Building on my WCMT Fellowship in Medieval Tapestry

I have tried numerous times to update this blog, but it has proved impossible, how can I articulate all that has happened in this last year? It is of course my fault for not keeping on top of it, but to be honest there has been very little time when I have been off loom. I wonder if instead of trying to go over everything, I might just start with the last tapestry I’ve finished and hope that that will give a sense of what has been going on and the progress made.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry The Nook

I cut off The Nook (above) just before Christmas. Last time we spoke, I was coming to terms with the decision to turn my back on my old way of working and embrace the more formal ways of weaving more familiar to the medieval weaver, hoping that the expressiveness I have always been looking for will materialise in other ways.

However, I knew that before I moved back up to full sized tapestries like this, I would need to focus on samples and initially I focused on some experimental archaeology at the loom, trying to work out how the Halberstadt tapestries had been woven the way they were (below). I loved the results but as I tried to scale them up into a mural tapestry, pastiche took over and that is always something I have been petrified about.

One of the experiments I had long wanted to do was to see see how small I could go to work out if I could comfortably weave full figures within the width of my loom. Girl with Flowers (below) began as a quick sample to experiment with scale, I was reweaving an earlier cartoon at a smaller size, and that’s why the frock is so plain and the hair short. I found myself wanting to keep going with her and rummaged about in the photographic archive for the flowers and leaves. This was a turning point for me, as simple as it sounds, I was responding to the figure on the loom, making things up as I went, instead of having it all planned out and sampled before I started as I usually do. Remember, with tapestry you cannot undo something that has been woven over unless you take all of it out, it is not really a medium that endears itself to winging it, but that is exactly what I did. I realised that I had the skills now to do that, there was no problem I could not work out on the loom.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Girl with Flowers

I realised then it was time to move back to a full sized tapestry, I drew out a cartoon for The Nook, the figure based on one I had abandoned earlier. The cartoon only initially consisted of the first half and I began weaving not having a clue what colours I would be using or how I was going to turn a drawing outline into a tapestry, all those decisions would be made at the loom and in response to what was already growing beneath my fingertips. Some details are below.

Now I am not going to say there wasn’t a great deal of reweaving every now and then, but the difference was that I was not in a panic about it, I didn’t see it as a failure but as all part of the process, I knew in my bones that I would figure things out. I could not be happier with the result and the whole process felt far more engaging, it was about me and the loom, not just turning into tapestry a painting I had done earlier. In fact there was no original image for The Nook tapestry, it is not based on anything that pre-existed. I was able to draw upon, from my mental toolbox, all the techniques I had seen and could use them with ease and confidence, I had a mirad of possibilities at my fingers. It seems, dear reader, I now know what I am doing.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Hush in progress

The Nook is still relatively small for me and a new tapestry the full width of the loom is well on the way, but one which again I am developing on the fly (above). Apart from vague positioning of its elements and colour distribution, all likely to be tossed out of the window at any minute, I have no idea how it will look, and I love it. The happy accidents far out way the occasional re-weaving when things go a little bit pants.

The overall design of these tapestries, the cartoon, I won’t lie, remains a challenge, but I feel I am getting my vocabulary firmer. It helps too that the place they will come to life is on the loom, not the paper before me. I’ve brought up into my workroom am old drawing board that was decomposing in my cellar and it has proved invaluable. I have also learned to accept I can spend a month on these cartoons, then abandon it for another that materialises fully formed in an afternoon. I suppose it is all part of that process, of letting things marinate and letting them spurt out when they are done (feel free to remind me of this statement when I am bitching about designing cartoons on Facebook). One thing with The Nook that I find so interesting, is that I have always here spoken at length of the inspirations behind my tapestries, yet with this one I feel no need to explain it, I know what it draws on, I think I know what it means, but for once this is a tapestry I have made which can speak for itself, it needs no bolstering and blustering from me; that can only be progress too.

