Extreme Weaving! A new tapestry woven.

I should imagine I am pretty incoherent tonight, I am pretty tired, but I know you will forgive me.

Chrissie Freeth Tapestry 'Delia Jo' in Progress

Next weekend, 13th and 14th August, is Art in the Pen, in Skipton. I did it for the first time last year and loved it and am looking forward to it immensely. I always want to show new work, especially with my tapestries having changed so drastically over the last twelve months. But with one of my main new pieces over at the Weave exhibition in Craft in the Bay, I knew I was going to be pushing it. Nonetheless I felt I needed a new large piece, returning to the full width of the loom. I had enough left over warp to do it, and while I’d need to dye some new wool, I could use the colours and sampling I had done previously. The cartoon materialised quite quickly. I’ve long wanted to revisit the story of my female relatives needlessly trapped within a cycle of asylums in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I didn’t do them justice last time.

When I got the cartoon on the loom I calculated how much time I would need to complete it, marking off where I would have to be at a certain date in order to finish it in time. I soon realised I was looking at several weeks of sixteen hour days. I’m not sure how I have done it, except to say I pretty much just battened down the hatches, gave myself over to the project and just got on with it. I’ve pretty much lived off what my workroom kettle could provide, and moving a comfy armchair into the workroom was a mark of total genius on my part.. I am quite surprised how unscathed I am considering my bleating in a previous post. There was something – can’t think of the right word – ?monastic, about the experience. I’ve actually enjoyed it. I have so many hats, juggle so many things, and although I felt rather selfish not making myself available for my other roles, it was good to focus on one thing so solidly.

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I do feel I have rushed her, but I am pleased with the results nonetheless. It was rather nerve-wracking unwinding the loom yesterday and seeing her complete. I was thrilled actually, and although I went straight to bed, I found myself getting up every now and then to check she was still there and I had really done it.

She is just shy of 120 cm x 130 cm. It was the first time I was able to utilise the style and techniques I have been developing on a larger scale, and I much prefer it, much more room for the tapestry and the technique to breathe. Although I say I rushed it, I’m not sure what I would change if I had the chance.

After such a concentrated period of uninterrupted Freeth-time, during which I’ve had plenty of space to think, my mind is so full of ideas, including lots that are quite embryonic but growing fast that I can’t wait to explore them further. Fortunately there is some space between events after Art in the Pen and I’ll be able to take some time to think things through as well as carrying on the prep for my Fellowship which is now due to start in the Spring. It will be good to regroup and think about future directions.

In amongst this weaving marathon , I did have some respite after being invited over to East Riddlesden Hall to do some demoing. They have a lovely collection of rag rugs and they were a good excuse to get folk having a go themselves. It is not often you get to poke a hole in something inside a National Trust property. I trust you will be able to tell which part of the rug was mine. It is such a simple activity for younger hands to try, and for older visitors it always seems to bring back memories. Although I am not making rugs myself anymore, I do love these opportunities to blow the dust off my prodders.

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It was also wonderful to see the volunteers again and to have been made so welcome. Strange to see Maides Coign after a year or so. I look at her and can’t quite believe I made her. Hopefully there will be lots more events at East Riddlesden in the future and I’ll keep you apprised here or over on my website or Facebook page.

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Talking of which, do have a look at the Facebook page or Instagram of Craft in the Bay. They are showcasing the work in the Weave exhibition and the quality and variety of the work is astounding. I really am terribly proud to be part of it.

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I do hope you can pop into Art in the Pen. I loved attending as a visitor before I started exhibiting there. As I am sure you know, the cattle pens of Skipton Auction Mart are given over to selected artists, including sculptors, painters, potters, jewellers and others to turn into mini-galleries. It is a great way to spend a day, and to meet artists and in a very friendly environment and if mooching is your thing there’s no pressure at all, but if you are after a little something, it is a great chance to buy work direct from artists, often at great value. You can find more details about Art in the Pen here.

