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

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018

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.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018

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.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

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!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

The Stirling Tapestries

west dean weaverPerhaps it was an interesting twist of fate that at the same time I was working on my graduate studies at Goddard College (researching and crafting the design for “Deceiving the Hunters”), across the pond a parallel endeavor on a much grander scale was also engaging the theme of the Unicorn Tapestries.

Stirling Castle, home to the Scottish Kings, now serves as a living history museum.  In the archives of James V, there is notated a series of tapestries depicting the History of the Unicorn, but these have since been lost (likely from the Scottish King’s ascension to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I).  No record remains of the iconography of these tapestries, so as Historic Scotland became interested in replacing the set for educational and heritage purposes, they turned to a surviving series about the unicorn–The Hunt of the Unicorn, housed at the Cloisters.drafting cartoon

2 million pounds and 14 years later, the set was completely rewoven at half the warps-per-inch density (otherwise they’d still be weaving now), with completion of the project in 2014.  18 weavers from across the globe participated, with master weavers from West Dean Tapestry Studio in Sussex and Ruth Jones from Canada leading the project.  Using detailed scanned images from the original panels, the team created line drawing cartoons to keep their recreations as accurate as possible, including details in shading and character position.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art does have a wonderful online image gallery for these tapestries, including very high resolution details from the fragmented panel that I have kept close at hand for my own work.  By creating my own interpretive piece, I have a taste of the tremendous amount of time and attention to detail that this crew of weavers has taken with this project!  I’m certain that seeing the finished pieces in person is quite breathtaking, especially since they were able to utilize colors at a greater brilliance–giving the affect the originals might have had when fresh off the loom.hunt in progress

The original Unicorn Tapestries were woven at 8 warps per centimeter (20 per inch), while the reproductions were worked at 4 warps per centimeter (10 warps per inch–the same as my piece).  This certainly makes a difference with vertical details, as I’m finding with a little frustration here and there in my own work, but the Sterling set also has a much bigger palate for spreading this detail work.  It’s also quite possible that their weft thread is a little finer than mine.  Wouldn’t it be a treat to take a walk in their studio and talk to the makers!

weaver at workI did find a few online resources about the reproduction process for the Sterling Tapestries, including on the castle’s website and also an interview with Ruth Jones by Satellite Gallery.  Ruth is the maker who was given the special task of designing and weaving the scene where the maiden beguiles the unicorn (as critiqued in the previous post).  It is one thing to work to recreate an existing masterpiece–and another to graft onto it what might have been.  This certainly was a stylistic and iconographic challenge.

In the interview, Ruth Jones quotes woodcuts, engravings, and other contemporary art for her inspiration of a seated maiden with the unicorn in her lap.  She does not appear to adopt the idea that this character may be the lady shown before the castle gates after the slaying of the unicorn–instead showing her more like the panel “Sight” from hunt panel in progressThe Lady and the Unicorn series.  In this image from the piece-in-progress, that lady has not yet emerged from the weaving process.  Here, the damsel who tips off the hunters that the capture has been complete is being woven in all her velvet splendor.  Check out the last post for a view of the finished panel.

Studying the process images from this set, I realized that the size of “Deceiving the Hunters” is a much more manageable scale for a solo artist like myself.  There is no question that a piece on the proportions of The Hunt of the Unicorn would have required an entire team of weavers–let alone the crews spinning and dying–a real symbol of status and wealth for its owners.

weavers at workSeeing this parallel project also helps me put into perspective that I’m not a reproductions weaver.  While this set is entirely impressive and I applaud the countless hours and dedication to detail and craftsmanship of its makers, I would personally find it far too constricting to spend 14 years remaking that which already exists.  And, though from time to time while working on my own piece I get the urge to try to replicate an exact technique or style from these works, I am reminded of my own unique textile background and training and my interests in storytelling through many mediums as foremost components of my style.  Unlike the Sterling Tapestries, “Deceiving the Hunters” is not a reproduction piece–it’s an offering of an alternative narrative.

