Weeks 3 & 4: Tapestry and the art of compromise

I’ve been making samples. Then some more samples. And then, just because it was such fun, I made some more. I may be slightly hysterical.

In my last post I had honed down my colours and blends, but when it came to weaving larger samples of them, some problems became apparent, mostly that the colours were too weak, or weren’t sufficiently distinguishable when woven side by side. It wasn’t exactly back to the drawing board, but it was certainly a lot of tweaking and flipping samples. I’m now left with twelve colours. No one will be able to say it isn’t bold!

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Once I had got the colours fixed, I turned to the hair of the girl. The design for Found Drowned is supposed to be calm and still, and I intended to use the hair to give the tapestry some movement and sense of flow. It took some doing to find a texture I liked, loved in fact. But I did it. I was a weaving champion. I was, in fact epic. Until I took it off the loom and it looked like a tumour.

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More samples inevitably followed, about a half-dozen, trying to build texture and yet still make a piece of cloth that would hold itself together when not under tension. I think I have got there, but it has been an act of compromise, it isn’t as ‘free’ as I had wanted, but at the end of the day it has to be structurally sound as well as decorative. The way I’ve settled on has also meant I have to rethink the orientation of weaving, as I can only weave this way horizontally rather than vertically. I had wanted to weave it the right way up as I felt the horizontal weft and blending would better suit the movement of the water and avoid some rather large slits. I spent some considerable time stroking my chin trying to decide which way to weave it, failing to find any firm conclusion.

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I decided to just get on with drawing the cartoon as once I knew what I was dealing with, the answer would present itself. I had put it off, although I was unsure why, perhaps because if the cartoon went wrong, the whole project was doomed. The cartoon for Maides Coign was relatively simple, just an outline, but the sketch for Found Drowned was so much more vague and ephemeral I knew I had a job before me rebuilding the image to scale. Turns out I was right to procrastinate. In fact I should have run for the hills. What I ended up with was not what I had in my head, it was too lifeless and perfunctory. I decided I needed time away from it, perhaps I was overworking it and over-thinking it, and listening to demons who had no business voicing their opinion.

I sulked downstairs and sought to do some admin, but found myself delving into online collections of early tapestries. I suppose I was doing what I said I would after visiting the tapestries at the V&A, going back to the source. Perhaps the issue was her face, I couldn’t get the expression right, it worked in half a centimetre in the sketch, but not over ten inches of cartoon. With many online collections it is possible to get so close up the ply of the weft is even visible. It was quite astonishing how lightly details such as faces were created, just suggestions of colour and shape, that was all that was needed. Although I wanted my figure to be defiant and strong, looking the world in the face one last time, I removed her overworked eye and instead replaced it with a single line, and there she was. Not defiant, but at some sort of peace. I suppose there is an unnerving sense of waiting for her to open her eyes. Again it is not what I initially envisaged, but I like the compromise. For now anyway, we’ll see tomorrow…..

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Those old tapestries helped me put mine back into context. It also showed me how I needed to go about rendering the clothes. I also realised that weaving the tapestry on its side was the only way to go, not just because of the way her hair had to be woven, but to weave the drapes and build the shapes well. I’ve decided to consciously use some of the techniques employed in those early tapestries such as using slits instead of outlines, and in the way I do my hatching.

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At least all these samples have given me plenty of opportunities to warp up the new loom. The first time it took all day, the second time took all morning and this last time it took about an hour. Huzzah! I’ve started to use bag clips instead of ties when making the warp. So much easier and they keep the warp in order too.

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Tomorrow I’ll begin inking in the cartoon, and then order the weft and start making the warp. One reason that having to do all these samples has been so frustrating is that time has become crucial. I’ve been selected to exhibit at Art in the Pen in late August, and I want to get at least two large-scale tapestries completed by then. I may kill myself in the process. But at the end of the day all this preparation cannot be rushed, it has to be sorted before the weaving begins, but I can’t wait to get those bobbins moving.

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