Lenore Tawney: her work “led to a whole revolution in weaving”

From Lenore Tawney: A Personal World, published by Brookfield Craft Center to accompany two showing of works by Lenore Tawney. 1978.text by Jean d’Autilia.

Photos from Lenore Tawney A Retrospective published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the American Craft Museum 1990.

I seem to be getting too many ideas while looking for inspirations for my posts. I can’t settle on what I want to weave first. And I can’t possibly weave them all. One way to get around my dilemma is to post them, and hope others will be inspired to incorporate some of the ideas into their own work. Although this series is to be about art, I think the ideas could be made into a whole lot of kinds of projects.

Mask ca. 1967 Linen, pre-Columbian beads and shell, horsehair 19” x 6 ½”

All the pieces in this post were woven by Lenore Tawney in 1966 and 67 with some finished not until 1985. These are all warp face plain weave with very dense, heavy linen warps. I just finished reading the little booklet mentioned in the title and was surprised she gave some weaving hints as well as her inspiration.

Shield. Begun ca. 1967, completed 1985 Linen, silk, feathers 20 x 16

What I love most about all of these pieces is the wonderful, surprising fringes. I assumed they were rep weave using alternating thick and thin warps and the fine fringes are the thins. From the photo in the catalog I have, I can’t see any evidence of the white silk in the weaving. Go figure. Isn’t the horsehair in the previous photo just fantastic?
Weaving tip: She always used a double weft, “I come in from both sides, so that the edges are beautifully even and thick.” Lenore Tawney, A Personal World.

Sheild. Begun ca. 1967. Completed 1985 Linen, silk, feathers, whelk egg cases 15 ½ x 14

Another luxurious silk fringe. I visited her loft once and she had drawers and drawers of tiny shells, bones, seeds and things. That explains the whelk egg cases.

Sheild IV. 1966 Linen, pre-Columbian beads and shells 13 1/2 x 10 1/2

I see how different the fine fringe looks being linen and not silk. Isn’t it interesting that she left some wefts to hang outside the selvedges? And maybe she got the idea for the center treatment from when she started a new weft?

Shield. Begun ca. 1967, completed 1989 Linen, feathers 15 1/2 x 6 ½

Her use of feathers, her “fringes”, her shapes: all inspiring to me. 

A Scroll with Gold Leaf


I just finished this and it’s hanging in our little gallery for residents.


The background is a shawl I bought in India and loved except for one border one on side. So, I folded it back and made rows and rows of stitching on it. What fun it was to run my sewing machine on and on.


Here is a close-up of the art. I got it at a flea market in Japan. It was mixed in a pile with other stuff and it was a wow when I discovered it. Gold leaf was put on paper, then thin strips cut for the wefts. In Kyoto we visited an artist whose family did the traditional gold leaf part then sent it out to the person who cut the strips. He is now a contemporary artist. He spent time with us showing how he worked. I bought a beautiful piece of art he made in gold leaf and treasure it.

Starting a New Scroll and Finishing Another: My Process

Sometimes the first step:
I see something that I love and try to make it into a background. In this case I’m starting with a very special piece woven by my mentor from the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, Milton Sonday. He needle-wove the entire piece long ago on a large frame he made. It’s plain weave and gauze; woven with singles wool. He gave it to me a few years back and I had no idea how I could use it. I ran into it the other day and thought of a background but it was too big. Then I checked to see how it would be if I folded it in half—success! I loathe to cut things and certainly could never cut this. Since I want everyone to see the 4 selvedges, I put the fold on the bottom and the selvedge-edges on top in plain sight. Now it measures 23 ½” x 36”—a good scroll size. I hang things temporarily (mostly) with clothes pins and often on a hanger. I bought 50 of these black hangers and 2 big packages of clothes pins. I’m on my last 25 hangers. Then it’s easier to see what I’ve got.

Other times the first step:
And sometimes the art comes first. This is a piece I brought back from Japan.

Next is the first ironing:
As with this piece, things have usually been folded for a long time. This piece of weft ikat we got in Japan in the 60’s when I didn’t know a warp from a weft. It’s part of a futon cover. I know that because of all the lint on this side of the cloth from the stuffing or lining that had been inside. Lots of pieces available are pieces from covers like this or from kimonos that have been taken apart and sold in shops or flea markets. I love ironing because it transforms the cloth so dramatically. The wool piece above had lots of fold wrinkles so I steamed it one night with a wet press cloth. Then I let it dry flat overnight. Oh, yes. The motif on the futon cover piece is a bag of money to bring money to the user.