The reproduction-style interpretation of what happened in that fragment tapestry has already been made!  Kudos to Ruth and the team at West Dean.  But now it’s time to trace the winding and serendipitous tale of how I came to choose and create my own lady with her unicorn–and why.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

The Case of the Missing Lady

tapestry restorationBoth sets of Unicorn Tapestries have sustained damages over the years and undergone several rounds of restoration.  Some frayed and missing elements can be replaced with relative confidence, such as mille fleur backgrounds or parts of trees and gowns.  But others are impossible to replicate in the face of lost cartoons (original design) and no documentation in full detail of the original content.

This is especially true for the fragment panel in the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series.  We know that the central lady is seated with the unicorn’s forelegs on her lap, lady betrays unicornbut all that remains of her is part of one arm and her fingers in the beast’s mane.  Her sleeve is of a golden and fawn brocade, slightly belled in shape (not unlike the sleeve cut of the lady in red velvet betraying the unicorn to the hunter in the trees).

Who would this missing lady have been and what would she have looked like?  There are several different ways to look for clues, as well as methods other interpretive artists have utilized.

For example, when first researching into the two Unicorn Tapestry sets, it appeared that “The Lady and the Unicorn” was likely woven slightly earlier in time than “The Hunt of the Unicorn”–possibly as disparate at 1480 for the first and 1515 for the second.  The bright red background with mille fleur patterning and the subjects seated on an island seemed of a more medieval fashion, while the early use of perspective and a naturalistic landscape as shown in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries would appear to put their production at a slightly later date.

But the lines between the Medieval and Renaissance period is a blurred and fuzzy transition.  More recent scholarship about the Unicorn Tapestries (especially with regards to tracing the striking and dominant heraldry in The Lady and the Unicorn set) has pressed the theoretical “make date” of these to sets close together.  It certainly may be that the Flemish studios were producing both the mille fleur style and the scenic style at the same time, dependent on the tastes and requests of the nobles ordering the commissioned work.

This pairs well with the fact that two of the “Hunt” series (noticeably woven at a different studio) use the mille fleur background.  Perhaps some studios specialized in the older style while others were branching into the new territory of scenic work.  But I would not be surprised at all if simultaneous production of the different styles occurred–essentially, “If you want to pay for a tapestry, we’ll weave what you want.”  Commercial production based on commission still works that way.

lady and unicornSo, if the two sets do share a closely linked date, then the expression of mythology in pictorial form (here the taming of the unicorn by the maiden) would be culturally very similar.  In “The Lady and the Unicorn:  Sight,” we can see the exact (though mirrored) arm and similar finger position of the lady with regards to the unicorn on her lap.  However, I would caution as to any further reproduction of the pose with regards to the mirror.  “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries are aesthetically representing the senses–hence the use of a mirror to denote sight.

I have not seen in any other medieval or Renaissance art the use of a mirror in luring the unicorn into submission.  The lure of the mirror (or a reflection in water) is common to the story of Narcissus, not the unicorn.  For this chimera, the lure is the maiden, not a reflection.  Notice also that in the “Hunt” panel, the unicorn is looking up, towards the missing lady’s face.  The unicorn in the “Lady” panel is looking down, towards the mirror.

However, since the “Lady” series is so compelling and a known contemporary representation, this has made its way into replica interpretations, including the set woven by West Dean for sterling castle tapestry detail
Historic Scotland and Sterling Castle.  The question of what to do with the second hand remained, which may be why they left it half off the edge of the piece.  The lady has other clear links with the Cluny set, including the watered silk underskirt, the decoration at the shoulders, and the snood-like hair covering, while her low-looping necklace is of the Cloisters set.  It’s an interesting combination of the two in an effort to recreate that which has been lost.

In this replica set, designed to replace the lost “History of the Unicorn” series once housed at Sterling Castle (wish I knew what that set looked like!), they’ve decided to interpret the lady’s brocade gown as red and gold.  However, the original shows a more tawny brown color, similar to the gown of the leading lady in the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

Because of the link in color and pattern between the leading lady and the beguiling maiden’s gowns, some believe it to be the same character.  This plays into the Anne of Brittany theory, but considering that the lady and seigneur are linked in arm (along with her choice in headdress), it would appear that they are a married couple, which would negate the beguiling maiden status.