Finally, my dear friend Moira Fuller, an incredibly talented designer, is about to embark on a new business adventure to help encourage and support creativity in others. She would love your input through a wee questionnaire (she’s Scottish, you know), it’ll only take ten minutes or so. Do please have a look if you can spare some time.

Anyway, I hope all this goes some way to explain my absence, for which, as always I am very sorry.

Cheerio for now xxx

Week 19: That’s all folks!

Gracie is finally ready to hang. Sewing on the carpet tape and velcro took much longer than I thought it would and it has been quite frustrating – no matter how hard I worked, when I left at the end of the day she looked no different to when I started. My last act was to sew on my name and date. I never did get round to putting in a weaver’s mark.

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Fundraising is ongoing and I’ve said the hall can hang her until the end of July and we’ll see where we are at then. I’m not going to be there when they hang her, I suspect I will just get in the way and will fuss. I do like the idea of the tapestry hanging in the same place she was woven. The next and last job is to go back for the loom and I am looking forward to seeing her up. I feel like she isn’t mine anymore, which I suppose is a good thing. And I’ll be keeping in touch with East Riddlesden, staying on as artist-in-residence with a view to doing some workshops next year.

P1070847Now there isn’t anything else to be done I feel free to focus on the next project – details of which I will share soon I promise. I have spent the last couple of hours resetting and tidying my toolbox and I’ve already been experimenting with dyes and tomorrow I will order more and some yarn – I’m quite looking forward to it now!

So it isn’t all folks; now I’ve got into the habit of blogging pretty much weekly I will try to keep it up. I would just like to say that I’m really grateful to everyone who has read and commented – it does help me to keep going. x

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Week 18: Off the loom!

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It seemed fitting that as my friends Kate and Paula had been so supportive throughout this whole process that they were with me as I cut Gracie from the loom.

It all happened very quickly and it was me doing the snipping so I never really saw it – which was probably for the best as I was totally over-emotional about the whole thing anyway.

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Miraculously she stayed in one piece as we laid her down on some sheets. It was a shock how nimble she was – but there again I suppose she is a piece of cloth. Not only was it fitting Kate and Paula be there, they are also expert sewers – I’m not stupid! As they began plaiting the warps and sewing the turn back in place I knotted a few areas of weft at junction points.

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I had assumed the way I had done the vertical soumak would mean I wouldn’t have to sew up the slits but the pedantic side of me came out and I have started sewing them up and this is ongoing, taking up much more time than I thought. A meeting in London on Saturday and the Tour de France bringing Yorkshire to a halt on Sunday meant I went in on Thursday and Friday when the hall was closed but it looked like I’ll have to go in next week as well – the staff must be wondering if they will ever see the back of me! tapestry bobbins

In the mean time Shelly at Toast of Leeds has put on her blog some of the images she took (above and below) – I am in awe at how she has managed to take the common place things I no longer notice and turned them into pictures of such beauty. I’m feeling very lucky to have had this opportunity – do go over and have a look at the rest of them.

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Week 17: ….. and calm…..

Time for a confession. You know when I said in my last post that I wasn’t worried about that ripple in the tapestry? That was a complete lie – I’ve been wetting myself.

Was it a natural ripple that would disappear once it was hung? How would I know until I had cut it off the loom? And then it would be too late to fix it. What had I done wrong? My selvedges were straight, weren’t they? My warps were straight. Was it my sett or my beating? What hadn’t I noticed? What if the blocking didn’t work? Had I wasted four months of my life? Was I in fact a completely rubbish weaver and totally out of my depth? What had I done? What, what, what? And therein began many a sleepless night, especially last night. I decided to get to East Riddlesden early this morning and loosen the warps while we were closed so if there was still a problem I could smash my way through one of the rose windows and leap to a noble death in private.

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I untied some lacing to the sides of the loom and huzzah, all remained well – the blocking had worked. I then slackened the warps and although there was a slight ripple it was clear this was a completely natural product of her still being on the loom and would drop out once she was hung. Within seconds all that worry was gone. But I wanted to hang around for the day just to keep an eye on her and so when the lady who looks after the day-to-day conservation said she could do with a hand cleaning the carved woodwork of some of the four-posters I was happy to volunteer my services.

