Drawing 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.
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!
So, 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.
Since 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.
But 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. 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.
Starting 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.
One 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. Both 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.