Chrissie Freeth Art in the Pen

The strides I’ve made have been helped in no small way by not having to hit the ground running when I got back from Switzerland and Germany. Normally I have events peppered through the year and that has usually meant making more sellable smaller pieces, and pieces I knew would work, there was not the time for experimentation, there was not scope for things to go wrong. But some breathing space has really helped me to start to explore all I have seen and learnt. But that is not to say I have been completely cloistered. I did Art in the Pen in August (above) and as always it was fantastic, I love it so much, such wonderful visitors (including the lovely lady I bored to death talking tapestry when she ended up sitting next to me on the plane to Berlin!!!!) and of course it was lovely talking to fellow artists, and one in particular who really helped me break some barriers on the design front. I’m such an overthinker, it really helps for someone to see your body of work and just go, Have you thought about this, this and this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without her insight and her willingness to share it and I am more confident than ever of being able to draw on my medieval inspirations without my work being pastiche.

Ripon Cathedral

Unbeknownst to me at the time, someone from Ripon Cathedral (above) saw my work at Art in the Pen and a couple of months later I was invited to have an exhibition there in May next year. This is, as you can imagine, a wonderful opportunity for me, and to see my work in a cathedral such as Ripon is incredibly exciting, and wonderful to keep the tradition of the church supporting artists and artisans. The theme of the exhibition will be storytelling and it is going to be great to be able to showcase this new work and the influence the Fellowship has had.

The way I now work, not least because my sett and materials are so much finer, takes longer and so I am having to work all hours to make enough work to do the space justice. It has been a difficult decision but the need to focus on larger pieces for Ripon also means I am unlikely to be out and about at events this year, but it will pay off I am sure. I’ve also been working on proposals for a commission which may or may not happen, and I can’t say too much, or in fact anything, but if it does come off I will of course let you know all about it. There is a price to pay for such a productive year. I’ve been having physio for months for a dodgy shoulder, and an injection into the joint the other week, but nothing seems to have worked, but at at least it seems it won’t get any worse. Well apart from today which is why I have banned myself from the loom and have been able to catch up on my chores and emails. Lastly I will confess that I have been using Instagram quite a bit, which may also explain why this blog has been abandoned a little. It has provided me with a way of articulating what is going on at the loom whilst I am at the loom, rather than having to wait until some part of my musculature has gone ping, forcing me to take an admin day and fire up the laptop. I will, however try to be more mindful of this blog going into the future. I accept this post has been a bit of a catch up and a few folk had commented on its lack of update, and again, I apologise and will try not to let it happen again.

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Big strides at the tapestry loom

It seems to me I only ever post when grounded by something, this time a chest infection and stinking cold. I don’t trust my brain enough to allow myself anywhere near the loom but today at least I am going to trust myself at the keyboard.

When last we talked I had just finished the Lamentation tapestry. In an attempt to paint my life in as rosy a glow as possible as Pinterest, Instagram et al demands, what I may have failed to mention is that it totally messed with my head.

It was a throwback, I had to produce something ASAP and I had plenty of warp sleyed at the right sett. What I really wanted to do, of course, was get on experimenting with a new weaving style inspired by my Churchill Fellowship. But the Lamentation tapestry, I liked it, I enjoyed weaving it, and it has taken me time and angst to develop my own style of weaving – was I doing the right thing turning my back on it.

Despite my doubts next due on the loom was a ‘straighter’, less painterly tapestry, and so I dressed the loom with a warp wide enough to start expanding samples beyond just the faces I had done before. The cartoon was based on an earlier piece but I doubled the weft to try to to save time. I enjoyed the process of weaving her, it was a more considered and involved process. I wanted to get at the crispness of medieval tapestry and although everything is laid bare technique-wise, and there was no where to hide, I liked having to rely on just the warp and weft, none of the gimmicks I might have pulled before. It made me feel I rather bashed out my other work, able to hide behind the randomness of it.

As she progressed I could appreciate her technically, but I started to question where I could take work like this artistically. I just couldn’t see it in other work of mine, how I could take her forward into bigger, full-sized work. I couldn’t see how to make it relevant. Ever since I started my Fellowship I have been aware of the fine line between being inspired by the medieval skills of tapestry weavers, without going all doublet and hose in the production of my own, and I think I was fearful that was where I was heading and it froze me. And whilst I was embracing the formality of this type of weaving, there was still a part of me that questioned whether I missed that expressive element I thought I had finally found.The doubled weft hadn’t worked so I knew I needed to do another sample to rectify that and as there was enough warp I started another piece. It was a chance to be sure it wasn’t working, and to try a few other things like lettering.But again, it just wasn’t doing it for me on an artistic level. I started to wonder if there was a way to amalgamate this technical progress I had made with my darker creative leanings, and that seemed to go ok at the sketchbook, but by now I was heading into a complete creative implosion. Do I keep trying to make this ‘straighter’ style work, if so, how? Or do I go back to the bigger, blended, more painterly work I was familiar with and comfortable with

