’ve been told so long that I cannot be.

unicorn at fountain                Do you believe them?

I am the unicorn.  I am who I am, whether you can see me yet, whether you can hear me yet.  Whether you even care to.  I am the song for purity, a tear for loyalty, a cry for freedom of the heart.  Do not waste your strength to capture me—be content that I should dare to stand with you in this moment.

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My Tapestry in Progress

tapestry early phaseDrawing a tapestry cartoon, while the research can take ages, for me goes relatively quickly in comparison with the weaving itself.  Lines that can flow easily from pen onto paper can be agonizing or impossible within the precision of warp and weft.  The first two leaves and one branch took twelve hours alone to execute!

As any weaver can tell you, warping is tedious, and likely the weaver’s least favorite part of the process.  But attention to detail, spacing, tension, and salvage are key to creating the foundation for a successful tapestry.  A sloppy job warping can’t be fixed during the weaving process.  If there’s any OCD in your blood (yes, I’ve got some…that’s the German heritage), this is a good place to use it!

Because the warp threads are entirely concealed in the tapestry waving process, they are often a plain white of a sturdy wool or cotton.  I chose to warp my piece at 10 warps per inch because this offers the most amount of vertical detail as I can create using Harrisville Design wool weft (the bulk of the yarn used for the piece).  Further apart warp spacing would allow for a smoother, flatter fabric but less detail.  A closer warp spacing would only cause the piece to buckle and bulge.  A little buckling in heavily detailed areas can be corrected with steam treatment once the piece is removed from the loom, but too much is not fixable.early tapestry progress

The original Unicorn Tapestries were woven with approximately twice as many warp threads per inch.  These weavers, therefore, were using a much finer weft thread–sometimes so fine it looks to be not much bulkier than sewing thread.  While I admire the skill required working with such a fine weft, replicating the process with the same weight material would mean that it would take two to three times as long for me to complete the piece!  And, as much as I love this tapestry project, I’m sure I’ll want to make other works in my lifetime!

tapestry progress 2015So, while 10 warps is a historical compromise, again, this is not a reconstruction piece.  I was already tackling the most extant focus on detail I had ever woven before, as well as challenging hands and faces, hair, verdure, complex fabrics, and sheen.  The original tapestries were woven with gold and silver thread, which tarnishes over time.  I wanted to be able to express what the original luster of these gilded strands would have portrayed–opting to use metallic embroidery thread in place of the true metals.  Silver is worked into the unicorn’s mane and horn, while gold adorn’s the lady’s cuffs, collar, and eventually the headdress.

Piece by piece, the tapestry began to emerge into reality.  This is part of the unending magic for me of textile arts–I start with a pile of threads, and using my hands and only a few simple tools, I create a beautiful picture!  It has life movement, brilliance, and a deep story.  Not that long ago, it was keeping the backs of sheep warm.

unicorn progressSince the weaving process began in my studio yurt, folks have been curious to see the progress for the lady and her unicorn.  Some visitors come back each year to check on the piece.  In an era where patience for an ongoing, detailed project has all but evaporated for most people, being able to intimately view this type of work is a unique opportunity in rural, northern Wisconsin.

Each step of the process has included its own challenges–expressing fluid curves, representing depth with a limited color palate, or indicating subtleties in skin tone and shadow.  Three hours of steady weaving is about all that my back can manage in one sitting, on top of full-time farming.  Finding those three hours (or even one) also became a serious challenge for my practice!  There is never an end to the list of things to do on a diversified homestead, and sometimes that list can dominate to the exclusion of creative pursuits.

lady's armBut this past winter, I was able to carve out those three hours each week specifically for focusing on this tapestry project, and the progress gained really showed me how the discipline of setting aside such time can create real results.  I’d be delighted to labor over a hand or an eye or the unicorn’s beard.  While these may sound like but small pieces, the attention to detail and the number of color switches can simply cause time to melt away beneath the weaver’s fingers.  At tapestry’s finest thread counts (namely during the 17th and 18th Centuries), a weaver might spend all day on one square inch!  Compared with that situation, I was virtually chugging along!

