“The Five-Year Project” Going on Six

tapestry cartoon“Deceiving the Hunters”–a Flemish tapestry project inspired by the early 16th Century tapestry series “The Hunt of the Unicorn” (currently housed at the Cloisters Museum in NY) is still underway, though making great progress.

Researched during my graduate studies at Goddard College, the piece is envisaged as an “alternative narrative” to the traditional hunt of the unicorn, full of its mythological and symbolic roots that date back to some of the earliest human narratives to be recorded.  But that essay is for another time!  Right now, let’s dig into the physical progress of the textile piece itself.

Flemish tapestry technique begins with a sketch, followed by a full color “cartoon” (here drawn on hefty brown paper), which is mounted on the wall behind the weaver.  This allows the tapestry artist to “check in” with the original design during production to note shading and color changes and interpret these within the confines of tapestry technique.  Since my studio is a one-woman operation, tapestry early phaseI’m both the cartoonist and the weaver, which means that I do have an informed idea of what can or cannot be physically woven within the constrictions of warp spacing and weft fineness.  Even so, I know that this piece will be technically challenging for me–a good stretch!

When selecting colors for the weft, I wanted to stay true to the reality of the historical piece in that the numbers of colors and shades available was rather tight compared with today.  Four colors for verdure, three colors for the gown, etc.  I also wanted to keep in a typical color palate but find hues that (to the best guess possible) reflect how the colors MIGHT have looked when fresh off the loom.  Typically, for the dyes of the time, reds and blues stayed the most vibrant, while greens drifted towards yellow or blue over time.  Whites would become less bright, and the gilt thread would tarnish.  To mimic the gilt threads, I decided to use gold and silver sheen embroidery thread, to offer the stunning sheen of the originals.

Next, the piece has early tapestry progressto be warped, here using my Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom, which is built upright (high warp) with rollers in the tradition of the looms used in the studios of Flanders where the original series was woven.  Also in traditional style, the piece is woven on its side, allowing for the greatest delicacy of shading for fine pieces like the lady’s hair or the texture in the unicorn’s horn.  To the bottom of the piece, I tacked some detailed pictures printed from the original set, showing shading technique for verdure, mane, and velvet, while behind the piece is tacked a black-and-white copy of the cartoon.  As the piece proceeds, the cartoon is sewn to the tapestry itself so that the image avoids being distorted by accidentally tweaking the alignment.  Periodically, I lift the cartoon up to the warp and finished tapestry parts to check progress accuracy.unicorn progress

Four years into the piece (understand, there have been other projects too, plus full-time farming!), progress looks like this.  The detail of the work is demanding in order to affect three-dimensionality within a mostly two-dimensional form.  The tapestry is worked in hills and valleys, in keeping with Flemish technique, which allows the weaver to focus on a small area at a time (rather than working across the entire width each row, as in traditional Navajo technique).

the first part of the oak branch and the initial two leaves took approximately 12 hours of weaving time itself!   It appears that I was being rather optimistic when calling this the “five-year project.”  But then, several of the years were consumed with research, “studies” (small experimental pieces), and warping.  This was not a piece sloppily begun!  In another post, I’ll discuss those pieces of the process just mentioned.lady's arm

But this year, I’ve been able to set aside three hours a week for intensive weaving on the project, and the progress is showing nicely.  The unicorn now has its lustrous lavender eye, the maiden her first arm and the beginning of a sleeve.  The unicorn’s beard and the maiden’s hand were especially challenging to relay their fluidity in a medium most suited to geometrics.  I am excited to continue to share the journey and inspiration of this piece with you as it continues to unfold.