Week 13: When is a Tapestry a Tapestry?

It’s been another overcast week (it is nearly summer, after all) and it has been really hard to see what I’m doing. A no-nonsense member of staff on seeing my plight gathered up extensions leads and purloined a conservation lamp and set it all up. The difference is pretty amazing – fortunately Gracie holds her own under the glare, no obvious mistakes or colour problems showed themselves so I am very pleased. It sits behind me and if I turn I feel like an actor on a stage and can’t see beyond it. The sadly heretofore absent ghosties could be blowing me raspberries in the corridor and I wouldn’t know it.

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I’ve hit my end of May deadline and I’m content the tapestry will get done in time – in one area I’m only a couple of inches from the top. I feel more relaxed about taking time off when we are closed to the public and I had a productive day at my desk working on the next project. My idea for it has come quite quickly and is pretty well-formed; although I do need to do some colour samples and explore a new dye palette. As I started a new sketchbook to consolidate my thoughts I still found it hard to just let myself play and do whatever my instincts told me to, in effect to play. But it was a very productive day nonetheless and helped honed down my idea.

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After accepting last week that small format tapestries are not for me, the consequences are beginning to dawn. Weaving full-time I will only ever be able to make three or four pieces a year. This will reduce my chances of making the loot I need to live on and it also means I will no longer be eligible to take part in many designer-maker events where one is expected to fill a stall. But I am also learning to appreciate that the fear of what my life and my fridge will hold a few months hence will be the new norm, and there is nothing to be done but embrace it. I’ve also had to make the really hard decision to pull out of Art in the Pen. The invoice is long overdue and if Gracie does sell (and attempts are being made to raise the funds as I type) then I won’t have one of my key pieces to show. I am really sorry about it, it was one of my main events this year and I had been really looking forward to it, but I feel it is the right decision. Fortunately the organisers at AiP have been fantastically understanding and hopefully I will be able to show with them next year.

This week I had a surprise visit from a very well-known tapestry weaver and one of the founders of the British Tapestry Group and it was great to get a positive response from another weaver. Without doubt I am growing in confidence as a weaver and I am getting to know where I want to head next both technically and as a practitioner and for that I will always be grateful to my time at East Riddlesden, and whatever happens to Gracie I will always be able to consider this time a great success.

Now then, this is a post of two halves, if you are only interested in East Riddlesden updates, feel free to skip to the ducks.

I’ve been feeling a bit irked for some time, since reading an article in my local newspaper celebrating a recently commissioned tapestry for Bradford Council; the hanging was clearly not a tapestry, but an embroidery. Why was I so bothered about it? What did it really matter? But listening to LBC radio last night I heard Kirsty Allsop using the term tapestry incorrectly, and was piqued, especially as a guru of crafts, she should know better. I’ve avoided writing about this before now as I guess it is easy to be called a snob or a pedant but I do think there is more to it than this. The confusion as to what tapestry actually is has also been rife amongst the visitors to East Riddlesden Hall. Thankfully folk seem interested and glad to be put straight and they have emboldened me to abandon the washing up this afternoon, and instead try to hone down and articulate my thoughts.

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Odo bayeux tapestry“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Quite rightly great fuss has been made of late about the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was unveiled late last year. It is the brainchild of the novelist Alexander McCall Smith and is a stunning piece of work and through its 160 panels this amazing community project tells the story of Scotland from prehistory to now. At 469ft Wikipedia claims it is the longest tapestry in the world, much longer even than the Bayeux tapestry (above) . But of course what seems to brushed aside is that neither the Bayeux tapestry or The Great Tapestry of Scotland are in fact tapestries, they are both embroideries.

Embroidery is an embellishment sewn onto a pre-existing cloth. Tapestry is a woven cloth made on a loom. Tapestry weavers build the picture at the same time creating the cloth; the structure and the image are intrinsic to one another. It is a slow going process, even recently it took a full-time team of weavers twelve years to make seven tapestries for Stirling Castle. The man-hours involved, not only in the weaving, but the spinning of yarn and dyeing, contributed to their huge value in the past as well as the use of gold thread and silks.

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Over the last few decades in the UK the confusion between tapestry and needlepoint has become frustratingly ingrained. Needlepoint (above) is a small diagonal stitch sewn into a gridded canvas. It is perhaps can be seen as similar to the ‘bead’ created in true tapestry. Beautiful work can be produced in needlepoint, but it is essentially counted thread work. The embroiderer puts in stitches, often following a pattern, it is a skill easily picked up, and they make very enjoyable and popular kits. I have no wish to decry the craft, but it has become clear from talking to visitors to East Riddlesden that because the techniques share the name, there is an assumption that this is how true tapestries of old were made. Perpetuating and enabling this assumption is to rob centuries of weavers of their immense technical and artistic skill. But I also think there is a darker deep-rooted problem over this misappropriation.

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Family of Henry VIII c 1545 detail” by Unknown – Scanned from Campbell, Thomas P. Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tapestries were owned by the great and the good, collected by kings, Henry VIII had two thousand of them. They were used at state occasions and used to send out very political messages. They were made in workshops often patronised by the great and the good – the founding of the Mortlake Tapestry works or example, was assisted by Charles I. The tapestries were woven by men and it has invariably through its history and evolutions straddled the worlds of fine art and craft. Whilst contemporary embroidery was also a man’s game, in recent centuries embroidery has become associated with the female, the domestic, and rarely enters consideration as a fine art. Nowadays it is decorative, a hobby. It is seen as a lesser medium. Consciously or unconsciously, by calling an embroidery a tapestry it immediately engenders it with a masculine gravitas. A tapestry has value, an embroidery does not. A tapestry is worthy of celebrating something monumental and historic, an embroidery is not. I cannot help but feel there is some blatant sexism going on here. For the phenomenal skill of embroiderers to be acknowledged in its own right it must stop being hidden behind the skirts of tapestry. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is an amazing embroidery and it should be allowed to be celebrated as such.

