Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Selfie: A Meditation on the "I" in Fibre Work

Coptic Tapestry from Google Images 

I'm not a big fan of  "selfies," those ubiquitous candid photo shots of everyone and everywhere which fill up Facebook, Instagram, snapchat or any other social media site.  It's not that I don't understand the urge to leave one's mark; before cave paintings, before carvings chipped in stone, before "Kilroy was here," people have been noting their presence on Earth in all ways possible.  It's the thoughtless (as in "no planning required"), endless posting of images to which I object.  If I have a device which will take a picture, it must mean that everyone wants to see me and what I am doing Now.  The irony is, of course, that the instant selfie means that I have missed the very moment I am documenting.

Digital media make selfies very different from the self portraits of the past.  Recording one's presence used to require a set of materials, which could include anything from blood, feces and urine, to paint, ink or film.  It took time to make or collect these media.  Materials were often scarce, so planning was required and records were reserved for the wealthy or for times of great social significance, such as battles won or lost, births, marriages and deaths. While I'm all in favour of the democracy of instant media, I do wish there was a little more depth to the records we seem to cast about everywhere.

There's a long tradition of self-portraiture in fibre, too.  Look at the astonishing Coptic tapestry weaving from around 7 AD, at the top of the page.  A quick Google search of images turns up hundreds of woven portraits (click on the link to see them), from many countries and cultures, demonstrating the great human need to record our images and actions. Each of these portraits embody what the selfie lacks-by its very nature, weaving requires specific materials, some degree of planning, time and effort on the part of the weaver.  Where the modern selfie begs for thoughtlessness, the woven version is an homage to mindfulness. Time stops and there is only the steady over and under of the weft threads as they cover the warps.  There is rhythm and ritual, attention to each moment. Once the weaver engages with her work, she becomes the weaving.

I've been weaving a set of tapestry samples for an upcoming workshop I'm teaching next month.  I've been experimenting with a variety of setts, from 10 epi down to 4 epi, which is about the bottom range for weaving any kind of stable cloth.  My latest weaving is a sample of the bags my students will make.  Sett at 4 epi, there isn't much opportunity for detail. This sett works better for looser interpretations of images or free form; however, I wanted the challenge of weaving a self-portrait which could only incorporate the simplest of details. This meant that I had to carefully select what went into that selfie. Here's the result:

Handspun, natural dyed wool weft on cotton warp.
Compared to ancient tapestry images or modern weavings worked in finer threads with closer setts, my little piece is simple and crude.  Technically, the work is successful in that there's enough detail to convey the sense of portrait; we can see that this is not an image of a fish or a bicycle. Most importantly, once I took on the challenge of weaving this selfie, I quickly became absorbed in the work.  My breath deepened and my heart rate slowed, bringing peace into the moment. Each weft threaded through the warp threads and beaten into place became part of a larger meditation.  My hands not only controlled the medium, they became the work itself as I submerged into the rhythm of the cloth forming, pick by pick.

Like the digital selfie, I now have an historical object and image of the process.  Unlike my experience of the digital selfie, there was no instant gratification, but neither did I miss the moment as I was recording it.  Weaving kept me aware and present. I suspect more of these selfies will be the subjects of other tapestries.  Right now, I'm pleased with the current undertaking.

If you're looking for a bit of a weaving challenge, one which will draw you in and fill your creative spirit, put down that phone, tablet or camera.  Draw an image of your self, preferably of that hidden, inner self.  Gather your materials and weave, slowly, mindfully. See if the results are more fulfilling than the endless photos you see or display.  I'm willing to bet that one simple, woven selfie will bring you more joy than a thousand quick photo shots.



  1. This "Selfie" idea is just wonderful. Your example is beautiful and I love how this idea incorporates old and new

    1. Thanks, Susie! It's lots of fun. I'm just trimming up the bag now, taking things a wee bit over the top.