The only way it would symbolically work for the lady in the castle panel to also be the lady in the beguiling panel is that this is a marriage celebration piece, symbolizing the pursuit and capture of the bride by the man, where they are then shown wed beside the slain unicorn.  But that seems to put the story backwards of the unicorn being beguiled by the maiden and brought back to show off to the man.  Also, the lady is fingering her rosary and other strong symbolic elements (including inscriptions on hunting horns, the oak sprouting thorns around the unicorn’s neck, etc.) link the unicorn with the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

Yikes!  All these pieces together can seem to muddle the quest for the missing lady, but it is also quite classic of medieval allegory.  The further you drill into the story, the more there is to find!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

Fair Annie: Pretty as a Liability

david and bathsheba detailThe cultural desire for women to be forever young and fair comes at a price, especially when a couple faces a mid-life crisis.  The man (who was distinctly the more powerful of the two) might decide to find a way to cast off the old wife for someone new and younger.  This certainly is a main theme in the life of Henry VIII!

This is also displayed in the ballad “Fair Annie” (Child 62), which traces its lineage back to 1200 when Marie de France told a tale of two twin girls in Lai del Freisne.  In “Fair Annie,” the bride who has born six children and is carrying the seventh is told to pretend to be a maiden again because her husband (Lord Thomas) is off to fetch a new bride.  Though she protests, she must obey.

Perhaps after six births and yet another pregnancy, Annie is not the flower she once was.  Perhaps Lord Thomas no longer finds her as pleasurable or exciting.  Either way, the lure of a young and beautiful maiden convinces him to cast off his wife.

In complete despair at the situation, Annie turns to music (her flute) to console herself.  The new bride recognizes the tune and asks the woman her lineage–only to discover that they are sisters!  Oh uh, not a smart move there Lord Thomas.  He’ll have his due!

While many variations exist, I learned this version from Maggie Boyle and Steve Tilston.

Fair Annie

“Comb back your hair, Fair Annie,” he said.
“Comb it back into your crown.
You must lead a maiden’s life,
When I bring the new bride home.”

“Oh how can I look maiden-like,
when a maiden I am none;
Six fair sons have I borne by you,
And the seventh coming on.”

“Oh you shall bake my bread,” he said.
“Oh and you shall keep my home;
And you shall welcome my lady gay
When I bring the new bride home.”

And over the door he’s hung a silken towel,
Pierced by a silver pin;
That Fair Annie she might wipe her eyes,
As she’s gang out and in.

Well six months gone and nine coming on,
She thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a spyglass in her hand,
And up to the tower she has run.

She has looked east, she has looked west,
She looked all under the sun;
And who should she see but Lord Thomas,
A-bringing of his bride all home.

And she has called on her seven sons,
By one by two by three;
And she said unto her eldest son,
“Come and tell me what you see.”

He has looked east, he has looked west,
He looked all under the sun;
And who should he see but his father dear,
A-bringing of his new bride home.

“Oh shall I dress in green?” she said,
“Or shall I dress in black?
Or shall I cast me o’er the high cliffs,
And send my soul to wrack?”

“Oh you need not dress in green,” he said,
“Nor ye needn’t dress in black;
But go fling wide the great hall doors,
And welcome my father back.”

“Well-come, well-come, Lord Thomas,” she said,
“You are welcome unto me.
Well-come, well-come to your merry men all,
That you’ve brought across the sea.”

And she served them with the best of wine,
Yes she served them up and down;
But she drank water from the well
For to keep her spirits down.

She served them the live-long day,
‘Til she thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a flute all in her hand
And up to the tower she has run.

She has fluted east, she has fluted west,
She fluted loud and shrill.
She wished that her sons were seven greyhounds
And her a wolf on the hill.