Next is deciding how to hang the background:
I use the piece in the previous post as my example because I haven’t decided yet how to hang the wool gauze piece with it’s two edges of cloth. I have a supply of wood from the lumber yard about 1” wide and ¼” thick that I cut when I want a stick on the top. In this case it showed too much so I wrapped it with some of the background cloth and wrapped some flannel inside that for padding to keep the two layers separated for the moire. I used monofilament instead of the temporary safety pins. I use it a lot for hanging things.

Next is deciding how to attach the art:
In this case I used French knots I made with sewing thread. They show but don’t call attention to themselves. I imagine them as the heads of pins.

Then do all the work!
And a final iron. I hate to see any wrinkle or pucker. I bring the ironing board out into our 8th floor lounge by the window a lot

Scroll Project Interruption

This is the first scroll in the linen project and I decided that it was too long given the size of the dyed pieces section.

Here I folded some back at the top and bottom and decided I liked this proportion better. So I was all excited to cut off the extra and have a beautiful finished piece instead of a first draft. I cut off the piece and finished the top and bottom and was all ready for the beautiful ironing part.

I practiced some on the cutoff piece with my wonderful wrinkle releaser and decided to go to the main piece. On the main piece some blotches appeared where the releaser was and they didn’t iron out! Oh dear.

So I decided to spray on my fingers and pat an area that had a wrinkle for a more gentle approach. If you look carefully, you can see my palm and fingers on the cloth! I knew that wouldn’t do but also knew that it would wash out. So I soaked it in a basin of warm water with some Dawn liquid detergent and sloshed it up and down, wrinsed it, and hung it to dry. Beautiful. Now I’m at square one again! I am thinking that I’ll just dampen it with plain water and iron it like the olden days. But I should make some more trials on my practice piece probably first. The issue is that the cloth is double–can I get both the front and back ironed nice. Or, must I take out the seam and start over but be very careful not to manhandle the cloth and get more wrinkles when I redo the seam and finish the ends. Any advice or thoughts are welcome. I’m letting the project marinate for a few days, but a bit sad that the oomph I had last week has died down a bit.

An Afghan Weaver Revisited: Helen Pope

I was lucky to have three mentors in my weaving/art life: Dominic DiMare, Jim Ahrens, and Helen Pope. You remember her afghan in a previous post. This post is to show how she inspired me and so many others. Besides the afghans, she experimented with many textile techniques. She founded the Special Sample Service which was a popular booth at our weaving conferences. She didn’t want little dinky samples; she wanted them 5” x 7” or so—large enough to really get a feeling for the textile. Attached to each sample were the directions and notes from the weaver. At first, she asked famous weavers to submit; but for years it was she herself who contributed the most and local weavers (including me) contributed as well. Oh yes, the highest price for a sample was $2.50. She was adamant about that.

Helen wove these bookmarks well into her 90’s. She got great pleasure from seeing how many designs she could invent with one threading on the loom. All 7 of these pieces were on the same warp. Here is what she wrote in the notes for ribbons she wove with the same idea on 8 shafts when she was 90: “There is no end to the fun you can have. Weaving has always been something I do for pleasure. It does not have to be practical or a great work of art.” (See how she inspired me?)

She mounted the bookmarks in a plexi frame as an art piece.

Here is a lovely art piece she made. It’s about 12” wide.

This is a piece knitted with linen thread.

Color was important to her, even with the samples she submitted every year.

There are purple and green threads in this piece. She had a good color sense.

This is a joke—a sample for a dish cloth woven with steel wool!

“Pink Drip” Every year she had one of her “drips” at the conferences. And pink was her favorite color. She challenged herself to see what 3-dimensional pieces she could get by folding one piece of cloth.

She avoided having her picture taken for years. She sat for this portrait by Ranghild Lanlet when she knew an article about her would be in Handwoven Magazine. Orchids were a passion. There always were some blooming in her house. Her family gave her orchids away at her memorial and I still have mine after 20 years. It blooms just after Christmas.