Fortunately, I know some great craftspeople and artists and there’s one in particular, Liz Samways, whose judgement and honesty I trust implicitly and I was able to browbeat her into meeting with me for a few hours mentoring over lunch in Salts Mill. What a privilege it is to be able to spill one’s brains on a table and have someone help you scoop them all up again. Together we were able to unpick how I’ve got into to my mess, and we were able to map a way out. It was, of course, all rather obvious in the end, I have actually got my weaving to do what I wanted to do, I just hadn’t seen it and a lot of that was a failure in me to commit to it.

So it was snip, snip snip, off with the half-finished tapestry and a new warp was put on the loom, and a fresh mindset installed in me. Three things from our conversation in particular came to the fore as I sat at the blank pages of my sketchbook, 1) that whilst I want to weave with some expression, that was already there, just not in the way that I thought it was – it was in the figures themselves, not in the way I weave I them 2) that what I draw isn’t actually rubbish straight off the bat, it is doing what I want, if only I’d give it a chance 3) yes I have worked hard to develop a particular style, but if I am not going to be true to the findings of my research, then what was the point of doing it?A new cartoon emerged quickly, and interestingly I did it the old fashioned way, huge pieces of paper taped to the wall, and I worked with rulers and pencils, just as when I started out, rather than digitally, and it felt raw and satisfying. I began weaving a cropped area of the larger cartoon as a sample. I know it will seem to strange to anyone not intimately familiar with my brain, as they will be wondering how different this new piece really is from the tapestry I began this post with, but there has been a massive change in how I am approaching it intellectually and creatively as well as technically and I can see a future with it too, swimming with ideas, in fact.The first sample was just a sample, this new piece is the start of something. And whilst sitting in your pants on your sofa reading this the wood is clearly discernible from the trees, I assure you, when it is you all caught up in the brambles and with the wolves howling a few feet away, it is jolly difficult. Now I have committed I feel all parts of me come together, the academic, the medieval (wonderfully free of doublet and hose), the archaeologist, the artist, and the weaver, both technically and creatively – and it feels great.

I had made a good start on the tapestry when I had to go to London for the annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association. I went down the day before to spend some quality time at the V&A and their tapestry collections on display.If I am completely honest, it proved rather emotional. I dashed into there a couple of years ago between meetings. I realised then I would never be able to call myself a weaver unless I learned more about the skills that went into those tapestries, that I would have to study tapestries first hand. Books just weren’t going to take me where I wanted to go as a weaver. It was a sad moment, because I knew I would never get to see such tapestries. I simply did not have the resources.
And yet there I was once again, having seen tapestries across Europe and the US thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I saw the tapestries again entirely differently, I was able to read them, understand them, work out the techniques at play, and learn from them, and I was able to see them in relation to my own work.I love that there is nothing in my new work that isn’t in the fifteenth century Devonshire hunting tapestries and without it being pastiche. Different wool, dyes and warp of course, and I as a weaver am still alive in my forties and have my own teeth (I would also say I was plague free, but that is a damned lie). In fact I can see that everything I have studied over the last year is in this tapestry. I love that to me it seems honest, I have finally found my peace with tapestry and with myself and that opens the door to exciting things in the future. I have grown up, I have graduated. What has certainly helped is a bit of space to experiment instead of having to make work for events without breathing. In a few weeks I’ll be on the plane to Germany and then Switzerland for the last leg of my Fellowship. Good god, I hope it doesn’t unbalance me as much as the first two legs! I suppose it will defy the purpose entirely if I go study more medieval tapestry through fingers over my eyes!