“Come down, come down,” the new bride said,
“Come down unto me.
Tell me the name of your father dear,
And I’ll tell mine to thee.”

“Well King Douglas was my father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is my mother;
And Sweet Marie is my sister dear,
And Prince Henry is my brother.”

“Well if King Douglas was your father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is your mother;
Then I’m sure that I am your sister dear,
As Prince Henry is our brother.

“And I have seven ships that sail the sea,
They are loaded to the brim.
Six of them shall I give to you,
And the seventh for to carry me home.

“Six of them shall I give to you,
Once we’ve Lord Thomas hung.”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

Belle Femme: Beauty, Transition, and the Dawn of the 16th Century

lady in burgundian gown

What makes a woman beautiful?  The answer to this can certainly be quite different across cultures and eras.  Here I’ll explore the changing standards of female beauty and dress during that interesting cusp between the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Fashions certainly had their roller coaster ride across the medieval period.  Waists were loose, then fitted, here low, there high.  Sleeves were tight with a myriad of buttons in a row, then sleeves were great draping bells cut in leafy hem shapes.  Headdresses of a variety of styles came an went, including towering hennin veils supported by wires that required castle doorways to be modified to allow the fashionable ladies to pass from room to room.

A medieval lady’s silhouette, however, was allowed to remain fairly flexible.  Most gowns could accommodation pregnancies without too much modification.  Comfortable tunic styles gave way to the copiously roomy houppelande, the paneled kirtle, and eventually the high-waisted Burgundian style of gown.  Many of these styles showed off the desirably graceful neck.  In fact, swan-like movements were favored for ladies throughout the medieval period.15th century lady

Another aspect of interest is the treatment of hair.  During the late medieval period, women’s hair all but disappears (expect in Italy, but they certainly had their own sense of fashionable taste during the 15th Century).  A high forehead was deemed especially beautiful, and women and girls not naturally endowed with this characteristic plucked their foreheads (sometimes burning the follicles with hot pins to keep them from regrowing) to achieve the almost baby-like bald forehead.

The remaining hair was kept carefully coiled up in the hennin.  Eyebrows were also preferred as thin and arched, and moles or discolorations of any kinds were abhorred as “devil’s marks” and were either treated by the lady on her own skin or at least edited out of any portraits made of her.  Woe to the freckle-faced redhead!  While makeup was socially discouraged, it was used by upper-class women.  However, one of the base ingredients was lead, which created many adverse health effects.

marie of burgundyAs styles changed near the turn of the century, several notable transitions occurred.  First, women’s hair began to reappear, both around the face and, sometimes, out the back as in this portrait.  Hair framing the face and even wrapping around the head in braids or coils is strongly featured in the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries.  Whether this is influenced by an “Oriental” style as sometimes mentioned (Turkish?) or the Italian love of showing off the lady’s hair during this time is not perfectly traceable.

The second major aspect of change in fashion for the beautiful lady is the transition away from a high waist and accentuated bosom to a natural or even low waist and flat front.  The scoop or plunging V neckline gives was almost exclusively to the square or W shape.  The languid, swan-like stance is supplanted by a definitely straight torso and spine.  This would continue on through the Tudor reign (and beyond), going to major extremes including deeply V-ed waistlines and boned corseting during Elizabeth I’s reign.

mary tudor black dressThe stiffened bodice first appears during this historic transition, with a round, natural waistline.  The corset had not yet made its appearance, but according to The Tudor Taylor (see Bibliography), both gown and the under-dress (called a kirtle) were stiffened with an interlining of “canvass.”  Laced or hooked snugly, this style not only offered the lady support in a pre-brassier era but also created the flattened, squarish silhouette that is so classic of the Tudor appearance.

