Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"Weaving is a modality"

Sometimes someone will make a statement that at the time is embedded in the seamless flow of conversation, and only later do you find yourself recalling it, mulling it over, trying to figure out what it means and what it means for you.  

Molly Elkind, "The Wreck" (working title), nearly complete.  One piece of three to be collaged together.

This happened for me at the American Tapestry Alliance (ATA) board retreat a few years (!) ago, when I was serving as Director of Volunteers.  In an intense weekend of hybrid in-person and Zoom meetings, we had wide-ranging discussions about the nature of contemporary tapestry and the direction of ATA that we were charged with planning.*  During the discussion, John Paul Morabito, then as now Director at Large, stated something to the effect that tapestry is not a technique, but a "modality."  John Paul elaborates a bit on his website:  "I am defiantly a weaver. Through this position, I reconsider tapestry as a modality in which image, matter, technology, and embodiment provide productive conflicts for constructing form." 

I've been pondering the meaning of that word modality and its impact on my understanding of tapestry ever since.  Like many of us when confronted with a new idea, my first strategy was to try to understand it in terms of my previous vocabulary and ideas, to make it fit.  So I thought, modality = language. I'm hardly the first weaver to think of tapestry as a language;  I've written about it before.   My favorite understanding of this is to think of tapestry weaving voices and modes as literary genres--myth, epic, lyric poem, short story, biography, op-ed, etc.  Tapestry, like language, can be used to express images and ideas in all these forms.

But modality carries additional nuances I think. defines it as "how something is done or how it happens" and offers as synonyms fashion, manner, mode, style and way.  It's an approach--one among many.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "Those aspects of a thing which relate to its mode, or manner or state of being, as distinct from its substance or identity; the non-essential aspect or attributes of a concept or entity. Also: a particular quality or attribute denoting the mode or manner of being of something."  There's a sense here of modality not being essential to core concept.  

Hmmm.  It's a truism among tapestry weavers that we should strive to weave tapestries that "can only be woven"--that cannot exist equally effectively as paintings, photographs, collages, what have you.  In this understanding tapestry weaving would be essential to the core concept of a piece.  John Paul's quotation above gets at this:  tapestry is the unique melding of "image, matter, technology and embodiment" to create form and meaning.  Many contemporary tapestry weavers are trying to get away from merely reproducing a pre-existing image to make artworks in which woven-ness is essential to their meaning and impact, is inherent from the very beginning.   Easier said than done. 

So. . . what is woven-ness?  Over-under-over-under.  Interlacement.  Warp and weft crossing in specific patterns.  All of these, and also: the making of a web, the combining of two or more elements into one integrated whole, the weaving together.  Not for nothing do we speak of the fabric of society and the worldwide web.  If we probe deeper into the modality of weaving we find an approach, attitude and orientation, that is crucially different from that offered by knitting and crochet, different from surface embroidery, different from felt- and paper-making.   All of these connect elements in different ways and moods and for different purposes.  All can make images, but those images will be very different from each other because of their modality.

Molly Elkind, studies:  burlap canoe; hardware cloth and fabric strip canoe in progress

Molly Elkind, study:  linen, yucca pods, crocheted


So I continue to read and to make small experiments, seeking to find the magic center place in the Venn diagram where technique, material, form and concept all converge.  I am a weaver, and weaving is a beautiful, ancient, and nuanced language. But all languages grow and change by incorporating "foreign" words and phrases too.  Is it tapestry when the weft is plastic?  Grass?  When the warp includes wire?  Is it weaving when strips of fabric are interlaced into metal hardware cloth? I'm about to find out.  If you're still with me, thanks for following along.  

* Once a volunteer, always a volunteer. . . If you've thought about volunteering for ATA, now is always a good time!  What you get in terms of new friendships and inspiration is more than worth the time and effort you'll contribute.  There's a job for everyone.  Go here for more info.