In among all this I have had the prepare the Lamentation for exhibition at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe. I was awarded the Selector’s Prize for Innovation at last year’s Craft Open and part of the prize was to display my work this year. I took the tapestry over this week and got a sneak peak at the work destined for display and it is clear it is going to be a great exhibition. It opens on April 14 and runs til June 23. I am also pleased to say I got selected for Art in the Pen later in the year, and so this new body of work will be destined for that and I can’t wait.

I have heaps to do to get ready for Germany and Switzerland and of course this damn plague to get rid of, but I hope to get back to the new tapestry as soon as possible and finish it. It has been a couple of days now of self-imposed exile from the loom, and I can feel the ache for it in my marrow.

 

The Lamentation tapestry finished

I posted in December that I had a new full-sized tapestry under way. It was inspired by my travels and the medieval tapestries and frescos I saw depicting various Marys weeping over Christ down from the crucifixion. We the viewer are responsible for their plight, we, it seems , one way or another have his blood on our hands. I am not religious, I don’t believe in any god, I see them as very human figures. And it occurred to me one would not be caught weeping in front of the murderers of one’s loved one, but as an accuser one would look back with dignity and a spine of oak.

I was moved to do my own version, it held a personal resonance with me which I won’t bore you with again. I did struggle with the title, Two Marys, or, including myself in the mix, Three Marys. Fortunately it turned out that these depictions already had a standard title, The Lamentation of Christ, and so I think I have settled on The Lamentation for my own title, as a nod to the original source.

I got to cut it off the loom on Friday. Deadlines were approaching, ironically during a very busy week for some voluntary work I do, and so I was up to the small hours to get it done. I also needed to get it photographed, but as I am still to deal with the cut warps, weft ends, and sew up the slits as well as add a hanging mechanism, the only way I could photograph it was to keep it on the floor. I ended up on a pair of ladders with my ipad clamped to the end of a ginormous but sturdy rug shuttle and thanks to the timer was able to get a few shots. I was having flashbacks to photographing graves at a medieval abbey in the Midlands. Funny how such experiences eventually find a use . I’ve left my toes in one of them to get an idea of the scale – it is a fair size (168cm x 137cm), it is ecclesiastic in its nature and needs to be able to hold its own. It has taken three months stupid hours – excepting the glitch over Christmas – to weave this and inevitably there is a sense of loss and deflation now it is done.

Another thing I have also finished – and a big hurrah for me – are the plans for the next stage of my Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. In the Spring I’ll be heading to Halberstadt and Quedlingburg, then down to Nuremberg, also Munich and and Bamberg and then on to Basel and Bern. It took a huge amount of work and, bizarrely, nerve, but hotels and flights are now booked.

I have heaps of admin over the next couple of days, but hope I emerge from it ready to get going with the next project. I know where I am heading but haven’t let myself think about it too much until this one was done. It is hard going from knowing what one has to do every day, to entering the foggy period before the next project makes it onto the loom. I don’t know why but this work – research, sketching, designing, sampling, making cartoons – doesn’t always seem legitimate, perhaps because it is a much more organic process, it can seem less like ‘work’ than my time at the loom, although in fact, for me, it is the hardest work of the whole process.

A new tapestry and some morphine hanging from a loom – a slightly adventurous Christmas

I think I would have mentioned before that however much I enjoy doing events, I do feel I am cycling backwards in order to make work for them, especially last year when sales have been so good. The downside is I just do not have the time or space to experiment. I’ve also felt it keenly as I have had a year of exposure to such wonderful things and my mind is swimming with ideas and things I want to try. When such experiments can take months, the risks are obvious.

I don’t usually do Christmas, my family are in the Midlands and I tend to just work through. But as the holidays approached I found my productivity slowing, I am loving the tapestry I am working on but was barely weaving in a day what would normally take a few hours. I accepted a break would do me good and as the rest of the nation were sitting on the sofa in their pants, their face dropped into a tin of Quality Street I, goddamn it, would do the same. I banned myself from the workroom for two weeks. Not to step across its threshold. Oh no. Banned from the loom. I could only look upon it from the hallway, lovingly, longingly, but we were to be parted.

