Wednesday, June 8, 2016

designing quilts, designing tapestry

I'm nearly halfway through teaching a series of classes in design at Southeast Fiber Alliance (SEFAA).   As part of my research and preparation I rediscovered this book by one of my favorite art quilt-makers, Ruth McDowell.

You can buy it HERE
As I read I was struck by how similar the process of designing a pieced quilt is to the process of designing tapestry.  I shouldn't have been surprised.  In fact, when I took a workshop with the master tapestry weaver Joan Baxter over a year ago, she reassured me that my background in quilt-making and collage was actually excellent preparation for designing tapestry design.  How hugely encouraging that was to hear!

Both quilts and tapestries rely on shapes that fit together like puzzle pieces. In both mediums, the "background" must be designed and constructed with just as much care as the "foreground;" they are integrated together in the construction process.   In both quilts and tapestry there is often an implied underlying structure, even a grid, that orders or constrains the arrangement of the shapes.  Think of the familiar block structure of a traditional quilt, or the over-under grid of woven tapestry.   Because of the techniques used in constructing a quilt or a tapestry, if the artist is aiming for a pictorial representation, a fair amount of abstraction and simplification needs to happen during the design process.  (Yes, it is possible to make "photo-realistic" quilts and tapestries, but why torture either medium that way?  Why not exploit the design potential inherent in each medium instead?)

One of the strengths of Ruth McDowell's approach is that she acknowledges the potentially tricky aspects of pieced quilts and suggests ways of tweaking the design so as to avoid these technical pitfalls.  Her tweaks actually make for more dynamic and interesting designs, in my opinion.  Below you see how a tulip block might be designed in a traditional quilt, with tricky Y-seams and the need to match points.  The second diagram shows those seams shifted so that the pieces can be sewn together much more easily--and the design is more interesting for its asymmetry and cropping.

from Ruth B. McDowell's Design Worskshop, p. 7.  

This got me thinking of how important it is while designing tapestry to take the medium's strengths and challenges into account.  Smooth, gently sloping curves can be difficult to achieve in tapestry.  You have a few choices about how to deal with this challenge.  You can exaggerate and exploit the steppiness of such curves. . . or you can choose to weave a piece "sideways" to allow for eccentric weaving and gentler, easier curves.  Here's another example:  in a quilt, the size of the tiniest design element is dictated by what can be physically sewn together, and the size of this tiny piece in turn determines the quilt's overall size and scale.  In the same way, in tapestry we follow the "two-warp rule" so that our tiniest shapes are at least two warps wide, for ease of weaving.  Notice the two-warp stripe of gold at the side of Mary's face below.

Molly Elkind, Mary (greater is what she bore in her mind), detail

In both mediums, ultimately the same rules for good design apply:  careful planning of areas of light, medium and dark values.  Sensitive construction of shapes and selection of colors.  Skillful use of contrast, variety, rhythm, scale and texture.  And above all, designing with the unique characteristics of the medium in mind.  That's all!

Want to know more?  There are still some spots available in my remaining Design Modules at SEFAA.  Click HERE and HERE to find out more and to register.

Now, I'm off to see how I can use these insights as I design my next big tapestry. . . .

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