I must admit, though, that I was most daunted at the prospect of weaving the lady’s face. unicorn progress In my previous works, I had depicted the side of a face or an extremely stylized, shadow-laden front-facing character, but never with this type of detail or fluidity.  And certainly I had not woven a lady sideways before.  As I approached this part of the piece, I knew the weight of getting it right.  The face of the unicorn and the lady are the focal points of the composition, but especially the lady because she is engaging the viewer by holding a finger to her lips.  This is the invitation to join the alternative narrative (or reject it).

Unweaving is not my favorite.  In fact, it’s way down on the list for me, below warping.  Once, I was seven inches into a Navajo tapestry and realized that I had the central motif off from center by two warp threads.  I had to take it all back out to the start of that motif.  I’ll admit it, I cried.  But I did it.  And, of course, in the end I was glad that I did.

lady's face detailStarting the journey for the lady’s face was a one step forward/two steps back process.  I’d try one method, then take it out.  Try another, take it out.  Finding good yarns in subtle flesh tones was actually the most difficult material to procure, so I was using a combination of Navajo yarns on hand and some multi-colored alpaca that I had broken into different shade tones.  The outlining technique I used for individual fingers and facial lines is a technique used in Navajo pictorial work, but looking at detailed photos of Flemish technique, laying in outline wefts seems to be used as well in Europe.

three ladies detailOne important detail I studied for this part of the tapestry was a picture of the three ladies gossiping in “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”  This is where I noticed the use of tiny, individual lines of blush on the cheeks, interspersed with the flesh tone.  Two rows, which in Navajo technique is called “wavy lines” each, from a distance they blend together.  Ingeniously subtle, I decided to use this technique for my own lady.

But the eye, my goodness!  This is where I wished for more warp threads.  When I take this tapestry off the loom, there is gong to be a whole flurry of tails (weft ends) at the back to bury all over her face!  But that is part of the Flemish tapestry process.  I’ll be sure to share the story of finishing the tapestry…when I actually make it to that phase.

Currently, the first eye for the lady is complete, as well as part of her mouth and nose.  lady continuesBoth hands are finished, which were certainly tricky enough in their own right.  But working the face trumps the challenges of verdure, velvet, mane, and all the rest so far.  I’ve tried to include a different shade for the eyelid, yet another below the eyebrow and along the edge of the nose, as well as bringing in some of the yarn used for her hair into eyelashes and eyebrow.

Progress continues, and with it more pictures to come.  Now over half-way complete, “Deceiving the Hunters” is becoming recognizably an expression of the original cartoon–though unmistakably richer, fuller, and more deeply textured.  The journey continues as I worked the colored warps back an forth, a tiny piece at a time.

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Finding a Lady for the Tapestry

receiving the unicornFor my tapestry “Deceiving the Hunters,” it took a while in the design process to decide how the lady ready to lead the unicorn to safety should look.  In her position of alternative narrative, it did not make sense for her to be the same lady as shown in “The Unicorn is killed and brought to the castle” panel.  This lady’s role in the story has already been shown (receiving the dead animal with her gentleman holding her arm).

Yes, the type of fabric shown on the remainder of the sleeve of the lady stroking the unicorn’s mane in the fragment panel matches the fabric of this matron, but none of the other characters in The Unicorn Tapestries have a direct match in any of the other panels, so it seems safe to guess that it would have been a different lady originally.

lady and unicornWhile the Sterling Tapestries pull from the iconography in “The Lady and the Unicorn” series, the narratives at play in the two sets are quite different.  In the Cluny set, the unicorn is not in danger of imminent death.  Also, I was concerned that, given the fame of the women in “The Lady and the Unicorn,” using those images would confuse the purpose of offering an alternative narrative to the Cloisters hunting set.

