CNCHnet . . . The Textile Arts Webzine of the Conference of Northern California Handweavers

Tapestry 101-Tapestry Defined

I first saw tapestries in the early 1970’s when a large exhibit was mounted in the lobby of the Bank of America headquarters building in San Francisco.  I knew immediately that tapestry was what I wanted and needed to do.

The question “What is the difference between tapestry and all the other weaving?” is frequently asked.  The simplest answer is that tapestry is intended to be hung on a wall as a (rectangular) piece of art.  However, “tapestry technique” has been developed in many cultures of the world to create Kashmiri shawls, Navajo rugs, and Kilim rugs.  Tapestry has also been used to create useful items, such as bags and purses, pillow covers, and many others.

Unfortunately, the word “tapestry” is used by many people to describe anything made of fiber that hangs on a wall, such as hooked rugs, needlepoint, “transparencies”, and macrame, as well as weavings done on Jacquard looms.  Weavers of tapestry in the “European studio tradition” strive to educate others that these weavings are not “traditional tapestry technique”.  The famous architect, Le Corbusier, also designed tapestries and called them the “murals” of our times, noting the benefit of being able to roll them up and hang them elsewhere when the need arose.  We’ve come a long way since the days when the description of tapestry included a very large minimum size.

Traditional tapestry is rectangular, flat-woven, “weft faced” (the warp does not show), and non-embellished (no beads or embroidery added),  and the design is produced by “discontinuous wefts”, where there can be many changes of weft color across a single row of weaving.  Tapestry weaving is generally not woven “row by row” across the width of the piece but, rather, by shapes or colors as the design progresses.

Traditional tapestry weaving utilizes only two sheds.  A beater is not required, as the weft is beaten down by hand, preferably with a weighted fork, such as brass.  The tension of the warp needs to be much tighter, and hence the warp needs to be much stronger (such as seine twine).

However, as with most things, there are notable exceptions to these traditional “rules”.   Alex Friedman, who works in Sausalito, (alexfriedmantapestry.com)   has developed a technique which enables portions of her design to undulate and twist after the piece comes off the loom.  Helena Hernmarck uses a multi-harness floor loom and incorporates the warp into the design which is woven in a modified overshot technique.  Sylvia Heyden is well known for her wedge-weave work which creates undulations throughout the piece.  Christine Laffer (christinelaffer.com) is known for her bas-relief and “shaped” tapestries.

Traditional tapestry was woven predominately with wool warp and weft.  Now, there are many fibers in addition to the natural ones we know and love.  Mary Diederich weaves small-format pieces woven with silk sewing thread, and Kathe Todd-Hooker (kathetoddhooker.com) weaves her small pieces with upholstery thread warp and sewing thread weft.
The history of tapestry weaving is beyond the scope of this article.  However, there is a terrific treasure of a book entitled, “Great Tapestries: The Web of History from the 12th to the 20th Century”, which is an amazing treatise of tapestry and is now available on the internet for a very small fraction of its original price.  (See bookfinder.com .)

Also, see “Gloria F. Ross & Modern Tapestry”, by Ann Lane Hedlund (2010) and her article, “Searching for Tapestry’s Identity: Gloria F. Ross as Tapestry Editeur” in the Winter 2010/2011 issue of Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot, as well as the web site for the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies (tapestrycenter.org) .

Until fairly recently, tapestries were designed by an artist (who got the credit for the work) and woven by unnamed weavers.  As Ms. Hedlund states in her article, Gloria Ross worked “to translate Modernist paintings into fiber art through collaborative projects,” where both artists and weavers received credit.  Jean Pierre Larochette and his wife, Yael Lurie, have a “match made in tapestry heaven.”  She designs, he weaves, and together they collaborate on their stunning work.  We are fortunate to have them living and working here in the Bay Area.  (Look for their page on the American Tapestry Alliance web site.)   Nowadays, it is generally expected that the designer is also the weaver, and if other weavers have been involved, they will also get credit.

TAPESTRY LOOMS
There are two basic types of traditional tapestry looms: vertical (high-warp) and horizontal (low-warp).  However, it is entirely possible to weave tapestry on floor or table looms that are usually used for “regular” weaving.  In fact, those looms most resemble the “low warp” tapestry loom.

Traditional Vertical Tapestry Loom by Fireside Looms

Jean Pierre Larochette at his low-warp loom

Low-warp loom

Vertical looms take up less floor space and benefit from higher ceilings.   One inventive loom builder, Gary Swett, former owner of Fireside Looms in Washington, developed a cantilever tapestry loom in the early 1990’s.  (See photo.  The company is now located in Pennsylvania and under new ownership.)  The greatest benefit of this cantilever loom is its lighter weight and the ability to remove the legs and move the loom while a piece is in progress and under tension.  A four-harness version is also available.

Cantilevered Tapestry Loom by Fireside Looms

Luckily for those who have modest weaving budgets, several smaller, portable and more affordable looms have been developed by those who have some “engineering” skill.  The most well-known is Archie Brennan (brennan-maffei.com)  who invented a very simple “frame” loom from copper tubing with an exceptionally effective and simple tensioning device.  He very generously “gave” the idea to the world, and there have been many tapestries woven on these very basic looms.

Basic Copper Loom

Copper Loom in use

John Shannock built looms of steel, and Jean Pierre Larochette developed what he calls a “student loom.”  These are not available on the current retail market, but if you ever encounter one for sale, buy it on the spot.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES and RESOURCES
One of the marvels of the internet is the easy access to so many web sites with all the great photos.   Tapestry Weavers West (tapestryweaverswest.org)  is a group of weavers, most of whom live on the West Coast and, particularly, in the Bay Area. They celebrated their 25th anniversary last year with magnificent exhibits at the Petaluma Arts Center and Richmond Art Center, and an exhibit in San Francisco is being planned for this Fall.  The web site is new and still under construction, but still worth a look.  The American Tapestry Alliance (americantapestryalliance.org) is a national group which hosts a large exhibit at each Convergence, as well as small-format exhibits.

CONCLUSION
In addition to understanding the elements of design and color theory, the most important requirement of tapestry weaving is having a “tapestry personality,” which I define as the “need” to do tapestry that seems to be inherent in a tapestry weaver’s DNA.  A knowledge of the basic elements of general weaving is also helpful.  Sarah Swett seems to “have it all.”  Her work is amazing, I covet her delightful imagination and design skill, and I marvel at how prolific she is in the bargain.  Her web site is a “must see.” (sarah-swett.com).
Due to the nature of the concept, the tapestry weaving process is considered by those who prefer “production weaving” to be extremely tedious.  When I encounter these remarks, I usually reply, “But it isn’t tedious if you love doing it!”  Very few people are actually interested in doing both types of weaving, in spite of the obvious similarities.  The actual weaving process is much slower than any other hand-woven fabric, but the thrill of seeing that image emerge is what keeps me coming back for more.

For more on tapestry weaving, click here