A Challenge in Miniature

yarn for projectThis month, I entered a piece fresh off the loom for Small Tapestry International 6–a biennial event hosted by the American Tapestry Alliance.  The theme was “Beyond the Edge,” and the size limit was under 100 square inches.  In tapestry, that is TINY!  What could I design and make that would fit the theme, the size restraint, and be a creative challenge?

I was interested in trying out a concept–one I had learned originally as a Navajo tapestry technique.  Known as “tufting,” when the textile is being woven, pieces of wool lock are laid around a warp thread such that both ends of the strand drape onto the front of the textile.  Then the next rows are woven on top, locking the fluffy wool into place.  Originally, tufting was worked across the whole of the textile, creating something rather like a full-fleece sheep hide.  This would serve as a very warm sleeping blanket or mat for its owner.

round sheep rugMore recently, tufting using locks has been utilized in pictorial tapestry weaving.  I saw images of tapestries depicting llamas or alpacas with locks on their bodies, adding texture and three-dimensionality while still in Fran Potter’s weaving classes in Madison.  I even tried the technique out myself, using our springy wool from our then Hampshire sheep flock–trimming the locks with a scissors to mimic the shape of the sheep it depicted in relief.  It was fun to work the technique and freed tapestry from being a fairy flat medium into involving more depth and touchable character.  And yet, though it was fun, I put away that technique for years after the one experiment.

But now I was curious.  Was there a way to engage the concept of tufting but use it with other materials?  Could, for instance, feathers be laid in and duly sandwiched between packed weft, like the locks?  How might this change the expression abilities of the medium?

chicken cartoonThe feathers I had at easy disposal for the experiment were saved up from my own flock of chickens.  So I went looking for a cartoon idea in photos of my own bird friends.  I settled on cropping a view from a sunny morning, snapped during chores of these two cheery chickens.  There was great color contrast, highlights, a sense of motion, and visual interest–a great starting point.

But staying in the mini scale meant that some of the elements would not be “weavable” in any believable way.  These included the fencing in the background and the eyes of the birds.  Editing out the fence was easy enough, but what about the eyes?  You can’t have chickens as the “subject” of a tapestry and punt on the eyes!

Time to think outside the usual toolkit box once again, and this time I went to Amazon.com.  “What did you just order?” Steve asked, as he was checking his email.  “Taxidermy eyes?”  Well, yes, mini glass taxidermy eyes.  “Chicken” was not an option, but 7mm “Red Tailed Hawk” was, so I went with that.  And they duly arrived in tiny packaging in the mail the next week.  Now, how was I going to add these to a weaving, with only flat, smooth backs to work with?  I think it would be great if they made these as buttons!  That would have been very helpful.  Still, I had so much fun with these, once I figured out how to make them weavable.

weaving startsThe tufting challenge came first.  Unlike wool locks, feathers have a stiff core, and there was no looping it back to the front of the piece.  I would have to press that hard part out to the back side of the piece, trimming it off once the tapestry grew in height enough to prevent the feather from accidentally falling or pulling out during the weaving process.

I used one of my small “study” looms, which made the work portable and easy to set up for weaving a project with a fast approaching submission deadline.  In fact, I grew so engrossed in the project that I didn’t take any more pictures of the process beyond this one, so it’s hard to see how the feather “tufting” process proceeded.  It was a great learning piece for testing out the concept before applying it to larger-scale projects in the future.  I’ll have to get better process pictures next time!

For attaching the eyes, I glued string onto the back using Mod Podge, pulled them through the tapestry, and then pulled them through a button on the other side, tying them tightly.  This secured the eyes onto the piece without gluing them on top, but they still stuck out like stationary bobble eyes.  What to do about this situation?  There was no woven answer, but there was an embroidery answer.  In fact, with a piece at this tiny scale (10 x 6.5 inches), embroidery became the answer for many detail issues.  Layer by layer–feathers, glass eyes, embroidery accents–the piece was taking on a textural life of its own that was both challenging and fun, intriguing and experimental.  And it was freeing to simply ask, “What happens when I try…” and not feel burdened by the tradition of form or the magnitude of needing to get a large piece “right.”  Artists need experimental breaks like this to keep their work fresh and infused with life.

were watching youAnd then it was time for mounting the piece.  Since I had left off the fencing from the image, I decided to incorporate actual chicken wire fencing between the frame and the piece, almost like it was matting but more like a shadowbox with the raised nature of the wood of the framing, which we constructed in our farm’s shop from scrap lumber found in the shed.  The framing part was a full-family team project, with rounds of troubleshooting and specialty tools I’m happy to let more experienced hands operate.

So now you can see the interplay of tapestry weaving, feathered tufting, glass taxidermy eyes, and embroidery technique, framed with a real farm theme.  Here is what I wrote about the piece for submission to the tapestry exhibit.

–My early art teacher Madeline Sattler encouraged me to think beyond placing the whole subject within the frame.  “Let it spill beyond the edge of the page,” she offered.  “That way, the viewers must make up the rest of the image for themselves.”

“We’re Looking at You” seeks to continue the conversation with that idea, as well the challenge the typical roles of viewer and viewed in tapestry, with glass eyes that follow the human spectator.  The cartoon for this piece came from cropping a photo I took of my laying flock on a sunny summer morning.  It was time for their breakfast, and all eyes were on the bearer of the bucket!

Playful experimentation continues with the adaptation of the Navajo tapestry technique of tufting—utilizing feathers from my own chickens instead of the customary wool locks.  Embroidery textural accents finish off the subtle three-dimensionality of the imagery at this tiny scale.

Barnyard elements are extended into the mounting, with rustic wood and chicken wire.–

Submission is complete, so now I have to wait to see if it is selected in the juried process for the two gallery exhibits this coming summer.  Stay tuned for the announcement!