My second study when preparing for the “Deceiving the Hunters” tapestry project focused on the representation of different kinds of cloth as draped on the human figure. Because so many tapestries of this era depict human figures, and most of these figures are sumptuously dressed in the fashions of their day, working realistic textiles in tapestry became an important skill for weavers.
In fact, portions of different fabrics were kept at tapestry studios so that weavers could drape and shape them, looking at how the light accented the edges of velvet or the sheen on cloth-of-gold brocade, or the folds in linen or worsted wool. This allowed the artists to create a sense of realism in their interpretation of the design cartoon before the days of photographs.
Linens could be woven quite fine, including very expensive cloth that was practically translucent. This, I would think, would be the most challenging fabric of all to mimic in tapestry because you are showing two layers at once, while using a medium that is nearly two-dimensional and worked linearly (you can’t go back over an area of finished tapestry and add more weft, as an oil painter can lay down many layers of color on top of each other).
Brocades, damask, and watered silks offer the challenge of showing patterns on fabric once draped over the human form (including over wrinkles and across seams), which the Unicorn Tapestries work with great skill. We can see pattern, sheen, the three-dimensionality of the wearer, seams, folds, and the overlay of adornment. This poses quite a skills challenge!
Other than hands and faces, though, the predominating component of the people represented in tapestry is their clothing. It’s not to be taken lightly! Garments not only state fashion, but also status, wealth, marriageability, rank, and personal taste. More on that in a later post. Actually, it may take more than one post to tackle that subject!
For my study, I knew that the lady in the scene would be wearing velvet and fine linen/silk, so I chose a detail from the “Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries” again as a point of focus. I found a combination of finer-woven under-sleeve showing through the slash in a velvet tunic of one of the hunters in the series. If offered plenty of folds to work with!
Velvet as a fabric is woven with a pile that is then shorn, so it’s dense with many tiny ends sticking up (like a tiny carpet). Therefore, when the fabric is folded, those ends spread out, catching the light individually. This would mean no escaping crosshatching shading technique (compared with the verdure exercise). Also, I needed to make the shading and textural transitions using only three colors. The under-sleeve, by comparison, needed to look smooth, with a sense of sheen in the shading. The challenge was on!
Because I had not yet officially decided to work the final tapestry sideways (I think doing the studies clenched that realization), this study was also woven from bottom to top. To experiment, I worked the velvet using three colors of wool, while making the under-sleeve out of alpaca. The two have a very different visual texture, and it really does make a statement in appearance when viewed up close.
One thing that I did learn is that my original color choice for the velvet was too purple and cherry. I would need to find a different mix to create the right palate for the final piece. This is part of the value of working studies! I also learned that because of the tediousness of the crosshatch shading technique required, it was not always possible to work the garment in hills and valleys. Often, I was weaving across a larger area with multiple butterflies back and forth (here using needles as well because the study loom was so small), using technique that in Navajo textiles is employed for working diagonals.
This study took considerably more time than the verdure study, in part because of the demands of the shading. As the sleeve progressed, however, I felt that I was growing more confident with the technique for both the linen/silk and the velvet. For the under-sleeve, I opted to use no crosshatch shading, instead having the defined lines differentiate the representation of cloth from the “fuzzy” look of the velvet. Again, the study was not trying to be a copy of the original–it’s my own piece and technique inspired by the original, which is a completely different intent.
I was still convinced that I needed different colors for the lady’s gown and, of course, the variegated background would not be in the final piece. It was simply a choice in yarn to build the sleeve against that would not be distracting from the study’s intent. The little bit of sword hilt peeking in from the side added an element of fun and mystery–you have to look at the original to know what it is!
Just like the verdure study, I decided to leave the top unfinished as a teaching tool. These were displayed (along with miniature images from the originals and the line drawing of the full cartoon) during a showcase at a Goddard residency for my MFA program. It was exciting to share the studies with other art students and talk about the research for the piece.
That is when I first saw people’s fascination with the studies as their own interestingly aesthetic works (which has been echoed by comments from visitors to the studio). They offer little windows into the realm of pictorial tapestry–close-up microcosms of another world.