Making “Scrolls”

First of all, I want to say that everyone here is safe and no one has the dreaded virus. (I live in a Continuing Care place.) I feel very safe and am overwhelmingly grateful to our staff and administration. Our director made me VERY happy on Sunday when he said the kitchen could save onion skins for me. Immediately the chef called and wanted to know if I wanted them cooked or pureed!! I can’t wait to get a dye post going and dye some of the fabrics I brought back from India. What’s been keeping my creative mind going these weeks is making “scrolls” by putting fabrics together. Some from trips, some from my weaving, and some of my dyeing. This post is about my scroll-making process.

I have pulled out lots of fabrics. I see one I like—either the foreground or background. Then I fuss around to see what I like together. I hope this checkerboard will work with the gold-leaf-on-paper wefts.

After I’ve chosen the centerpiece, I iron it and crop if necessary, etc. This piece we got in Japan on the island of Amami Oshima. It is ikat. The resist was done by first weaving the warps and wefts on a loom. (For double ikat!) Where these warp threads bind the bundles of then-wefts, is where the resist takes place during dyeing. Then, that weaving is unwoven and the resisted threads are put on the loom or on shuttles!  It is amazing and a thrill to see it being done. I chose this piece because of the fine detail and lovely image. It is a contemporary piece—not anything like the traditional styles woven there. The process is called Orijimi. Silk is what is done with the process in this area and is the finest. Sometimes it is known as Oshima fabric. And is expensive. We were lucky to be able to

Then the background must be ironed. And the proportion of the two areas decided upon. This is where I am with this piece at the moment. I love the background—glorious slub linen threads in an open plain weave. I will double it and hope the moire that I see now will dazzle people when it’s hung. I’m hoping to have a scroll show someday.

Finally the last step is to center the piece and attach it to the background. The “art” is a fragment I dyed with persimmon dye and the ground is a fancy twill I woven just before the pandemic. It has a hard- plied silk warp and a thin black boucle weft. I’ve had the boucle for years but never found a good place for it until now. I’m happy I have a large cone of it

French Knots, Tailors’ Tacks, Pins, and Clothes Pins

I finished a few of my scrolls lately. And the last touch was to attach the art to the backgrounds. For a year or so I’ve been using straight pins. Now, I used different techniques to fit the situations. I included at the end of the post directions for French knots and tailors’ tacks.
This was the piece that started the revolution away from straight pins. I centered the top piece and then as soon as I moved it, it floated off any old which way. I decided French knots on some of the spots would hold it in place. And they worked. I dyed both the fabrics with indigo and black walnuts. They started out white. The thin one is organza which dyes wonderfully well. I think the spots were a gift. Clothes pins are good hanging devices I’ve discovered. I do plan to replace the hanger.

I tacked the organza piece on the top with French knots.

Here the French knots are where there were white spots on the cloth. I just did a few randomly.

Then, I decided the satin piece I’ve been working on should have French knots. I wanted them to be fairly invisible. They are attaching the top to the background fabric I got in the Philippines.

I used tailors’ tacks on this piece from a previous post.

Pins hold this piece.
Directions for making French knots from an embroidery book.

Directions for making tailors’ tacks from a sewing book.

Changing My Mind and a Dilemma

I was all ready to pin down a little satin piece I’d woven and dyed onto a small piece of cloth I brought back from a trip to India. I’ve loved the piece. We visited a studio where the woman made very contemporary fashions using traditional dyeing and resist techniques used by the local artisans. I think I begged for her to sell the piece to me. She wanted to keep it as a sample. Many of you know I love samples so it really resonated with me. It is 12” x 27”. Yesterday when I ironed the piece, I discovered the “back” side and then came the dilemma. It was fantastic—an astonishment to any weaver. There was no way I could ignore that side and use the other side for my small simple piece. The dilemma was what to do with the original satin. More about that when I decide what to do. This piece is so unusual and inventive I had to show several views. The last photos are of a real scarf/shawl that resulted from the sample.

Here is a close-up showing a bit of both sides. The black side is what I’d planned to use and the light side is the discovery I made.

Here is more of the side I discovered.

This is the whole piece. It’s made of a rather thin, soft silk.
This is the side I had always remembered.

This was the next SURPRISE! It is double woven in a tube—with the edges in the middle rather than at a selvedge.

Here is a detail of a full-size scarf or shawl.

This is the “back” side. Hard to say which is the front or back. It looks great as a scarf bunched up.

Did you notice the seams on the “front”? I especially love them here on the “back”!