I’ve been thinking about design these days: what makes good design, where design inspiration materializes, how to choose and work with media and techniques to realize a design. Such things have been rattling about in my brain for a while. I promised myself, when I finished my teaching gig at Fibre Week this year, I would concentrate on tapestry, weaving subjects dear to my heart with materials I produced myself.
After a few days recovering from the excitement of Olds College, I settled in to work on a piece I’ve had warped for a few months. The subject is personal, painful and I’m not sure I’m ready to expose it to the light of day, but it needs to be woven, even if it turns out badly. Mistakes are our best teaching partners and the past week, I’ve been making mistakes, although many of these are turning out to be happy accidents.
The finished piece will be approximately 10.5 inches x 11.25 inches, nearly square, which can be problematic, as the eye is drawn to rectangles. I’m weaving it on a Cactus Loom, which means four selvedges, no hems or fringes. As usual, I’m weaving from the front, but the back will not be clean finished, due to some of the techniques I’m incorporating into the weaving – soumak, lettering (woven in and applied to the surface), a wee bit of embroidery for detail. The warp is 2 ply commercial bleached linen, smooth and silky, but so strong and inelastic that it shreds the weft yarns. Those wefts are hand spun singles. I chose to weave most of the piece, which is primarily white with dark brown lines and bits of red, using a yarn spun from Norwegian top. The weft is strongly spun, to the point where it nearly cuts my hands when I break off a piece, but it’s no match for the linen. Because it’s spun from top, the fibres are aligned; when they unwind, as often happens when passing a singles through the weaving shed, they unwind all at once, unlike a woolen spun yarn where the misalignment of the fibres helps to hold the yarn together. This means that the supposedly strong yarn frays and breaks unexpectedly. It also means that the weft tends to shred; the yarn which appears smooth in the ball is rough in the fabric.
|Battle Fatigue: Detail|
The Norwegian singles is a prime example of why I encourage beginning tapestry weavers to learn their techniques using plied commercial warp and wefts. Weaving with this yarn is not an easy go. I could have returned to my tried and true Romney singles which I know will behave better. Why did I choose to stay with the Norwegian worsted for weft? Here’s the thing: the difficulty in using this yarn matches the difficulty of my topic. The rough surface of the fabric reflects the ups and downs inherent with the design and subject. As I weave with this weft, the hairiness of the yarn obscures the images in the weaving, ever so slightly, adding to the texture of the tapestry and reflecting the ambivalence I have towards the topic. In other words, the media become crucial to the design of the tapestry. The strong commercial linen warp, the bones of the piece, holds everything together, but it’s a tough mistress, refusing to bend to the actions of the weft. The weft becomes a physical reminder of the hard subject as it builds the tapestry. This, I think, is critical to producing good design. Not only must the weaver capture an idea in her cartoon and translate the cartoon into cloth, she must choose to work with materials which enhance her ideas and her subject. If she selects images and materials which are easy for her, if she repeats a theme because it is safe and known to work, she risks weaving a facile tapestry, boring to herself and boring to the viewer.
By weaving difficult subjects, using materials which don’t bend easily to the will, the tapestry weaver risks disaster, but she also takes steps towards a clear understanding of her subject and the materials needed to express that subject. In doing so, she may provoke her audience into questioning its perspective. Ideally, tackling a hard subject may provide healing. And so, I weave.