As the period progressed, the shoulder line grows wider and wider, to the point where it seems a wonder that a lady’s sleeves might stay on at all.  Sleeves also change in shape from straight and narrow in the previous style to wide bells and eventually decorative false sleeves beneath that puffed out the broad sleeve of the gown.  A hooped underskirt known as a “Farthingale” makes its appearance along with these fancy sleeves, creating a defined, stiffened, conical look to a lady’s figure.  The emphasis became an upright posture, though the accentuation of a long and graceful neck was still maintained until the arrival of the stiffened ruff, when the lady’s neck could disappear entirely.

lady and unicornIn the Unicorn Tapestries, we find these styles and elements of a lady’s beauty frozen somewhere between one era and the next.  Likely woven right at the transition of the century, they too are a statement of fashion in flux.  It’s no longer a Burgundian style, nor is it a full-blown Henry VIII appearance.  Like so many other aspects of these unique tapestries, they lie somewhere in between–a point so fleeting it’s a wonder that it was even captured at all.

Some statements about the cultural views on feminine beauty at the time are clearly showcased in the tapestries.  Here are some highlights:

(1) Preference for a slender, mostly straight figure, with tight bodice accentuating the waist whilst de-emphasizing the bosom.  This includes very slender arms accentuated by tight sleeves, at least from shoulder to elbow.

(2) Preference for fair hair.  While portraits include ladies with dark hair, all of the women in the Unicorn Tapestries with showing hair are blond.  A few have their hair obscured by their bonnets (hoods), belying their matronly status.  I have yet to find reference that unicorn prefer blonds, so this is likely a cultural instead of myth-oriented statement.lady betrays unicorn

(3) Despite all of the talk of “rosy cheeks and ruby lips” in contemporary literature and ballad culture, all of these ladies are quite pale.  Lips are only lightly distinguishable from the face, with very little coloring in the cheeks (if any).  This is paralleled in contemporary portraiture and information about whitening cosmetic use.  The cultural desire for light hair but also pale skin proved a conundrum for some Italian ladies, who are documented to have worn a broad straw brim–pulling their hair out the top to be bleached by the sun while protecting their face and neck below.  Ah yes, the demands of fashion!

(4) Face, neck, upper chest, and hands are the only skin appropriate to be shown in public.  No arms, no legs, period.  While working class women (who are often shown as short, pudgy, buxom, and stout-armed) were depicted as having their sleeves rolled up and their skirts hitched out of the way of their task, this was not a habit afforded to ladies of high degree.  Decorum put show of fabrics over show of skin.

(5) Eye color is not restricted to light colors.  Ladies are shown with blue and brown eyes, so the “blond-haired, blue-eyed” fetish does not appear to be fully planted at this time.  More light eyes appear in “The Lady and the Unicorn” than “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, but then there are more ladies shown in the first set than the remaining pieces of the second.

(6) Eyelids are an important part of decorum.  Today, we live in a world where eyelids and eyelashes are darkened, to make the eyes look larger.  In late medieval art, having a downcast gaze was considered demure and desirable for ladies.

(7) Gold and jewels are a must.  A beautiful lady does not appear without them (unless she is Venus represented in the nude…and even then she might be afforded a necklace).  A lady’s gold and jewels are essential accessories to her beauty and wealth, adorning her neck, gown, hem, headdress, cuffs, seams, belt, hair, and often fingers.  It is interesting, however, that rings play no role in the Unicorn Tapestries.  No one is wearing them!

lady and unicorn sound(8) The “C” posture has not entirely given way to the straight stature.  Curving the lower back so that the hips are forward is still indicated, offering a somewhat reclining look.  This was considered to be part of a noble lady’s indication of a demure and refined etiquette.  A reclined stance is somewhat off-balanced and therefore non-threatening.  When in the “C” posture, the head is most often tipped forward as well.  Servants (who are more active) do not always affect this same stance.

These are just a few of the interesting bits that can be learned when studying the representation of feminine beauty in art at the crossover from 15th to 16th Century.  More on how the continuation of this trend affected women and fashion will be offered in a later post.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

Willie O’ Winsbury

couple courting in tapestryDocumented as Child Ballad #100, with many variants, this border ballad has strong Scottish roots.  Through my research, I found Winsbury to have been a Scottish clan name, though I could not find an actual location (like a town or castle with the name Winsbury).  If you know more about the Winbsury story, I would love to hear about it!

