You know that you’re a quirky teenager when your grandparents ask what you’d like as a high school graduation gift and your answer is a really big tapestry loom! As a homeschooler, I had found great appeal in the textile arts of the Navajo traditions of the American Southwest.
While working beautiful geometrics, I also was drawn to “pictorials,” weaving scenes of my beloved chickens, wild birds that visited the feeder, and even a few with stylized people. But I had really maxed out the pictorial method within that technique framework.
I was therefore interested in exploring the world of Flemish tapestry, which is all about pictorial imagery and a sense of realism I had found previously unattainable. But in order to work this new technique, I needed the right tool, and that graduation gift came as a Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom that weighed 175 pounds and, once assembled, stood higher than me and over five feet wide! It was a young weaver’s dream!
The loom was also the instigation of building my studio yurt. Because the loom was so hefty, its original location in the loft of our house caused the floor to sag, and the loom had to move somewhere else! But that could be a whole post by itself.
For my first project, I wanted to do a tapestry “by the book”–sideways, backwards, with slit weaving (taboo in Navajo technique), and a traditional theme. So I chose a heraldry motif, inventing a coat of arms that would have been described as “Vert, a Falcon Rising Argent” with the Latin inscription “Audentia Sophia Decus,” which means Courage, Wisdom, Virtue.
I first learned how warping was a completely different technique from either a Navajo or a floor loom. It’s taken several projects to finesse my approach, including the addition of a stainless steel reed for warp spacing at the top and a hardware store purchase of a mountain of oversized metal washers for weighting warp bundles when wrapping onto the warp beam.
I also made the mistake of weaving my first piece in alpaca (at the time it was the only yarn I could find that was spun fine enough for a project with a 12-warps-per-inch count). It was slippery and considerably less forgiving than wool–and I learned my lesson on that one! Blends are fine, but I’ll never weave an entire tapestry of pure alpaca again!
Perhaps it was my years of training in Navajo technique that also made the sideways and backwards facing approach of the work quite aggravating, especially working the Latin text on the motto scroll. It is advantageous for making “floats” and leaving “tails” to keep them on the weaver’s side, but since this piece I have worked all my Gobelin loom tapestries from the front. I know this is anachronistic for Flemish tapestry, but as the designer and the weaver, having the “finished” view facing me while I work has been personally preferential.
The second piece was much larger and more naturalistic in its approach. Titled “Nele and the Sea” after a friend, I was playing with perspective, texture, and some three-dimensional elements. I returned to using wool and adjusted to a 10 warps-per-inch count, which I used in the next piece as well as the current unicorn tapestry project.
In this piece, I experimented with “crosshatch” shading on the gown, use of different fibers for different effects (her hair is cotton, which has a nice sheen), and working a strong sense of depth as well as fluidity of lines. This textile was woven from bottom to top (rather than sideways), which made the angles in her dress cumbersome but the lines in the ocean waves graceful. There is a real trade-off as to what you can create depending on which way the piece is oriented on the loom!
The other aspect I engaged, which was rather playful, was the addition of non-traditional items like the real earring in her ear, fishing line whiskers for the cat, and fringe for the shawl that is tied into the warps and can be positioned at will (windy day, calm day). Many people comment on how fun and interesting these detail additions are, especially when they haven’t noticed them right away.
Tapestry is a very tactile medium–you are almost compelled to touch it. Of course, this cannot be with the historic pieces, but with contemporary work, touch is an important part of experiencing a tapestry.
The next piece was a commissioned work for a woman whose family traces its lineage to Ireland, with great pride for their O’Sullivan coat of arms. This included a motto, a complex shield with five different figures, the helm and mantling, and a crest. It took years to finish this piece! But with the vivid colors, the completed tapestry is quite striking and adorns the patron’s mantle over the fireplace.
Black backgrounds would not be traditional, but this was the patron’s choice. The white dashes on the piece-in-progress are the stitches that hold the cartoon to the back of the tapestry to insure accuracy. They are removed once the textile comes off the loom.
Here is the piece in its finished form. Through the process of making these three tapestries, I worked on warping technique, basic shading, composition, and materials acquisition. I also developed my “weaver’s mark” (seen in the lower right), which I’ll cover in a different post.
I was ready for a bigger challenge, something that would stretch my technique and try different material. The loom sat empty in the studio for a little while until the research for the new piece was complete–research that would be the foundation for the current Gobelin tapestry loom project “Deceiving the Hunters.”