Weavers everywhere share a common language so I embraced the opportunity to virtually sit down with a group of selvedge to selvedge weavers and talk about what has become my first weaving love, tapestry. I started my weaving career making structured fabrics, moved to doubleweave when I wanted to make pictures, then decided to try tapestry. Two decades later, I’m still weaving images one pick at a time.
Tapestry weavers very rarely throw a shuttle and we don’t mess around with lots of shafts or threading and treadling drafts. Tapestry weavers might, on the face of it, seem a simple sort to those patterned fabric weavers who know and use lots of weave structures. But though us tapestry weavers most often utilize a simple unbalanced plain weave, we have a different set of skills.
Tapestry is officially defined as a discontinuous weft-faced weave that creates an image. While multi-shaft weavers of fabric are throwing shuttles and clicking through their treadling patterns while rolling off yards of fabric at breathtaking speed, us tapestry weavers are meditatively tap tap tapping our weft threads into warps. Over, under, over, under is our song. Sometimes we even do all this without the benefit of a shedding device.
But though tapestry is slow and highly reliant on image-creation for successful artwork, there is a deep satisfaction in the slow building of that image. All weavers understand the structure of starting at one end and weaving to the other and that is no different in tapestry. The biggest difference between shafted pattern weaves and tapestry is those discontinuous wefts.
To make our pictures, we tapestry weavers change colors constantly. You can weave tapestry line by line meaning one pick at a time. But the color can change many times across that one pick. This results in a fell line with a whole host of butterflies or bobbins coming from it.
I often weave my larger tapestry on a Harrisville rug loom. This countermarche loom has a warp extender and worm gear which means I can get the tension on the warp very tight and very even. In the tapestry pictured below (taken from above—those are my feet standing on the loom bench), you can see the weft bundles at the fell line. I believe there are about 30 butterflies being woven at that point on this 24 inch wide tapestry, Lifelines.
The wefts are in pairs because most Gobelin-style tapestry weavers also use something called meet and separate. This means that adjacent wefts move in opposition to each other in the same shed. This manner of working means that a weft can be moved to a new position to create a form without putting two wefts in the same shed. The diagram below shows three butterflies moving in meet and separate in the same shed.
In the image of my Lifelines tapestry above, I’m weaving line by line and using the beater on the loom to keep everything square. I’m also using a technique called hatching where sequences of colors are alternated to blend them which can only be done line by line.
The diagram below shows irregular hatching. This is a little different from the shaft weaver’s clasped weft technique as we don’t lock the wefts around each other unless we’re specifically doing a weft interlock to close a vertical slit. Irregular hatching often means weaving line by line and in my work, I do a lot of it.
Tapestry can also be woven one shape at a time. It is common to build a shape with one color before picking up the bobbin or butterfly of another and building that shape. In another section of the Lifelines tapestry I wanted to create smooth lines around a curve and I built up shapes so I could do that. That curve can then be outlined with a weft that does not move perpendicular to the warp. This smooths out the steps that happen due to the gridded nature of weaving.
As a tapestry teacher, I find that the biggest stumbling block for weavers of patterned fabric when they first come to tapestry weaving is the design component. Suddenly there is a big piece of the puzzle that has to come from your own head. There aren’t books of tapestry patterns though there are many ways to create a tapestry pattern from external sources and I provide some simple starter ones in my courses. The weavers who embrace this new skill of designing most often discover a new well of creativity and expression and create some marvelous tapestries.
Equipment for tapestry
Tapestry can be woven on large beamed looms but it is also a wonderful thing to weave on small equipment. You only need a small frame loom, cotton seine twine warp, a tapestry fork, a shed stick, and some time. There are many kinds of looms from the small untensioned tapestry looms pictured below by Handywoman Shop to larger tensioned frame looms like those made by Mirrix to large high-warp tapestry looms with beams and low-warp floor looms like the countermarche Harrisville Rug Loom I favor.
Tapestry weaving is a great way to incorporate images in woven form. Those images often need to be simplified from what we might like to create due to size and sett limitations, but those challenges can also be fascinating. The world has gotten so complicated that some time with a simple loom, a variety of colored wefts, and the slow tap tap tapping of the weft into the warp is certainly a balm to our rushing way of life.
Tapestry is a wonderful adjunct to patterned shaft weaving and I challenge you to expand your weaving language and give this slower form of weaving a try.
Rebecca Mezoff, author of the bestselling book, The Art of Tapestry Weaving, loves nothing more than helping new tapestry weavers untangle the mystery of making images with yarn. Her fledgling career as an expert latch-hooker died before she made it to middle school, but her love of fiber never abandoned her. Now she creates large-format tapestries and is often found weaving in her pajamas which she affectionately calls her “home pants”. She runs an online tapestry school which has over 3,500 members and occasionally she leaves the studio to teach weavers in the real world about color, design, and technique in tapestry. Her current artistic work focuses on human perception and the long scale of geologic time. Her studio is in Fort Collins, Colorado. You can find out more about her on her website and blog at www.tapestryweaving.com.