The earliest record of the lyrics trace back to 1775, and there is some speculation that it may be connected with Scottish King James V and his courtship of Madeliene de Valois of France, but it’s entirely possible that the song is much older.  The use of stock verses and repeating phrases are certainly drawn from the 15th Century border ballad tradition.

The version I learned was inspired by John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee and is included in my album “Bardic Memories.”

Willie O’ Winsbury

The king has been a prisoner,
And a pris’ner long in Spain;
And Willie of the Winsbury,
Has lain long with his daughter at home.

“What ails you, what ails you my daughter Janet,
Why you look so pale and wan.
Oh have you had any sore sickness,
Or yet been a-sleepin’ with a man?”

“Oh I have not had any sore sickness,
Nor yet been a-sleepin’ with a man;
But it was for you my father dear,
For biding so long in Spain.”

“Cast off, cast off your berry brown gown,
You stand naked upon the stone;
That I may know you by your shape,
Whether you be a maiden or no.”

And she’s cast off her berry brown gown,
She stood naked upon the stone.
Her apron was low and her haunches were round,
Her face was pale and wan.

“Oh was it with a lord or a duke or a knight,
Or a man of birth and fame?
Or was it with one of my serving men,
That’s lately come out of Spain?”

“No it wasn’t with a lord nor a duke nor a knight,
Nor a many of birth and fame;
But it was with Willie of Winsbury,
I could bide no longer a lone.”

And the king he has called on his merry men all,
By thirty and by three;
Saying “Fetch me this Willie of Winsbury,
For hanged he shall be!”

But when he was brought the king before,
He was clad all in the red silk;
His hair was like the strands of gold,
His skin was as white as the milk.

“And it is no wonder” said the king,
“That my daughter’s love you did win;
For if I was a woman as I am a man,
My bedfellow ye would have been.

“And will you marry my daughter Janet,
By the truth of your right hand?
And will you marry my daughter Janet,
I’ll make you the lord of my land.”

“Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
By the truth of my right hand.
Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
But I’ll not be the lord of your land.”

And he’s mounted her on a milk-white steed,
And himself on a dapple gray;
And he’s made her the lady of as much land,
As she could ride o’er a long summer’s day.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

Tapestry Gown: Fabrics on Display

devonshire tapestry detailI was intrigued by the lustrous gowns displayed in tapestry, not only from the weaver’s perspective but also from the costumer’s perspective.  I started by choosing an era somewhat earlier than the Unicorn Tapestries (mid 1400’s), where fashion is shown quite resplendently in the “Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.”

In this period, the waist was high, with long, draping lines especially in vogue.  Pleats are caught up at the waist, a train extends out the back, and a lovely underskirt is shown when the front of the gown is “caught up” under the wearer’s arm.

For my music performance work, I like to wear gowns in the styles of the eras I’m representing to help facilitate the audience’s transportation through time to another way of knowing.  For this particular project, I was interested in creating a gown that would look as if it had walked out of a tapestry, hence its name of “the Tapestry Gown.”

gown with henin engravingPulling from a variety of visual resources, which can all be referenced in the bibliography page, I searched for ideas.  The elegance of lines, the variety of forms, and sumptuous colors, all make modern dress look rather boring!  Another aspect that struck me when researching the Tapestry Gown was considering how every thread in the fabrics was spun by hand, then woven by hand, then cut by hand, then sewn by hand.  The number of hours in any one dress must have been astronomical!  No wonder being able to afford a hem that drug on the ground (and therefore required someone to wash or brush it and periodic replacement) was an outright flaunting of that person’s wealth.

I, however, do not have such wealth to flaunt, so I gave myself the challenge of utilizing all repurposed fabrics for the project.  A set of damask curtains became the over-gown, a weave-patterned tablecloth the under-gown,tapestry gown sketch a velvet dress the collar and cuffs, and an upholstery swatch for the busk and belt.  Atop, a shortened hennin (made from remnants of the aforementioned fabrics plus a sheer shower curtain) offers an appropriate finish for that classic “C” curve in a courtly lady’s silhouette.

