Building a Tapestry Pedagogy

Laura with FranIt was late summer of 1998, and I was just about to turn 13, when my mom asked me if an enrichment course through the Madison Area Technical College on Navajo tapestry weaving might be of interest.  We had just begun our homeschooling adventures together, transitioning from Montessori schools to our own version of Montessori-infused unschooling.  We had recently spent nearly a year in Arizona, and I had been captivated by the art of the Southwest.  Mom had purchased a video on simplified Navajo weaving, and we had dabbled a bit, but I’m certain I had no idea the real extent of what such a course would entail.  Nevertheless, the idea of such an opportunity was captivating, and I eagerly said yes.

This launched what would be an intense but magical five-and-a-half-years mentorship with master weaver Fran Potter and a dear friendship that influences my teaching style today.  Her eternal patience, insight, and love of bringing historical and cultural depth to her students while allowing each to work at her (or his) own pace was the epitome of a nurturing unschooled environment.  After meeting with Fran and gaining special permission to attend the course as a minor, it was me and a host of delightful grandmas in a church basement every Thursday afternoon from fall through spring.

Laura WeavingMom and I built that first Navajo loom together, and I jumped into the immersive process.  Mom and Fran conspired to help me design projects that would focus on learning specific techniques that were foundationally important, while staying off my eagerness to weave more complicated pictorial imagery until I had more experience.  I was eager to plow ahead, but taking the process incrementally proved to be an excellent approach.

Each piece was quite extensive, taking several months to complete even with my class reputation of being a speed weaver.  The Navajo warping process is quite involved and arduous, requiring much meticulous patience and attention to detail.  As my yearning to weave intricate, realistic and naturalistic imagery continued, I found myself needing to reach beyond the world of Navajo-inspired tapestry and into European methodologies.  During my low-residency, self-directed college and grad school studies, this blossomed into new looms, new techniques, new ways of thinking about tapestry and its process.  Like a snowball rolling along, I gathered additional skillsets from many cultures and ways of working tapestry, building my own hybrid of methodologies.  After completing my MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College in 2011, I was thrilling to launch into teaching what I had gained through this journey.

But, the timing wasn’t right.  The audience for such a specific and rigorous medium as tapestry just wasn’t there in my rural, northern Wisconsin neighborhood.  I would continue honing my practice and developing my style and ongoing research, but teaching it would have to wait.  It would have to wait 10 years.

Much can happen in 10 years, including personal maturity and perspective.  With the building of our Farmstead Creamery, I utilized the upstairs space to host small fiber arts classes in mediums such as needle felting, crochet, and punch needle rug hooking, along with creative writing and Artist’s Way themed courses.  In late 2019 and early 2020, that teaching expanded to include a small handful of folk schools, with short classes in the quiet season of the year, so it could accommodate the rigors of full-time regenerative farming.  It felt like exciting momentum in my teaching schedule had just started when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  In what felt like an instant, all my classes were cancelled, including the ones here at the farm.  What was going to happen next?

Sometimes it feels like things are breaking apart when they are actually breaking open.  Pivoting my teaching to the virtual environment of Zoom not only broke the isolation of quarantine but opened a whole new potential for audience—one unbounded by the constraints of travel for myself or the students who wished to attend.  At last, I could find my tribe, regardless of where we were.

intro to tapestryAt first, it was baby steps with small, affordable, portable projects in needle felting.  It was a program director at the Textile Center that encouraged me to propose a 6-part course in tapestry weaving.  The thought of such an opportunity (finally!) was outrageously thrilling!  I poured myself into the project with everything I had, including asking tough questions about how I wanted to teach tapestry, what students would need to know, how would it fit into a 6-week block, and how would that translate to Zoom?  In essence, how was I going to offer it as a Laura-style experience, rather than a replica of the experience I had received from Fran?

The smartest place to begin was to determine how to simplify the process.  Instead of the upright Navajo loom Mom and I had built for my first class, or the large format tapestry looms I use in my studio space, I went back to the simple 18×18 inch frame loom we’d built as part of watching that DVD so man years ago.  It doesn’t get much simpler than that.  Instead of a 20 by 40-inch piece, I chose to focus on something that was 10 x 10 inches.