I ain’t got no PhD for nuffin. After a couple of days of spring cleaning and fighting through brain fog to amalgamate my to dos I suddenly realised, yes I was banned from the workroom, but I could set up a sample loom in the living room. I know, total genius. Whilst I have been comfortable in the medieval techniques I have been working on this year, high up on my list of things I wanted to do was to apply those techniques to a more modern design rather than the faux-medieval visages I had been doing. I already had a cartoon, although it had been intended for the more darker, blended style, and after an hour to rejig it I ran into the workroom for a handful of yarn and warp and set up the sample loom downstairs. It was mid-sized, and actually one I would have used as an undergraduate; I was the very happy custodian of various textile equipment from my archaeological department.

The frame was just the right size to rest against the arm of the sofa and my lap and so I worked on it horizontally. This was a new experience for me, as I usually work on a vertical warp and it took time, each warp needed to be picked out by hand, but it was enjoyable. The only issue was some abdominal pain, which I assumed was my bent over posture, William Morris’s weavers I remember reading somewhere were plagued with it. Oh how I laugh.

It is still hard to let go of the ‘fuss’ of my old style and to embrace the simpleness and crispness of this type of tapestry, but I do rather love it, and I am dying to have the time to get beyond these small samples. I am working on a design inspired by a line from my great-great-grandmother’s records from the asylum she was kept in, something she said, it is like hearing her voice, I think it is a reference to a Victorian song.

I had a few more attacks of pain under my rib cage, one on Christmas night when I was so convinced I was going to die I got dressed for the sake of the poor sod who was going to find my body once its whiff paraded down the street. I didn’t want to make a fuss this time of year, the NHS is overwhelmed afterall and booked to see my GP in January. But eventually I ended up being taken to hospital by ambulance with suspected pancreatitis or a gallstone jammed somewhere it shouldn’t be. My biggest regret is not getting a snap of the IVF and morphine drip hanging off the dismantled scaffold loom in the living room. Also, irritatingly, my ASBO neighbours were very helpful getting the ambulance and I am still not entirely sure of the etiquette – do I owe them a thank you card or can I just pretend it never happened?

It all turned out to be down to a stoopid liver condition I found out about last year. I am a bit peeved as I had no idea this was part of the deal and decidedly want my money back. But a few days in hospital and rest at home did mean I got, afterall, a break over the holidays. Except I did manage to do my tax return. What can I say, I am a bloody hero.

It did mean though I was massively behind on adminy things and once up to it I had to clear the decks of all that before I could creep back into my beloved, much missed, abandoned workroom. I know many weavers see it as a contemplative, meditative act, and yes I can find myself ‘zoning out’, but to me it is work – I do it to produce a piece of work, not for the act itself. But it has shocked me how much my loom contributes to my sense of wellness. Getting to the point where I could just sit at it and work has been like a tiny island in a vast sea. I’m there now, this blog and some planning for the next leg of my Churchill Fellowship aside, and it feels good to have my bum planted firmly in the sand under the shade of the solitary palm tree. Whether it is that meditative aspect, or the repetition, or the familiarity, or the structure, or the sense of purpose, alludes me, but I do know we are wedded now (to be clear, in a metaphorical way, not a pervy way) .

I’ve learned a lot, my friends rallied around marvelously and I now acknowledge I do need to accept help more often than I tended to do. I have also realised I have to get on and weave what I want to weave, rather than live in a panic about making things I feel have to, otherwise, really, what is the point? Life is too goddamn short.

Churchill Fellowship 4 – New York

I have been back from New York a few days, and pretty knackered, hence the slight delay in this post. My experience during this leg of the Fellowship has been very different to my time in France and Belgium, more of a smash and grab, there was less time to reflect, every day something was on. Whilst it was lovely to meet weavers in Angers, this week had far more face-to-face meetings with folk, so it wasn’t just me looking at tapestries, which again made this feel a very different experience. When I am able to keep my eyes open for more than two minutes at a time, I am looking forward to reflecting on it all properly! Again there is a gazillion photographs to work my way through.