And so I set out on a hunt for my lady.  I wanted to stay true to the general period instead of simply dreaming up a character for my tapestry (which certainly could have been an option).  In the best of the old stories, the character who is able to turn the tides of peril is the least likely to have been chosen–“the unlikely hero.”  Instead of already in the foreground and a leader (like the ladies in both unicorn tapestry sets), she would be somewhere in the crowd, unassuming, but inwardly special.

david and bathsheba detailIt was actually while reading a Met Museum publication on a showing of medieval tapestry masterpieces in the 1970’s that I found her.  Taken from the “David and Bathsheba” set, housed at the Museum of the Renaissance in Paris (sister to the Cluny Museum), the series is richly worked with wonderful detail of faces, hands, and cloth.

In the pamphlet, Margaret Freeman is discussing the extraordinary finesse of the work, which was woven in the low-warp style.  What caught my eye, however, was the lady pictured near the lower right of the photograph detail.  Despite combing the museum’s website, digital images of this panel were not available (nor could I find any color images), so I have had to scan the page from the manuscript.  See the bibliography for more details.

Considering the complex story captured in the “David and Bathsheba” tapestries, the fact that winged Penitence is driving away Lechery at the top would suggest that this is near the end of the series.  The image could be from near a corner of the original piece, or somewhere in the middle, but given that this is the only image I have of this panel, this remains a mystery until I can either find a broader picture of the piece or have the chance to see the tapestry in person.

lady detailWhat struck me most about the image of this lady was that, despite all the fervor, conversations, and activity happening all around her, she seems somehow distant, lost in thought.  She knows how to play the part–smartly dressed in sumptuous fabrics and jewels–and yet she is also able to observe what is happening around her.  To me, and an observer, her expression creates enough of a gap from the business of the scene to see that she may be having her own thoughts about what’s happening in courtly life.  A hidden gem in the crowd, she stood out as my “unlikely hero” for offering an alternative narrative to the unicorn hunt.

Youthful with a strong touch of innocence, this nameless lady became the inspiration for a series of sketches before drawing the full tapestry cartoon.  Through this drafting process, I had to make some important decisions about the lady’s appearance.  For example, the original tapestry fragment depicts a tawny/golden brocade or damask on the sleeve.  Still being new to weaving folded fabrics, I didn’t feel ready for tackling a patterned garment.  The “David and Bathsheba” detail appears to be satin or broadcloth(?), I’m guessing maybe blue, but without a color image, such guessing is quite hazardous.

lady sketchWhile I wasn’t feeling ready for the damask challenge, I was (after doing the sleeve study) feeling ready for velvet, which is worn by the lady in the original fragment who is signaling to the horn-blower in the shrubbery.  Red velvet would offer a sumptuous texture next to the creamy white of the unicorn, along with denoting the lady’s regal status.

I was also quite intrigued by her headdress, which appears elegantly understated and not as heavy as the bonnets or “hoods” of the day.  Pearls and jewels certainly add to her charm–tied up much like a snood or “Indra’s Net,” which is part of an ancient Indian tale of how the light from each jewel in Indra’s hair adornment shines off the next, making them more beautiful together than they could ever be separate from each other.

As the design for the tapestry came together, however, it was apparent that some of the original costume details from the “David and Bathsheba” lady would have to go.  This became especially clear as her arms came into play–a hand raised to her mouth, indicating a wish for silence.  This conflicted with the placement of embroidery on her smock (chemise), so I had to leave off the dark zig-zag adornments.

tapestry cartoonThe smock appears at the cuffs of the lady in The Unicorn Tapestries who is receiving the dead unicorn, along with a decorative cuff, so I chose to use this costume style where the velvet oversleeve is falling away by her wrists, repeating the collar trim.

The ladies at The Tudor Tailor note that as bell sleeves came into fashion, the kirtle (supportive undergarment) had to accommodate by adding fitted sleeves to cover the smock beneath, but since the finely woven linen smock is visible at the wrists of a bell-sleeved lady within the tapestry set already, I stayed with the design even through my research continued.  Certainly many variations on the fashionable theme of the day would have been present during this transition era.

But actually weaving this lady, including all the intricacies of her hands and faces–that was going to be the real challenge!

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The Stirling Tapestries

west dean weaverPerhaps it was an interesting twist of fate that at the same time I was working on my graduate studies at Goddard College (researching and crafting the design for “Deceiving the Hunters”), across the pond a parallel endeavor on a much grander scale was also engaging the theme of the Unicorn Tapestries.