The thought of creating something that was just a sampler was not appealing.  What do you do with it then?  Put it in a drawer, after all that work?  But expecting your first piece to be a beautifully composed, finished and balanced work was also a setup for heavy expectations and potential disappointments.  What if, instead, it was somewhere between a sampler and a composed piece—something that allowed you to taste test different techniques while still creating something lovely enough to hang on the wall?  The idea spoke to my unschooled heart—a guided but not regimented dip into the world of tapestry that was extensive enough to let the student see if this medium spoke to their heart and left them wanting more.

tapestry yarnI mapped out the steps, wove a mockup, held a road-test version of the course with a dedicated pair of students, and sent in my proposal.  It was rejected.  They didn’t think, after all that work, that there would be enough interest in an online 6-week tapestry course.  I was crushed.  But again, just as it felt things were breaking apart, they were actually breaking open.  A few other student fans wanted to take the course, and we banded together enough of a Canadian and American cohort to run it, and I had shared the project with the folks at Vesterheim Folk Arts School as it was being developed.  As a long shot, I sent all the proposal materials I’d prepared for Textile Center to them, and they took me up on running the course.  It was the start of something that has grown and blossomed from the original course to now a series of courses, skill builder kits, and endless ideas for developing “what’s next” in the curriculum.

This month launches the release of “Introduction to Tapestry Weaving, Level 3,” which takes the process far beyond any techniques I learned with Fran and into divergent fields of pictorials.  The fact that courses now have extensive waiting lists and often I’m teaching two or three different tapestry levels in any given week is a transformation in my teaching journey I’m so honored an exhilarated to midwife.

In celebration, I wanted to share with you some of the guiding principles I’ve developed for creating incremental tapestry curriculum.

Many Ways Up the Mountain

When I was studying with Fran, my access to her knowledge was during the weekly afternoon sessions.  Between those sessions, I was on my own.  No email, no book, no handout beyond the one-page notes on building the loom.  I had what notes I had taken, my memory of her instruction, and intuition, but that was it.  If I got stuck, I had to wait for the next week.  But what I did have was her eyes and hands on my project, guiding me through.  The lack of support material could use improvement, but the hands-on assistance would need alternate support for an online learning environment.

I also knew that different supporting materials would work better for different types of learners.  For instance, learning tapestry from a book is not my favorite method (though, admittedly, sometimes the only option I had for certain techniques).  I’m much quicker at picking up the skill by watching someone’s hands.  However, some folks absorb written instructions better than oral explanation.  As I became more practiced at teaching this medium, it became apparent that I would need to straddle the many ways of learning to best support my students.

The combination I’ve grown to use I lovingly call the “many ways up the mountain” approach—utilizing pre-recorded video tutorials, detailed photo essays with explanations, and live Zoom time where I weave the piece with them and offer ideas and troubleshoot their projects in real time.  These sessions are typically recorded as well, offering students the ability to replay the live experience as needed between sessions.  Students are also welcome to email me pictures of their work between classes, to troubleshoot problems or check in.  The combination of all these elements has been a pillar of the type of learning environment I craft for my students and appears in course evaluations over and over as being critical resources for their successful experience.

The support materials take a tremendous amount of time an energy to create, and I’m thrilled that they are so helpful for students!  I also see them as important legacy work.  My teacher Fran now has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, ending the era of her ability to impart knowledge to her students.  Living in a global pandemic has made me think about my own mortality as well, and extensive documentation feels like the best way to capture and preserve the lessons for students now and in the future.  May the option of many ways up the mountain of learning tapestry weaving be tended and preserved for learners and weavers I have yet to or may never meet.

Interdisciplinary and Multicultural Approach

tapestry level 2Another way to think about “many ways up the mountain” is to recognize that there is more than one way to create a tapestry.  Different cultures around the world developed tapestry technique, in part by learning from each other and in part by creating their own traditions.  Each is influenced by the materials available and the intended purpose of the textile.  There is no unified “one-way” to make a tapestry, and traditions that claim they have a “right way” or the “only way” to work tapestry technique are taking a narrow-minded approach to the medium.  All tapestry traditions are entirely legitimate and worthy of study.

Instead, I invite my students to walk in the many worlds of tapestry—both in cultural and historical backstory as well as technique.  Not only do I offer a variety of techniques for students to explore, I also unpack the “why” behind the technique, when it tends to be used, and how its strengths and weaknesses influence the finished piece.  This is not how these techniques were handed to me, and I can look back on previous work and realize that if I had known then what I known now, I would have made different choices.  Instead, I strive to offer students as many tools for their toolkits as possible up front, so they can feel empowered to make those informed choices in future work and not be held back by the methodologies found in a particular subset of traditions.

