Wednesday, January 16, 2019

"If only someone had told me. . . ": tips for newer tapestry weavers

It's my guess that it being a new year and all, a few of you may have made a resolution to learn to weave tapestry.  It's been about 10 years since I first got serious about weaving tapestry, and as I prepare to teach upcoming classes this year I thought I would share some of the things I wish I had learned--or perhaps more accurately, paid attention to!--from the very beginning.  I've had great teachers right from the start, and no doubt they told me all this at some point, but for whatever reason I did a fair amount of mucking around on my own and had to learn more than a few things the hard way.

These tips fall into two categories, those relating to technical issues--how to warp and weave--and those relating to inspiration and creativity.  Let's start with technique since that was for me the steepest learning curve.

Technical tips:
  1. Build or buy a loom that allows you to adjust warp tension, ie, to make the warp tighter or looser on the loom.  There are great plans for a copper pipe loom with adjustable tension on Archie Brennan's website.  You can buy the materials in any hardware store and do this yourself without needing to solder (kudos to those who can, though!).  There are also plans for galvanized metal looms out there; look HERE and HERE and HERE.   You can treat yourself and buy fabulous copper pipe looms with springs for a variety of setts and shedding devices, in many sizes, from Mirrix.  
L to R:  Glimakra Freja loom, homemade copper pipe loom from Brennan's plans, Mirrix  loom
  1. Yes, you can weave tapestry on a picture-frame (stretcher bar) loom (and I've done it more than once), but it's hard to warp it with enough tension to weave well, and you end up fighting the tension the whole time.  Be kind to yourself, just don't, at first.  
  2. For your first pieces, use cotton seine twine for warp.  You can find it at many suppliers including Yarn Barn of Kansas, Lunatic Fringe, The Woolery,  and Halcyon Yarn.  Later you can branch out into wool or linen warps.  
  3. Probably the most important tip of all:  Use the least stretchy yarn you can find for weft.  ***Do not use yarn marketed for knitting or crochet.***  I did this at first because I was so eager to start weaving and I didn't know yet where to order tapestry yarn.  My results were. . . okaaaayyy, and I did get to practice basic tapestry weaving, but now I cringe when I see those pieces!  Knitting yarn is luscious, but is too soft and squishy and will take forever to weave any distance at all.  So, sorry, the yarn at your local yarn shop is mostly out of bounds.  But there are many mail-order suppliers who sell suitable yarn out there.  Some good ones to start with are Norsk Fjord Fibers' Vevgarn, Appleton (made in the UK but available through a number of embroidery yarn suppliers in the US; order the "crewel", not the "tapestry" yarn), and Weavers Bazaar.  Weavers' Bazaar is also based in the UK but they ship quickly and offer a large array of colors in various weights, perfect for blended wefts.  There are many more excellent yarns out there but these are good foundational yarns.  

5.  As long as we're talking about tools and supplies, buy the best tools and yarn you can afford.  If you learn with awkward tools or shoddy yarn, you will be needlessly frustrated and have to learn again when you step up to better materials.  It is a pleasure to weave with beautifully made bobbins, weaving forks and awls.   

6.  Get clear on the vocabulary of weaving, if you're entirely new to the field.  I'm always learning new words for techniques that are new to me, but there are basic terms such as shed, pick, pass, bubbling, and draw-in, and essential techniques such as meet and separate, twining, and half-hitch that you should understand to make all your other learning easier.  Ask me if you're unclear!  There are no dumb questions.  

I was looking at some notes I wrote to myself back when I first started weaving tapestry, in fact, when I wasn't at all sure I would continue.  I was frustrated by the slowness of the weaving, by the technical problems of staying in the right shed, by the simple samplers every book or beginner's class involved, and by shoulder pain.  It all just seemed too hard.  

But I also came across this note about what I loved about tapestry, enough to stick with it:

"the rich color, melding of painting and fiber, the abstraction, the flat yet subtly textured surface, the idea that it is painstakingly woven, the solidly-worked surface."

I was just really entranced with the woven surface, with images that could be both flat and look three-dimensional.  You might be entranced with different things about tapestry, but it helps to know what exactly it is you love about it, to stay motivated through the hard parts.

That leads me to the second set of tips, about learning and inspiration.  

7.  Look at other weavers' work, in books, in galleries, and of course online.  When you see work you love, stop and ask yourself what exactly you love about it.  Try to put it into specific words.  Can you figure out how that amazing thing was achieved, and strive for that same quality in your own weaving?  

8.  One way to find out how other weavers work their magic is to find good teachers.  Ask your local weaving guild if they ever bring tapestry artists in to teach.  Pester them to bring a teacher you want to see.  For a list of tapestry teachers, see HERE.  Find some good books to walk you through the basics.  Here's an extensive list of books.

