Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Rebecca Mezoff's The Art of Tapestry Weaving

It's been a banner year for books about tapestry, and one of the most anticipated books of the year came out last week. I've read every word of Rebecca Mezoff's book The Art of Tapestry Weaving and I can report that it not only meets our expectations, it exceeds them.  It is a vital introduction to the art of tapestry for beginners, and a valuable resource for intermediate and advanced weavers as well.  We haven't had a good instructional manual for decades, and this book is the updated guide we need.  It is essential.  

I was eager to get this blog post out and so I was tempted to skim or skip sections that covered aspects of tapestry weaving that I thought I knew.  But as I read I continually found that I was picking up new tips, some of which solved nagging little problems I had struggled with for years.  (Some these are rather embarrassing to share, but I do so in the knowledge that we are all lifelong students of tapestry; there is always more to learn.)  I have learned for example, how to construct a butterfly better so it doesn't fall apart.  I have finally learned to sew slits in a way that doesn't create the appearance of little zipper teeth, and why it can be better to sew slits as you weave.  I have learned why beating too hard, with a weighted beater (one of my favorite tools up to now) is not a good idea.  And so on.  I imagine many readers will pick up similar tips.  

In her forward, Sarah Swett recommends that readers work through the book with a warped loom nearby, to try things out.  Good advice!  I'm planning to experiment with weaving a curve both line-by-line (something I've never loved to do) and by building separate shapes.  It will be interesting to see if the results look different.

It is immediately obvious that the book is the fruit of years of teaching tapestry.  Rebecca has taught thousands of students in person and online, and she is intimately familiar with the questions and stumbling blocks new weavers face.  Daunting choices about looms, yarns, and techniques (weave from the front or the back?  butterflies or bobbins?) all need to be made before you make your first pass of weft through warp.  Rebecca walks new weavers step-by-step through these choices, clearly explaining the reasons behind each recommendation she makes.  And yet she is not dogmatic, allowing that there are several possible choices at each juncture, and outlining the pros and cons of each.  The book logically moves through the steps from warping the loom carefully (whatever kind of loom it is), bubbling and weaving straight lines, to color blending techniques, managing slits and joins, and weaving shapes and curves. She concludes with useful advice on ways to mount and hang finished work.

One of my favorite sections was about choosing yarn.  I remember as a new tapestry weaver being completely flummoxed for awhile about how and where to get yarn appropriate for tapestry. Experienced weavers would say, "you can weave with almost anything," and while that is true once your mind and fingers have built up a muscle memory for the process, weaving with a wide variety of yarns at once can introduce one more source of technical frustration that beginners don't need.   Rebecca wisely offers four "anchor yarns" as possibilities, and recommends that new weavers choose just one to work with exclusively as they learn.  This simplifies learning so much. 

Perhaps most importantly for new weavers, Rebecca makes it seem possible: 

"Once we know a little about tapestry weaving, it feels unreachable from our living rooms and home studios,  I'd like to challenge that notion,  Start at the beginning, allow yourself to play with simple design, and embrace sampling.  Step by step, you can definitely do this."  

I love that Rebecca urges weavers to experiment, to make samples, to follow those "what if" ideas.  Yes, they might not all succeed, but you will definitely learn something and your weaving will improve.  Tapestry can seduce us with the promise of perfection (square!  flat!  straight edges!), but Rebecca urges us to remember that it's a textile.  The weft "bosses the warp around" and the yarn has memory!  Perfection is elusive.  Rebecca's chapter on designing for tapestry, using a cartoon, and the special challenges posed by small-format weaving is totally solid.   

As a book, this is a beautiful volume.  Photographs and even diagrams are in full color, and clearly illustrate each point.  More than simply a how-to manual, the book offers inspiration by showing examples of tapestries woven by contemporary artists.  I am honored to be one of the artists whose work is pictured.  

There is also an index which I expect to use frequently, as a forest of post-it notes can only go so far!  Additionally, an appendix at the end covers all the knots used in tapestry-making (thank you!!), how to make leashes, and how to build pipe looms.  Just having all this nuts-and-bolts info in one place is incredibly helpful. 

Many of you have already ordered your book and are impatiently awaiting its arrival.  I understand an electronic version is available on Kindle if you just can't wait, but do buy the physical book too.  It's worth it for those photos and diagrams.  

Rebecca mentioned during one of her book launch events that Storey Publishing held her to a strict 300-page word limit.  I asked whether there were things she had had to leave out, and whether someday perhaps, after she recovers from the years-long effort of making this book, she might write another.  She said that yes, there were a few techniques that she simply didn't have room to cover in detail (hachures, for example) and that she would like to cover designing for tapestry in more depth.  I am hopeful that we will have more of Rebecca's experience and clear insight on that subject in book form someday.