100_6040 I can finally start relaxing a little and be proud of what I have done. I planned to go in next weekend to cut her off, but managed to remain ignorant of the impact of the Tour de Flipping France – the roads will be closed, there will be no public transport, the hall will be shut. So it looks like I may go in later in the week, even though we will be closed and cut her off then. From the picture below you’ll have to take my word for it that the edges are straight – I could’t get the angle of my crappy camera right.

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This has been my first week at home for a while. Fortunately I had a lot to do with my weaving editor hat on, for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I was also able to catch up on the housework (not that you’d notice that now). But it has been hard to settle down to work on the next project. I am waiting to hear about an opportunity but it won’t be for a few weeks yet; until then I don’t know if I’ll be weaving at home or elsewhere. If I am to weave it at home I can’t really start until I have revamped what was my bedroom into a proper weaving studio. I suppose I need a break and need to stop beating myself up about it. Now I know Gracie is ok I am sure I’ll be able to settle and will make use of some quality easel time.

I am trying to find a way to tell you about the next project, but it is hard and personal, but I will do so eventually. I showed my initial drawings to friends who I know will be honest and whose opinions I trust and respect and am much encouraged by their reaction. One of them suggested weaving it as a triptych and I am seriously considering it.

Right I’m starving so had better go see to my tea – besides, I don’t want to keep carping on x

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Weeks 15 & 16? : End Game

To be honest I have lost track of what week it is; the closer I got to the end the harder I worked and I just kept my head down and wove like a demon. On Wednesday I planned to finished her but instead was lured out by artist Kate Bowles to a two hour picnic in the glorious sunshine under the rose covered ruins of the Starkie wing. After that going home early seemed the only decent thing to do. I had a snooze on the sofa for an hour; thinking of standing for MP.

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So it was Thursday when I finished her, but not before deciding to take out one of the hair petals and so had to reweave it using the colour of the background and a needle. I was quite shocked when she was done, I knew it was coming but was still a quite sad, like I wasn’t expecting it. I guess there is a natural anticlimax – this project has been the main focus of my life for six months and now it was effectively over. I went in on Saturday to weave the header and then a volunteer and I loosened the tension on the loom ready to let her settle before I cut her off in a week or so. There was some slight buckling through the centre although I’m not too worried about it, the tapestry is quite close to the bottom beam so I suspect it is just a natural fold caused by the different tension between the top and bottom of the loom and it should just drop out once it is hung – it is a piece of cloth after all. But I was a good girl and blocked it, just in case. I’ll see what it looks like next Sunday and release the tension on the loom then. If need be I might have a bit of a re-weave of the top left corner, but I shouldn’t think it will be necessary (takes a deep breath and reminds herself perfectionism is a good thing).

Yesterday morning Shelly Mantovani from Toast of Leeds came to take some photographs. I usually hate having my picture taken but I really love her work and was happy to put myself in her hands.She made me feel very relaxed and although it will be a while yet before I see the results, I am very much looking forward to it. In the meantime here is a pic by Kate just after our picnic (yes, I am stroking Gracie’s cheek, she is my baby).

Chrissie Freeth TapestryStill no news on the fundraising, but one of the volunteers made a really touching point yesterday; East Riddlesden was empty when it was handed over to the National Trust in the 1930s and it has since been filled with furniture and pictures from other properties. Apart from a grain store, Gracie is the only thing that really does belong to the hall. So fingers crossed, you never know.