These are some books I found (and find) really useful, more or less in order from most basic to most detailed:

Kirsten Glasbrook, Tapestry Weaving
Mette Lise Rossing, The Thread's Course in Tapestry

9.  Connect with fellow tapestry weavers.  Ask around where you live to find other tapestry weavers to share and learn with.  ***Join the American Tapestry Alliance!*** It will unlock a wealth of information about teachers, exhibits, supplies and techniques, and online interaction on Facebook, Instagram, and via an email discussion list.  They also have a mentoring program.  There are lots of tapestry artists on social media; follow them and you will be inspired and educated every day.  

10.  As an ancient sage said, Art is long and life is short.  Weave a little bit every day if you want to get better. I find a tapestry diary is a good way to make sure I do a few minutes each day. 

10.   That said, if you are lucky enough to have lots of time to weave, be kind to your body.  Don't weave for more than half an hour at a time without taking a break to stand up and stretch.  Rebecca Mezoff shares a wonderful set of stretching exercises with her classes that I run through when the timer goes off and it's time to take a break.  In this interview Rebecca shares a number of tips for a healthy weaving practice.  Even something as simple as standing up and walking across the room while you wind a new bobbin is a good break.  Especially when I was first learning to weave, or even now when I'm weaving under a deadline, I hold a lot of tension in my body and it can make for very sore shoulder and back muscles.  Do what you can (yoga and massages are great) to keep your body limber and functioning, and you'll be able to weave for years. 

I'm sure other weavers out there have their own top ten list of tips, and I'd love to hear what they are--and what your questions or issues are that I may have overlooked.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Daily Practices in 2019

Happy New Year, dear readers!  May 2019 bring you joy, laughter, friendship, beauty and meaningful work, wherever you are and whatever you do!  And when the bad stuff happens (as it always does), may you find strength, peace and the support you need, in yourself and in those around you.

Many of you are aware I've been keeping a daily tapestry diary for three years now.  It's been a piece that varies in shape, theme and purpose each year, but the constant is that I try to weave a little bit every day that somehow reflects my life and the world around me.  My hope is to continually refine my weaving skills and to weave every day, even if only for ten minutes.  You can see images of past diaries HERE and HERE and HERE.

Cutting off the 2018 Tapestry Diary 
I've been debating with myself whether and how to continue the practice in 2019, and many of you were kind enough to weigh in on my public musings on social media last month (see Dec. 10 posts @mollyelkind on Instagram and on Facebook as Molly Elkind and Molly Elkind Handwovens).  Since the beginning of this new year is very busy for me,  I chose a structure for the 2019 diary that I hope will refine my technical skills while not requiring a lot of creative thought each day.  I will be working my way through Mette Lise Rossing's book The Thread's Course in Tapestry.  This fantastic book is a wonderful primer of tapestry technique AND includes a tantalizing section on tapestry techniques as expressed in various cultures.  I'm excited that I will learn many techniques new to me (and practicing familiar ones as well), such as various kinds of joins, soumaks, twining, and finishes.  A huge thank-you to Mavis Adam (@mdadam on Instagram) for inspiring me with her own spectacular diary based on The Thread's Course.  I love Mavis's choice of colors and how beautifully she wove the title of the book.

Mavis Adam, 2016 tapestry diary based on The Thread's Course in Tapestry
(c) Mavis Adam, used with permission
Here's two days' worth of my new tapestry diary.  The white band is the first technique in the book, simple plain weave, an appropriate foundation for all the techniques to follow.  The blue and white section illustrates the second technique, a diagonal line made when you turn on 2 low warps and 1 high warp.  I filled in the angle with solid blue so I could start tomorrow's shape with a straight edge.

I don't expect it to take me the entire year to work through The Thread's Course, so the plan is that when I finish (and my calendar has opened up a bit), I will use my newfound skills to undertake some small studies based on historic tapestries from around the world, Coptic and Peruvian and Norwegian and medieval French and so on up into the 20th and 21st centuries.  It might be that these studies will take me well into 2020, God willing and the creek don't rise!  This project really excites the art history geek in me, and I can't wait to start planning the first piece.

I have also decided to undertake a drawing practice, as close to daily as I can make it.  I have fallen in love with Lara Gastinger's perpetual journal work on Instagram (@laragastinger; #lgperpetualjournal).  Earlier this year I made time to draw some broken-down barbed-wire fences in our neighborhood, for 15 or 30 minutes almost every day for a few weeks.  It gave me so much joy!  I loved both the process and the way it slows me down (I guess tapestry doesn't slow me down enough!).  I find that drawing forces me to be more observant, and I notice over and over again that I do improve a little bit when I practice regularly.  Duh.  A perpetual journal of ink and maybe watercolor botanical sketches seems like a perfect way to both improve my drawing skills (which need improvement) and to get better acquainted with the plant life in my corner of New Mexico.

I'd love to hear if any of you have adopted a new daily creative practice this year, or are planning to continue old ones.  My best wishes to you all in all your creative endeavors, whether specifically "artistic" or not!  We are all the artists of our lives every day, right?