Process Discipline

There are modes of tapestry weaving that are very free-form, experimental, and happy to press at the boundaries of what can be called a tapestry in comparison to other forms of textile arts.  This is not my style.  All those years working with Fran grounded my work in the rigors of process discipline, in having good technique, and in creating pieces with balance and precision.  There is merit in learning good form, as there is in any artistic endeavor, even if that’s not where you choose to stay with your work.  Breaking the rules works much better once you know what the rules are!

Throughout the process, however, I take time to help my students understand that precision is not the same as perfection.  Tapestry weaving has a way of gathering the perfectionists.  Perfection, however, is not achievable by mortals, and its illusive pursuit will forever leave us unhappy.  Precision, on the other hand, utilizes attention to detail, process discipline, and keen observation combined with skill to create a piece that is well made and pleasing.  Learning how to weave with precision is not the prison of perfection—it is a path to liberation of expressions.  With the mastery of process discipline, the weaver is no longer held back by the flaws of what has come before.  For instance, no amount of adroit weaving can compensate for a sloppy warping job.  That is why we take the process slowly, in a measured way that pays attention to the details of the process.

Being a Montessori student helped me build the skills to take a larger, complex process and break it down into specific, manageable steps.  It trained me to explain processes clearly and in order, so that they could be shown with comprehension to another person.  Unpacking specific vocabulary, illustrating each step (sometimes by drawing the step bigger on a whiteboard during class), and finding different ways to explain a process are all integral to this methodology.

Infused with Storytelling

canoe trip progressHumans are naturally drawn to stories.  It’s how our minds understand our world, ourselves, and each other.  My tapestry pedagogy is not solely focused on teaching technique—it also gives ample space to the long threads of the making tradition.  Weaving was often a communal process, and where people gather, so do stories.  I weave these stories into our Zoom time, as well as in the recorded tutorials, offering students a chance to think about how interlaced this process is with folklore, mythology, balladry, and characters both obscure and well loved.

Storytelling also invites a different part of our brain to engage with the process—the imaginative and social side.  These stories are strategically placed to offer a focus break during the session (think the 45-15 rule for concentration optimization), adjusting the flow of the class.  This is also where many cultures come to intersect with our own story—from ancient Greece to northern Scotland, rural Norway to Navajo country, remote Appalachia to King Arthur’s Court.  I’ve watched references to the stories and their characters travel with my students as they talk to me about their work.  We all have been “visited by Penelope,” and we all know what that means!  If you don’t know what that means, sign up for a class!

Permission, Permission, Permission

In order to make the process more amenable to virtual learning, my courses are based on pre-designed projects.  These projects each have specific, incremental learning goals.  However, I make a habit of inviting students to adjust or adapt as necessary, reassuring them that each piece will be unique, and that this is part of what makes tapestry beautiful.  If a student falls in love with a particular technique and wants to work on it more than is in the original design, that’s great!  If they run out of room for the other elements, they can always take their current piece off and add more warp before continuing.

It’s always exciting to see the work students create that is their own twist on the theme, rather than always being lock-step with the original concept.  I take time to celebrate this creativity.  That’s part of the flexibility of unschooling methodology because I know that this process is about the student’s personal journey, and my course is offered as the midwifing of that process.

When making corrections, I make it a habit to offer more than one solution, with the option of choosing this to be a learning moment.  In my own tapestry journey, the counsel was to take the error out and rework it.  Sometimes that meant a LOT of unweaving (and usually some tears).  However, a 4-6-month piece is a serious investment in time and materials, so having a finished result that was correct and pleasing held more weight.  For the smaller pieces I teach in the Intro to Tapestry levels, if pointing out an issue helps you know what to do better or differently next time, that is a legitimate learning outcome.  Obsessive unweaving to “get it right” can cause students to freeze and not allow themselves to move forward.  Through permission, I seek to find a balance in the middle, reminding students to continue the journey towards precision (like straight edges) without turning it into such an overpowering goal that the process loses all joy.  Some aspects of tapestry only come with practice, and we should avoid holding ourselves to too high of standards with our very first pieces.