I have brought a few things home, bobbins, yarns, swift and winders and so it is starting to seem an emptier space already. But I am not sad, it is certainly not good-bye, there is still a lot to do getting her off the loom and once she is off it. But it is certainly the end game. This is my first Sunday to myself for a very long while, and I will absolutely see to the laundry and housework and under no circumstance whatsoever start moping or even consider doing any dyeing experiments for the next tapestry. I do hope my ducks aren’t missing me. 😦

So far she has taken 85 days weaving (approx 600 hours, not including the six weeks prep work), and 3kg of wool and an incalculable number of jacket potatoes from the tearooms. For some reason I thought I had woven the second half much quicker than the first, but it was about equal. Can’t wait to see her upright. Here’s the video in full. Ta ta for now x

Week 14: Getting High

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I’ve reached the top selvedge and getting the bobbin through the ever tightening warps has been like dragging a reluctant elephant through a fence. The split rings were also jamming so I had to constantly re-thread them. It didn’t help that I was standing and reaching to the fell; it has been pretty unpleasant weaving experience for a while now.

The gardens here are spectacular and I took a walk one day and started lusting after some tower scaffolding in a van outside the hall; I assumed it belonged to the man fixing the boiler, but it was being used by the groundsman to cut hedges. The hall’s conservator made some calls and it turned out it would be ok for me to borrow it as long as the wood was wrapped in plastic to protect the house from any nasties in the wood. I am now at a comfortable height for weaving and although the plastic makes it look like I am incontinent, I am a very happy weaver. I don’t think it is going to be too long before it is finished.

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I’ve mentioned in other posts about my next project; I’ve started talking about it in more detail to those who have asked, response has been positive and it is slowly becoming more real. But I am conscious that though the next project has come relatively easily and I am finding my voice as a weaver, I still have a lot to learn about exploring my ideas visually and translating them into tapestry.

I have dabbled at sketching but painting is something I have not done since I was a kid playing around in art class in middle school. I think this is why I jumped on photographic images like that of my great-grandmother; as I can’t paint or draw, I’d have to focus on pre-existing images. But I’ve begun to realise that for me tapestries should be based on original images designed specifically for them – the days of weavers simply reproducing someone else’s design are long past. But of course I can’t paint, I am not an artist, I’ve had no training. I knew this would be something I would just have to get over so when my friend Karen was getting rid of an easel I jumped on the chance of giving it a new home. I thought if I had an uncluttered space to work on then I would be more likely to go upstairs into the workroom and just play. I got the easel set up and headed to Homebase for a bit of MDF to make a drawing board.

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So there I stood, in front of the easel, a piece of the wallpaper lining I usually use to sketch on, clipped to the board. But what to paint? I remember as a child my mum telling me that there was someone in my grandmother’s family she was never allowed to ask about. It didn’t take much digging into the census to come across my great-great grandmother Delia, a schizophrenic who was put into a lunatic asylum in the 1920s and died there a few years later. She had six previous admissions and according to her records her mother and sister were also insane. I also discovered that her daughter, Delia Jo (above, in white), was transferred to the same asylum from a workhouse after becoming “un-co-operative”. She was admitted in 1925 and died there in the 1960s. Their story inspired me to become involved in helping to make sure such needless loss of freedom within the mental health system no longer continues, but I have always felt there is something more about them I wanted to explore. Included in their records is a photograph taken at admission and I had Delia snr’s on my worktop and I pinned it to my drawing board. I knew I didn’t want to reproduce the photograph, it was just part of the process, I wanted to get at something of the turmoil of her mental illness.

When tapestry-artist Janet Clarke visited last week and we chatted and discussed my fear of my inexperience, shee suggested I ditched the paintbrush and tried mark mak using something else to free myself up. I poured out some paint and reached for a sponge to hand and just went for it and this is the result. I don’t doubt that I am painting like a school girl and I am going to make clichéd mistakes, but as a first attempt at painting I am pretty chuffed. It will always be a means to an end for me, but I fully intend to keep going with it and am no longer as afraid. I am also encouraged to keep exploring more the life and experiences of Delia and Delia Jo and find out as much about them as I can. They were not to be spoken of, were meant to be forgotten and Delia Jo would have been were it not for a comment in a letter. I like the idea of going agaist their imposed invisibility, of making them permenant and visible and unmissible.

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Anyway, more ducks. The twelve teeny weeney babies are now four – there is an evil heron hanging around that has been picking them off. These are my  ducks and I will I will have my revenge.

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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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