Here, my sketch illustrates the desired look of the finished gown.  Ever since I became interested in historic dress as a young teenager, it seemed that I was ahead of my time in pattern availability.  A few years after strenuous research and effort towards a particular recreation of an American Civil War era gown, patterns seemed to be available everywhere!  And so it was the same with this project.  Probably, in a few years, Simplicity will come out with a peculiarly similar design in commercial availability.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all!

Ah, but there’s nothing quite like the chase, and so it began.  Patterns for Theatrical Costumes by Katherine Strand Holkeboer proved a most useful resource for the project, which involved my first foray into drafting patterns.  This proved to be considerably more complex and detailed than I had first imagined!  paper pattern on dress formThis was especially so due to the great number of compound curves in the layout.  In the end, after drafting the design onto copious quantities of pink tissue paper (it’s what I had), I then finessed the curves and fit on a mannequin dress form.

Here you can see the busk, overlayed with the plunging V-neck collar, the half bodice, the inset sleeve, and the pleated skirt with its long train at the back.  The collar especially needed curvature adjustments for flow.  I wanted to be certain that I was making accurate cuts to the final fabrics–especially the velvet knit, which wriggles about like during cutting like a wayward sponge.  In the end, I had to tack that velvet firmly to the lining in order to quell its tempestuousness.  Good thing it was only collars and cuffs!

This style of gown was designed before the use of the corset–that most constricting undergarment.  It highlights the natural curvature of the breast and offers elegant, sweeping lines at the shoulders.  But that plunging neckline could be indecently revealing, so the stiffened gown bodice progress“busk” at the front is most necessary.  I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that this is the first presentation of a stiffened front panel in lady’s fashionable dress.  The desire for a decorative, stiffened front would continue as the waistline dropped–causing the need for a firm foundation for tight tailoring.  But that discussion will be explored in another post.

The skirt for the gown is cut in two large panels and required creative seaming to accommodate because my fabric was neither as wide nor long as the pattern dictated.  It turns out that piecing was also necessary even for the wealthy in medieval and Renaissance times because fabrics were woven only so wide (sometimes as narrow as 22 inches), which I suspect is directly linked to the complexity of the pattern-work in the fabrics.  finished tapestry gownThe invention of the mechanized pattern detail of the Jacquard loom (see the post “High Warp Tapestry Looms” for a fuller description) would allow for much wider fabrics of the damask and brocade style, but this invention was hundreds of years off from the 15th Century.

Piecing aside, the draping did turn out quite elegant.  That copious skirt, along with the underskirt, helped me appreciate the speed I had developed over the years at hand hemming!  The combination of rich mayberry, deep blue, and gold accents really sets this gown into the realm of dress in tapestry.  The gold and soft pink jewelry I had shipped from India for playing Tuptim in “The King and I” paired very nicely as well, adding some sparkle–including an adornment on the front of the hennin where a decorative pull tab was often present.  These headdresses can be rather weighted towards the back and sometimes need a little help staying in place.

While not practical for outdoor strolling performances (due to the long hem and train), I’ve had some occasions for utilizing the Tapestry Gown.  One of these included a performance of the ballad “Willie O’ Winsbury” at the Northland Storytelling Network’s gown in performanceannual convention, where I was also presenting my graduate school practicum seminar on orality.

In this ballad, the king returns from imprisonment (likely after a crusade) to find his unmarried daughter pregnant.  After making her confess the name of her lover, a search is warranted for his arrest and death.  But upon being brought to the castle, the young man’s beauty surprises even the king, and marriage to the princess is proposed (with the added bait of a land grant).  Willie says he will gladly marry the princess (Janet) but has no interest in the king’s land, instead taking her back to his own large tracts.  I’ll include the lyrics in a subsequent post because they are both vivid and lilting in nature–a snapshot into the human condition.  Ladies, she lost her unicorn, but she kept her lover.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016