Equally, students have full permission to take out the part in error and correct it.  I leave it to be their choice, depending on what they feel best meets their learning goals or what they hope to achieve with the project.  Some sessions begin with a student admitting that they had quite a week with Penelope!  That is ok too, so long as we keep learning and moving forward.

Encouraging Practice

Over and over in my classes, I speak to tapestry weaving being a practice, or that “this gets easier with practice.”  Often, I use learning an instrument as an illustration for learning to weave tapestry—where at first it feels like there is an incredible amount to remember all at once, and it can feel overwhelming.  But, with practice, playing that instrument becomes second nature, and there is flow and a Zen quality to the experience.  Weaving can be that way too, with practice.

I also encourage students to weave between the course levels, to gain more practice before biting off a new set of skills.  An exciting way I’ve chosen to help facilitate that is in the development of skill builder kits.  These lean on the tutorials of the level they’ve completed but include a project-specific photo essay that walks them through the steps.  Instead of biting off all the new skills learned in the level, each skill builder kit focuses on a specific subset of techniques—helping the student to focus on a handful and gain better mastery.

While the projects for the tapestry levels don’t have a specific intended purpose, I wanted the skill builder kits to create something that was both beautiful and useful in some way—bringing tapestry into our everyday lives.  This includes transforming the pieces into zippered pouches, pencil holders, pillows, totes, and more, as well as decorative wall pieces.  Students have been so proud to show off their skill builder creations they’ve made with my kits, and the sense of pride they feel in their accomplishment is so rewarding to witness.

Part of that success is due to the project being specifically designed to be accomplished using the skills they’ve earned at that point, with perhaps a few small stretches added to keep the material interesting.  That is how a practice is maintained:  repetition mixed with variety to build mastery while cultivating curiosity for what comes next.

Project-Based Graduating to Process-Based Learning

Currently, Intro to Tapestry levels 1-3 and their accompanying skill builders are modeled on project-based learning.  We have a physical “thing” I’ve designed that we are making together.  That object has been crafted with specific learning goals in mind.  This frees students from the often paralyzing process of having to make up their own designs AND learn how to weave them from the starting gate.

As a perpetual drawer, coming up with design ideas was never the holdup in my tapestry journey.  I have more design ideas than I’ll ever have a chance to weave in my lifetime!  So having Fran Potter’s approach being that each student makers her own design for each project worked well for me.  It didn’t work well for other students, who agonized over design ideas (or lack of ideas) for weeks.  Some of this is the fault of nasty old perfectionism, and some of this is the trauma our society has wrought on our creative souls.

That is why, in my own work, I chose to start students with projects I had designed.  This made it possible for me to pack kits with all the materials included and send it to students.  I could sit down to class knowing they had good materials, a good design, and a weavable project.  But as students grew in their knowledge, skillset, and acumen, eventually my designing skills wouldn’t be needed.  Students at this level would be ready to graduate from project-based learning to process-based learning.

This is where I see classes on design and color theory for tapestry being the next step, as well as coaching sessions to help students create successful concepts and designs for their future projects.  This could then branch into sessions focused on working with other types of tapestry looms beyond our simple frames, with pros and cons and specific considerations.  This is when the Fran Potter method of everyone working on her own design at her own pace could really flourish, even via an online platform.

Living Tradition

Ultimately, my hope with this pedagogical endeavor is to meaningfully add to the living tradition of tapestry weaving.  This is not a dead thing that lives in an archive somewhere—this is a practice, a living thing.  Also, I want to be a part of helping to increase awareness and valuation of tapestry weaving as a legitimate, esteemed method of creative expression.  This practice takes just as much skill and time and attention as painting or sculpture or any other medium and deserves respect and admiration.  Explaining that is not the same as experiencing it.  And even if many of my students are not on the journey to mastery, they are in a journey of awakening to what it takes to make a tapestry, which will change how they perceive and experience tapestry going forward.

I also hope that my efforts may serve to preserve and carry forward the tradition as I have learned it, that it might be yet one more effort to keep it from being lost.  Just as stories do not die because they continue to be told, the traditions of tapestry weaving stay alive by the continued interest and work of weavers.  I want to take how my mother and Fran believed in me and supported my journey and be able to pass that on to my students, that they may be empowered and liberated in their creative pursuits through tapestry weaving.