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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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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