Stirling Castle, home to the Scottish Kings, now serves as a living history museum.  In the archives of James V, there is notated a series of tapestries depicting the History of the Unicorn, but these have since been lost (likely from the Scottish King’s ascension to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I).  No record remains of the iconography of these tapestries, so as Historic Scotland became interested in replacing the set for educational and heritage purposes, they turned to a surviving series about the unicorn–The Hunt of the Unicorn, housed at the Cloisters.drafting cartoon

2 million pounds and 14 years later, the set was completely rewoven at half the warps-per-inch density (otherwise they’d still be weaving now), with completion of the project in 2014.  18 weavers from across the globe participated, with master weavers from West Dean Tapestry Studio in Sussex and Ruth Jones from Canada leading the project.  Using detailed scanned images from the original panels, the team created line drawing cartoons to keep their recreations as accurate as possible, including details in shading and character position.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art does have a wonderful online image gallery for these tapestries, including very high resolution details from the fragmented panel that I have kept close at hand for my own work.  By creating my own interpretive piece, I have a taste of the tremendous amount of time and attention to detail that this crew of weavers has taken with this project!  I’m certain that seeing the finished pieces in person is quite breathtaking, especially since they were able to utilize colors at a greater brilliance–giving the affect the originals might have had when fresh off the loom.hunt in progress

The original Unicorn Tapestries were woven at 8 warps per centimeter (20 per inch), while the reproductions were worked at 4 warps per centimeter (10 warps per inch–the same as my piece).  This certainly makes a difference with vertical details, as I’m finding with a little frustration here and there in my own work, but the Sterling set also has a much bigger palate for spreading this detail work.  It’s also quite possible that their weft thread is a little finer than mine.  Wouldn’t it be a treat to take a walk in their studio and talk to the makers!

weaver at workI did find a few online resources about the reproduction process for the Sterling Tapestries, including on the castle’s website and also an interview with Ruth Jones by Satellite Gallery.  Ruth is the maker who was given the special task of designing and weaving the scene where the maiden beguiles the unicorn (as critiqued in the previous post).  It is one thing to work to recreate an existing masterpiece–and another to graft onto it what might have been.  This certainly was a stylistic and iconographic challenge.

In the interview, Ruth Jones quotes woodcuts, engravings, and other contemporary art for her inspiration of a seated maiden with the unicorn in her lap.  She does not appear to adopt the idea that this character may be the lady shown before the castle gates after the slaying of the unicorn–instead showing her more like the panel “Sight” from hunt panel in progressThe Lady and the Unicorn series.  In this image from the piece-in-progress, that lady has not yet emerged from the weaving process.  Here, the damsel who tips off the hunters that the capture has been complete is being woven in all her velvet splendor.  Check out the last post for a view of the finished panel.

Studying the process images from this set, I realized that the size of “Deceiving the Hunters” is a much more manageable scale for a solo artist like myself.  There is no question that a piece on the proportions of The Hunt of the Unicorn would have required an entire team of weavers–let alone the crews spinning and dying–a real symbol of status and wealth for its owners.

weavers at workSeeing this parallel project also helps me put into perspective that I’m not a reproductions weaver.  While this set is entirely impressive and I applaud the countless hours and dedication to detail and craftsmanship of its makers, I would personally find it far too constricting to spend 14 years remaking that which already exists.  And, though from time to time while working on my own piece I get the urge to try to replicate an exact technique or style from these works, I am reminded of my own unique textile background and training and my interests in storytelling through many mediums as foremost components of my style.  Unlike the Sterling Tapestries, “Deceiving the Hunters” is not a reproduction piece–it’s an offering of an alternative narrative.

The reproduction-style interpretation of what happened in that fragment tapestry has already been made!  Kudos to Ruth and the team at West Dean.  But now it’s time to trace the winding and serendipitous tale of how I came to choose and create my own lady with her unicorn–and why.

