What is Tapestry Weaving?
Last week I wanted to write about the difference between hand-weaving and tapestry weaving but found that I had so much to say about each subject that I thought I’d split this topic into two blog posts (OK, 3 blog posts actually, so tune it next week!). Anyhow, this week I’m talking about the tapestry weaving process. So let’s dive in!
The process of tapestry weaving
Tapestry weaving is a hand-manipulated technique of creating cloth that involves working with one (or more) dis-continuous weft threads (horizontal threads) passing through the warp (vertical threads) in an irregular sequence to build up rows of woven cloth. By working with short, dis-continous lengths of yarn, you can control whether your pattern repeats or not and if so, the repeat can be across an irregular number of warp threads. Essentially you are more in control of the placement of the yarn which allows you greater flexibility to ‘draw with yarn’.
In order to achieve this the warp is generally spaced wider apart and with a thick, neutral-coloured warp yarn and designed so that the colourful weft yarns cover the warp yarn in its entirety. By completely covering the warp threads the result is what is referred to as a weft-faced cloth, one which is densely packed and requires the dis-continuous weft threads to be securely woven in, thereby creating a stable cloth. (Photos from left to right: 1, 2, 3, Cassandra Smith)
The nature of this process enables the weaver to create a woven cloth that has a painterly quality to it. By changing the colours of the weft threads in small, specific locations on the overall cloth, the weaver can create very detailed drawings using yarn. For a modern analogy, you can equate this process to having a high ratio of pixels in a photograph. The more pixels, the more definition and detail the cloth can have.
Historically the simplicity of this type of weaving is what has made it unique. By working with only one pattern (plain weave) and restricting the yarns to only one type (or quality) of weft yarn, the outcome is a uniform, flat cloth that completely covers the warp yarns and creates extraordinary, detailed works of art. There are of course exceptions to what constitutes a tapestry today as contemporary tapestry weavers do not always use simple yarns to create a flat cloth with similar textures. In truth the opposite is often true, but more on this later.
One of the challenges of tapestry weaving is that by nature the process of tapestry weaving maintains that it can only be woven by hand. As each section of the weft begins and ends in different locations across the width of the warp, the standardized nature of industrial looms dictates that this cannot be achieved efficiently or cost-effectively. (As I write this I must confess that this is no longer strictly true, as there are now Jacquard looms which can easily, quickly and effectively create intricate tapestries on an industrial scale. But for the purposes of the hobby weaver, this still remains true).
The stop-start nature of this type of weaving also means that from a technical standpoint this type of weaving is very slow. It also indicates that there is still a lot of work to be done once the tapestry is complete as the back of the tapestry will contain many ends that will need to be secured so that the final tapestry remains stable. (Photos from left to right: 1 & 2 Cassandra Smith, 3, Christabel Balfour)
With these constraints in mind, the typical type of loom that a tapestry weaver will work on is either an upright tapestry loom which has a mechanism for switching picks (or rows) of plain weave or a frame loom (available in different sizes). The former helps to semi-automate the weaving process, the latter is entirely achieved by hand. Both looms are generally positioned in an upright fashion or semi reclined position to facilitate sitting for long periods of time more comfortably.
The importance of both of these types of looms is that they enable the weaver to see their work as a whole. By stepping back or holding their work at arm’s length the weaver can better view the overall progress of their work. Because they are often working in small, detailed sections, it is incredibly helpful to see how that small section relates to the overall drawing or illustration. This resembles how a painter or illustrator might work.
I should mention that it is still possible to create tapestries on a floor or hand loom, however as both of these types of looms rely upon winding the warp around a beam as the work progresses, it obscures the weavers view of the overall work. So it remains that complex and intricate designs are best woven on upright or large-scale frame looms.
Tapestry Weaving Today
There are different types of tapestries in contemporary weaving today, but they generally fall into 2 categories: rugs or wall-hangings. Flatwoven rugs and floor coverings are what many associate with a tapestry. They are easily identifiable with their flat, dense construction made of thick, tough wool and you could find examples in many modern homes today. (Photos from left to right: 1, Jacqueline James Rugs, 2: Angie Parker Textiles, 3: Cassandra Smith)
Wall-hangings are more decorative in nature as they are meant to be hung and you will find many incredible, traditional, examples hanging in churches or museum around the world. Contemporary wall-hangings have become more popular recently as a way of introducing warmth and texture into homes and workplaces.
Tapestry weavers today are experiencing a resurgence as new techniques and processes have helped to broaden their knowledge and access to materials is now prevalent. This has led to a host of contemporary weavers pushing the boundaries of what is typically viewed as tapestry weaving to create works of art in their own right.