1. First things first: What is tapestry?
Tapestry is a specific catégorie of weaving to create images rather than utilitarian fabric:
- It’s a plain weave weft-faced technique. Means you cover the warp threads completely so that the image you see is created by the weft alone. In contrast to most other woven textiles, where both the warp and the weft threads are visible.
- In tapestry weaving, weft yarns are normally discontinuous. This means that the weft does not travel from one side of the textile to the other, as in other weaving techniques. Au contrary, weft yarns are bound in small bundles known as butterflies or on tapestry bobbins and are introduced working one shape at a time.
- Tapestry is meant in general to create an image, traditionally used for wall-hangings and decoration.
- Tapestry weaving is very slow to make. An image can take many months to design and weave. A large piece can even take years. To have an idea: A skilled, professional tapestry weaver who works 35-40 hours a week at the loom, can weave about 1 square meter a month.
” TAPESTRY is a discontinuous weft-faced woven structure that creates image! “
Below a wonderful example from Marion Weymes called “Searching for sunlight”
And: True tapestry can only be woven by hand!! Until today it’s impossible to reproduce tapestries by machines, due to its discontinuous structure.
2. A bit of history:
The early states of tapestry are unclear, as actual survivals are very rare. But since the high and late medieval period tapestry started to be the grandest and most expensive medium for figurative images in two dimensions in Europe until at least the end of the 16th century.
In this period tapestries were monumentally sized wall-hangings showing battles, unicorns, bloodied martyr and the courts of kings. Royalty and rich patrons commissioned these large tapestries, which were an opulent way to communicate status and wealth, but also a way to communicate with a largely illiterate populace.
One reason for the success of decorative tapestry in this time is explained due to its portability.
Kings could fold up and transport tapestries from one residence to another. In churches, they were displayed on special occasions. Tapestries were also draped on the walls of palaces and castles for insulation during winter, as well as for decorative display. For special ceremonial processions such as coronations, royal entries and weddings, they would sometimes even be displayed outside.
Weavers and artists:
These monumental tapestries were first designed by an artist who generally painted a full-scale cartoon. Afterwards, a group of skilled artisans copied the painting and might work a decade to produce one set of tapestries
The weavers of these tapestries were usually male, as the work was physically demanding; spinning the threads was usually a female preserve.
Weaving from the front or the back?
Weaving across in a line versus building up shapes
1. Tapestry Loom
In fact, every device that can hold a set of warp threads with some tension will work as a loom. Nevertheless, there are naturally some looms dedicated especially for tapestry:
- simple frame looms
- low-warped looms (“basse lice” in french)
- high-warped looms (“haute lice” in french)
2. Other tapestry specific materiel
- Bones and bobbins to organize the weft bundles.
- Tapestry fork or beater for beating the weft down
You can weave with almost anything that is flexible and fibre like.
Warp should be strong enough to withstand the constant abrasion caused by opening the shed and he has to hold a tight tension. Today most tapestry weavers use warps of wool or cotton.
A good weft should be a firm yarn that packs in easily and makes a sturdy fabric. Weft yarn doesn’t have to be as strong as the warp, as it doesn’t have to withstand the tension of the loom. The yarn shouldn’t be too lofty, stretchy or soft for tapestry.
5. Modern tapestry – between art and craft
I noticed mostly two very different approaches concerning tapestry today:
One one side a few weaving workshops in the world operate still in the manner described in chapter two: an artist designs an image that is afterwards copied by several weavers sitting side by side. Only today they produce mostly modern, unique images which could concurrence every painting largely.
Examples are the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, the Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins in Paris, the Manufactures d’Aubusson and the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh.
On the other side a completely different “contemporary tapestry scene” has been evolving since 1970.
A worldwide shift in what was possible in creative expression was set in motion. Threads freely suspended, coiled or in some manner formed into monumental sculptural forms, took over galleries and expositions. The 1970s were a decade where fibre art called now “New Tapestry,” was on the cutting edge of art.
This changed again once entered the 21st century. Accessible computer-aided weaving options and other “quick” systems for producing artwork, made “slow” tapestry weaving less attractive for young artists. Surprisingly, at the same time that weaving seemed out of favour, fibres had become one of the two most popular majors for art students. Computer savvy young artists expected speedy results and these emerging artists also questioned the notion that art must be made by hand.
This changing perspective though has finally become a motivating factor to question once more the traditional constraints about what techniques are appropriate for tapestry. A new vague of tapestry weavers emerged over the last decade, attracted by the straightforward qualities and simplicity of tapestry weaving.
The pressure to produce large work is lessened today and besides taking less time, small format work lends itself to experimenting and risk-taking. Today the variety of what may be called “tapestry” is broader than ever and several artists developed a very distinguished style, miles away from what most people would qualify as a tapestry.
Summarising, the biggest difference of “modern tapestry” in comparison to “traditional tapestry” might be:
- Independent artists discovered and explored tapestry and fibre arts in general as a new medium. Which means that the person who creates the design becomes also the weaver of the finished textile.
- The first point leads to the second: the scale of tapestry has changed completely. Pieces become smaller, are produced in less time by a single artist.
- The smaller format lends to experimenting and risk-taking. The artists who chose tapestry as their medium developed a broader range of personal expression and styles than the traditional 2-dimensional flat tapestries. They start working with texture, with a variety of different materials and include even sculptural forms and multimedia aspects to give object qualities to their tapestries.
6. Modern Tapestry – Fascinating insights
To finish, a very personal glimpse of some modern tapestry artists to arouse perhaps your curiosity to discover further.
And last but not least, some of my own, very modest trials…..
Thanks to all artists who allowed me to share their remarquables works!