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Well known contemporary artists are turning to the form and have the potential to expose a new generation of artists to the medium; Tracy Emin for example has had a number of tapestries woven at West Dean. And Grayson Perry’s magnificent series The Vanity of Small Differences has been hugely popular and is currently touring the UK. But unlike Emin’s tapestries, Perry’s designs were not woven by hand, but rather printed out in a matter of hours on a computerised loom. The use of a Jacquard loom is perfect for Perry’s exploration of the relationship between class and taste, juxtaposing the intrinsic and historical value of a tapestry with its production on a device often employed to produce rather tacky commercial hangings (and one of my sofa cushions, above). But does it have a right to be called a tapestry? An interesting debate on the fors and against can be found here lib_kcfinder_upload_files_articles_textile_forum. I have heard Perry refer to his tapestries as “digital tapestries” – I think it was during the Reith lectures, not sure – and I have no problem with that, we know instantly by that word ‘digital’, that it is going to be something quicker, perhaps more artificial, and it sets out clearly that they are something different to traditional handwoven tapestries.

Small format tapestries are beginning to dominate and be seen as the norm – it was suggested for example that Maides Coign might not be given space in an upcoming exhibition celebrating tapestry in “all its forms” because of her size. It is easy to understand why folk are reluctant to give up the time and space to make larger works but a weaver who worked with Jean Lurcat, the twentieth century artist credited with reviving tapestry as a contemporary art form, recently put the cat amongst the pigeons proclaiming, like Lurcat, that true tapestries should be large format. It is a stance I am not unsympathetic with, and does size matter is something I will come back to another time, but I just wanted to make the point that even within the discipline of tapestry there is debate as to what it actually is.

It certainly seems easier to say what it is not. I do firmly believe it should have a right to its own name, a name it has had for centuries. To deny it that seems little short of kicking a man when he is down, just at the moment he has a chance to rise again. And as they say up ‘ere in Yorkshire, ya can’t make a pig fat by weighin it.

Anyway, that is where I am at and I hope I haven’t offended anyone.

And now, some ducks. Trying to get in without paying.

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9 thoughts on “Week 13: When is a Tapestry a Tapestry?

  1. I have the same pedantic streak! I was artist in residence in Chichester Cathedral last year and lost count of the ”My wife / mother / aunt does tapestry” and “have you seen the Bayeux, Grayson Perry etc” remarks. Gracie is lovely!

    1. Thanks Loulou – I love your blog and had read of your time at Chichester when I was getting ready for Riddlesden – it is what inspired me to do this weekly warts-and-all one – I had wanted to get in touch and say hi but was worried you’d think I was a stalker!

  2. I understand what you are saying re when is a tapestry a tapestry but the thing is, tapestry is the name used for these large form embroideries and has been since Bayeaux. Also needlepoint is in the main counted canvas work whereas the style of embroidery used in the Great Tapestry is a free embroidery style which is closest to crewel work embroidery
    You also appear to decry the skill used in embroidery and needlepoint – it takes time and skill to become good at these crafts too, learning stitches, perfecting tension.
    We embroiders of the Great Tapestry are not hiding behind the tapestry word, more using a word that is traditionally used for this large scale of work.
    Finally as someone who has spent most of May staging an exhibition of the Great tapestry of Scotland, I wish I had a pound for everytime some told me that it wasn’t really a tapestry as it wasn’t woven because I would be rich – it cuts both ways. I always took the time to explain the differences between the two and why the name is used.

    1. Hi Paula – many thanks for taking the time to comment – alas I have to run for a bus so will have to be brief – under no circunstances whatsoever am I decrying embroidery – the reverse in fact – I have absolutely nothing but admiration for the work that has gone into your project and am surprised that anyone would read anything other than that in what I have written. My point was if embroideries were called embroideries rather than another craft altogther then the stunning work of those embroiderers could be celebrated as such – why can’t we celebrate the work of embroiderers as embroidery? As an aside it would be interesting to know when the word tapestry was attached to the project and by who – was it the embroiderers? Just as it would be interesting who refered to the Bayeaux tapestry as such – I certainly don’t think it would have been in the medieval period. At the end of the day all these crafts are entitled to their own name – and I am heartened that some folk do seem to know the difference (I wish I had a pound everyone asked me “how long has it taken you to get that far”!) I can only repeat I am not in any saying your work isn’t marvellous, because it is, and perhaps another re-read will show that. Anyway – gotta go for that bus – thanks again for your comment x
      .

  3. Please don’t apologise for your thoughtful and well written rant. It isn’t just about semantics – it is about getting proper recognition for your efforts and skills. I also think the traditionally feminine crafts suffer from artistic snobbery. If you describe yourself as a “textile artist” you will get an entirely different reception than if you use the phrase “tapestry weaver” – the former gets respect; the later gets dismissed as “just a hobby”. (Note: I know it isn’t. I know the amount of hard work and concentration involved. My former flatmate, Jo Mills, wove for the Victorian Tapestry Workshop.)

    How sad re the Tracy Emin Tapestries that the West Dean weavers will probably never get the credit they deserve.

    Good luck with making a living from your art. I hope you succeed.

    – Pam

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