 

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The Case of the Missing Lady

tapestry restorationBoth sets of Unicorn Tapestries have sustained damages over the years and undergone several rounds of restoration.  Some frayed and missing elements can be replaced with relative confidence, such as mille fleur backgrounds or parts of trees and gowns.  But others are impossible to replicate in the face of lost cartoons (original design) and no documentation in full detail of the original content.

This is especially true for the fragment panel in the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series.  We know that the central lady is seated with the unicorn’s forelegs on her lap, lady betrays unicornbut all that remains of her is part of one arm and her fingers in the beast’s mane.  Her sleeve is of a golden and fawn brocade, slightly belled in shape (not unlike the sleeve cut of the lady in red velvet betraying the unicorn to the hunter in the trees).

Who would this missing lady have been and what would she have looked like?  There are several different ways to look for clues, as well as methods other interpretive artists have utilized.

For example, when first researching into the two Unicorn Tapestry sets, it appeared that “The Lady and the Unicorn” was likely woven slightly earlier in time than “The Hunt of the Unicorn”–possibly as disparate at 1480 for the first and 1515 for the second.  The bright red background with mille fleur patterning and the subjects seated on an island seemed of a more medieval fashion, while the early use of perspective and a naturalistic landscape as shown in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries would appear to put their production at a slightly later date.

But the lines between the Medieval and Renaissance period is a blurred and fuzzy transition.  More recent scholarship about the Unicorn Tapestries (especially with regards to tracing the striking and dominant heraldry in The Lady and the Unicorn set) has pressed the theoretical “make date” of these to sets close together.  It certainly may be that the Flemish studios were producing both the mille fleur style and the scenic style at the same time, dependent on the tastes and requests of the nobles ordering the commissioned work.

This pairs well with the fact that two of the “Hunt” series (noticeably woven at a different studio) use the mille fleur background.  Perhaps some studios specialized in the older style while others were branching into the new territory of scenic work.  But I would not be surprised at all if simultaneous production of the different styles occurred–essentially, “If you want to pay for a tapestry, we’ll weave what you want.”  Commercial production based on commission still works that way.

lady and unicornSo, if the two sets do share a closely linked date, then the expression of mythology in pictorial form (here the taming of the unicorn by the maiden) would be culturally very similar.  In “The Lady and the Unicorn:  Sight,” we can see the exact (though mirrored) arm and similar finger position of the lady with regards to the unicorn on her lap.  However, I would caution as to any further reproduction of the pose with regards to the mirror.  “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries are aesthetically representing the senses–hence the use of a mirror to denote sight.

I have not seen in any other medieval or Renaissance art the use of a mirror in luring the unicorn into submission.  The lure of the mirror (or a reflection in water) is common to the story of Narcissus, not the unicorn.  For this chimera, the lure is the maiden, not a reflection.  Notice also that in the “Hunt” panel, the unicorn is looking up, towards the missing lady’s face.  The unicorn in the “Lady” panel is looking down, towards the mirror.

However, since the “Lady” series is so compelling and a known contemporary representation, this has made its way into replica interpretations, including the set woven by West Dean for sterling castle tapestry detail
Historic Scotland and Sterling Castle.  The question of what to do with the second hand remained, which may be why they left it half off the edge of the piece.  The lady has other clear links with the Cluny set, including the watered silk underskirt, the decoration at the shoulders, and the snood-like hair covering, while her low-looping necklace is of the Cloisters set.  It’s an interesting combination of the two in an effort to recreate that which has been lost.

In this replica set, designed to replace the lost “History of the Unicorn” series once housed at Sterling Castle (wish I knew what that set looked like!), they’ve decided to interpret the lady’s brocade gown as red and gold.  However, the original shows a more tawny brown color, similar to the gown of the leading lady in the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

Because of the link in color and pattern between the leading lady and the beguiling maiden’s gowns, some believe it to be the same character.  This plays into the Anne of Brittany theory, but considering that the lady and seigneur are linked in arm (along with her choice in headdress), it would appear that they are a married couple, which would negate the beguiling maiden status.

