Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mounting small textiles

Almost every fiber artist eventually faces the dilemma of how to present a small work.  If you hang it in all its soft, flexible glory directly on the wall, it can look sadly like a potholder or a placemat, especially if it's not part of a larger installation.

Often finding a way to mount the piece on a rigid board of some kind is a good strategy. Then that backing can be framed (without or without glass), placed in a plexiglass box, placed in a deep shadowbox frame, or simply left as is.  Whatever is done, the small piece now has presence.  For many viewers, the presence of some kind of frame automatically qualifies the piece as Art.  (But that's a topic for another day.)

I had a question recently from someone who saw some of my small pieces on display and wanted to know how exactly they were mounted and framed.  I described the process briefly in an email but it occurred to me that pictures are so much more helpful.  I had a tapestry piece that needed to be remounted, in fact, so I took some photos and will walk you through the way I did it.  As always, there is more than one good way; this just happens to be mine.

The first thing to decide is how much bigger than the piece itself you want the mounting to be.   Some artists prefer the piece to match the size of the mounting as closely as possible, so there is no visible border or a very narrow one.  I like the effect of a wider "mat" or border myself.  But in this case, I made the original mount, visible here as the gray border, over 3" larger than the tapestry itself all around, and that was too large.

Mary (a sword shall pierce), handwoven tapestry, (c) Molly Elkind 2013
tapestry 6.5"h x 12"w;  original mount 16"h x 20"w 
I decided a 2" margin all around, more or less, would be adequate.  So I assembled some stretcher bars, two 10" and two 16", into a frame.  In the photo below I show stretchers of a different size, but you can see what to look for at the art supply or craft store if you're not familiar with stretchers. The corners are cut so they lock together.

It helps to square them up if you place the frame in a doorway (assuming the doorway itself is a perfect 90 degree angle!) and hammer each corner into place.

Then you want to cut a piece of acid-free matboard to fit the assembled frame exactly.  Run a bead of white glue around the front, curved edge of the frame and place the matboard on top.  Place it aside to dry, weighting it with books or magazines. 

side view of frame with matboard glued to front

While the glue is drying, select the fabrics to wrap the frame in.  I use two layers: something fairly substantial but smooth for the bottom layer like flannel (this fabric will not show), and something for the top layer that forms the border around the piece.  In this case I could  just re-use the fabrics from the original mounting, unstapling them from the old stretchers.   

removing staples from the old mount--use a screwdriver to pry them off

the original fabrics, with the bottom layer (striped curtain fabric) on top.  Note the corners trimmed to reduce bulk.

When mounting a new piece, you should cut the fabrics  at least 2-3" larger than the stretcher frame all around, large enough to wrap all the way around each edge and give an ample margin for stapling. Once you've done this, stitch your piece as invisibly as possible to the mounting fabrics, centering it (if you want it in the center). Sometimes I will baste the two fabric layers together to keep them from shifting as I stitch.  I measure and mark the placement of the tapestry's corners with pins, and pin the tapestry gently in place for stitching, once I have it centered.   Here you can see the stitches when I pull back the edge a bit. 

In this case, the stitching was already done, and the challenge would be to center the whole fabric/tapestry piece on the stretchers.  

Lots of measuring and remeasuring at this stage to be sure the piece is exactly centered.  I carefully flip the whole thing over, holding the fabrics tautly in place around the stretcher bars without letting them slip off-center, and lay the piece face down on a clean sheet of newsprint. Now I'm ready to staple the fabric to the stretcher bars. 

Use a staple gun to staple the fabric to the center of one bar, then pull the fabric taut and staple directly across from the first staple, on the opposite bar.  Flip the piece over to be sure it looks centered and straight on the front before stapling again.  Then put staples in the center of the other two sides, again pulling the fabric with the attached tapestry as taut as possible. 

First staples in center of opposite stretcher bars

One staple in center of each bar
Continue stapling on first one side, then the opposite side, working from the center of each bar toward the corners, pulling the fabric taut each time, and flipping the piece over to do a visual check each time. 

Now, the corners.  Lots of fiddling and fussing here, at least for me.  The idea is to reduce bulk as much as possible by trimming the under layer only.  Fold the top layer out of the way.  Miter the corner as seen below. 

Then carefully wrap the both layers of fabric around to the back, deciding where you want the fold to be and keeping that consistent on each corner.  Tuck, pull tight, re-tuck, flatten, fuss. . . and then staple all those layers in place once you like how it looks.  You may have to trim away some of the excess top layer, but proceed very carefully--don't whack away like you did on the under layer.  You need to leave a margin of fabric to avoid a raveling raw edge.   

Stapling completed
The final step is to insert screw eyes and wire for hanging.  Measure and make a mark the same distance down from the top on the two side stretcher bars; mine was 3" from the top.  Insert your screw eyes into the inside edge of the stretcher bars at that point.  Then run a section of picture wire between the two eyes, twisting each end back on itself for at least 2".  

Those who are concerned about the piece's longevity would insist that the stretchers be coated with polyurethane before gluing on the acid-free matboard--and they would be right.  I confess I usually skip that step.  And those who are sticklers for detail would probably do something about the fraying raw edges of the fabric on the back.  My feeling is, Hey, it's the back.  Does anyone care about the back of an oil painting? 

I do make sure to sign and date the piece on the matboard on the back, especially since this piece doesn't have my initials woven in.

Mary (a sword shall pierce), handwoven tapestry, (c) Molly Elkind 2013 
tapestry 6.5"h x 12"w;  new mount 10"h x 16"w 
I hope you find this useful.  I would love to hear about your own solutions for mounting small pieces. Please share in the comments!


  1. What a great post! Thanks so much Molly. I think this is such a great way of presenting small tapestries. I agree that they need more presence and this is a wonderful way to achieve that. Thanks for the great description.

  2. Thanks, Rebecca! I also love the way Ruth Manning presents her small faces on painted canvases. Gonna try that next. . .