The only way it would symbolically work for the lady in the castle panel to also be the lady in the beguiling panel is that this is a marriage celebration piece, symbolizing the pursuit and capture of the bride by the man, where they are then shown wed beside the slain unicorn.  But that seems to put the story backwards of the unicorn being beguiled by the maiden and brought back to show off to the man.  Also, the lady is fingering her rosary and other strong symbolic elements (including inscriptions on hunting horns, the oak sprouting thorns around the unicorn’s neck, etc.) link the unicorn with the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

Yikes!  All these pieces together can seem to muddle the quest for the missing lady, but it is also quite classic of medieval allegory.  The further you drill into the story, the more there is to find!

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Fair Annie: Pretty as a Liability

david and bathsheba detailThe cultural desire for women to be forever young and fair comes at a price, especially when a couple faces a mid-life crisis.  The man (who was distinctly the more powerful of the two) might decide to find a way to cast off the old wife for someone new and younger.  This certainly is a main theme in the life of Henry VIII!

This is also displayed in the ballad “Fair Annie” (Child 62), which traces its lineage back to 1200 when Marie de France told a tale of two twin girls in Lai del Freisne.  In “Fair Annie,” the bride who has born six children and is carrying the seventh is told to pretend to be a maiden again because her husband (Lord Thomas) is off to fetch a new bride.  Though she protests, she must obey.

Perhaps after six births and yet another pregnancy, Annie is not the flower she once was.  Perhaps Lord Thomas no longer finds her as pleasurable or exciting.  Either way, the lure of a young and beautiful maiden convinces him to cast off his wife.

In complete despair at the situation, Annie turns to music (her flute) to console herself.  The new bride recognizes the tune and asks the woman her lineage–only to discover that they are sisters!  Oh uh, not a smart move there Lord Thomas.  He’ll have his due!

While many variations exist, I learned this version from Maggie Boyle and Steve Tilston.

Fair Annie

“Comb back your hair, Fair Annie,” he said.
“Comb it back into your crown.
You must lead a maiden’s life,
When I bring the new bride home.”

“Oh how can I look maiden-like,
when a maiden I am none;
Six fair sons have I borne by you,
And the seventh coming on.”

“Oh you shall bake my bread,” he said.
“Oh and you shall keep my home;
And you shall welcome my lady gay
When I bring the new bride home.”

And over the door he’s hung a silken towel,
Pierced by a silver pin;
That Fair Annie she might wipe her eyes,
As she’s gang out and in.

Well six months gone and nine coming on,
She thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a spyglass in her hand,
And up to the tower she has run.

She has looked east, she has looked west,
She looked all under the sun;
And who should she see but Lord Thomas,
A-bringing of his bride all home.

And she has called on her seven sons,
By one by two by three;
And she said unto her eldest son,
“Come and tell me what you see.”

He has looked east, he has looked west,
He looked all under the sun;
And who should he see but his father dear,
A-bringing of his new bride home.

“Oh shall I dress in green?” she said,
“Or shall I dress in black?
Or shall I cast me o’er the high cliffs,
And send my soul to wrack?”

“Oh you need not dress in green,” he said,
“Nor ye needn’t dress in black;
But go fling wide the great hall doors,
And welcome my father back.”

“Well-come, well-come, Lord Thomas,” she said,
“You are welcome unto me.
Well-come, well-come to your merry men all,
That you’ve brought across the sea.”

And she served them with the best of wine,
Yes she served them up and down;
But she drank water from the well
For to keep her spirits down.

She served them the live-long day,
‘Til she thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a flute all in her hand
And up to the tower she has run.

She has fluted east, she has fluted west,
She fluted loud and shrill.
She wished that her sons were seven greyhounds
And her a wolf on the hill.

“Come down, come down,” the new bride said,
“Come down unto me.
Tell me the name of your father dear,
And I’ll tell mine to thee.”

“Well King Douglas was my father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is my mother;
And Sweet Marie is my sister dear,
And Prince Henry is my brother.”

“Well if King Douglas was your father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is your mother;
Then I’m sure that I am your sister dear,
As Prince Henry is our brother.

“And I have seven ships that sail the sea,
They are loaded to the brim.
Six of them shall I give to you,
And the seventh for to carry me home.

“Six of them shall I give to you,
Once we’ve Lord Thomas hung.”

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