I flew over on American Airlines, the reviews I had read were pretty poor, so I was braced for a bad experience, but it was fine, the only real pain the hour+ queue to get through customs and the internal battle that would make the fall of Carthage look like a minor spat, about whether or not to declare my tea bags. I was in two minds about forking out for a taxi to get into Manhattan or to brave the subway off the bat. The subway of course being the natural habit of vampires, cockroach humanoids, digital agents fighting re-awoken human batteries and murderous presidential wannabes. I will grant you that my perspective may be slightly marred by movies, but still……

The packed lift in the airport got stuck, and as many responded like they we were about to plummet to our deaths, a fellow Englishman and I shared a droll eye roll, and on our release joined forces to take on the Airtrain and the subway and whatever it threw at us. All rather uneventful in the end. The YMCA was very easy to find. Its location was excellent, although its lack of facilities a bit of a shock initially. I did end up with a spectacular view across Central Park though. Can I just say I love my travel kettle? Is that too weird?

Anyway, tapestries!

My first stop was Cloisters, a Frankenstein structure built from elements of medieval structures shipped to the US and rebuilt. The result is an abbey in a stunningly beautiful park, high-rise blocks of the city in the background. It houses the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, colloquially known as the Met. The tapestries on show included two sets which were of particular interest.

The Unicorn Hunt series will be familiar to anyone who has been following West Dean’s recreation of the set for Stirling Castle. I wasn’t expecting their luminosity, which no photograph can reproduce, they were stunning of course, and woven beautifully, but if I am honest they were the hardest for me to engage with aesthetically and I couldn’t tell you why, perhaps the use of stock figures rendered them rather too formal? Perhaps it was because they were already familiar? But as I said they were wonderfully executed; there was a red velvet jacket that was impossible to believe it was woven and not actual velvet. The colours were spectacular. The stewards were lovely, even thought I kept setting off the alarms!


The second famous set were the Nine Heroes. These were woven around 1400 and it was thought for sometime they were produced in the same Paris workshops that wove the Apocalypse at Angers, although it may be the similarities are rooted in the weavers, the designers, or conventions of the time.

They were outstanding, full of interest, and the use of slits, like the Apocalypse, created incredibly characterful and spectacularly rendered figures.

However of all the tapestries on display, the one that I loved the most was the Falcon’s Bath woven around the same time. It was much more naive and simplistic, but in that lay its perfection.

The weaving was incredibly neat creating a crisp surface, beautifully preserved. The background was filled with stylistic flowers which all shared thin leaves creating a sense of unity – I am not a huge fan of millefleur tapestries, but felt this worked.

In amongst the flowers were beautifully woven small birds. The human figures were also created wonderfully, contoured wefts and slits were used so simply, but the result full of charm.

The Falcon’s Bath tapestry was also fascinating because after viewing it one could step into sun filled cloisters, the gardens full of the same flowers and the same birds, which no doubt inspired it.

I had planned to spend a second day at Cloisters, but made an off the cuff decision to go to Church first. The recently conserved 17th century Barberini tapestries which were damaged in a fire and which were re-hung in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, had been in the news recently.

They were too late for my project so I hadn’t intended to include them in my itinerary, but I was interested in their being hung traditionally, as a set, rather than high up and separately like in a museum. I wanted to see a group of tapestries in their ecclesiastical context; I hadn’t, as hoped, managed it in France.

A fragment of one of the tapestries destroyed by the fire

I had expected this to be a flying visit on the way to Cloisters but it became apparent that the laboratories in which they had been conserved was on site and very kindly the conservators allowed me to visit and showed me the tapestries themselves, although it was all unplanned.

It was fascinating to see the workshop, and wonderful to talk with folk who were as passionate about tapestry as I was. They have worked for years over these tapestries, bringing them back to life.

The tapestries themselves were on the cusp of the naive and painterly tradition, and in particular I loved the map of the holy land as it reminded me of the Sheldon tapestries woven in the Midlands.

Also hanging in the nave were four Mortlake tapestries based on Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostle now in the V&A. Go team UK!

I had wanted to visit the Jane Kahan gallery as they had a great collection of mid-century tapestries, but alas all my emails in the run up to the project went unanswered. The next day I girded by bobbins and decided to just turn up anyway. The staff were lovely and although there weren’t too many tapestries on show, there was a Chagall woven by Yvette Cauquil-Prince.

It was the most spectacular weaving I have seen during the entirety of this project. If I could have one tapestry, this would be it, even more so than the Apocalypse. I suspect I am a few million short. Cauquil-Prince used every technique in the arsenal of the weaver; it seemed so expressive, so easy, so free of the restrictions of the loom. Yes it was a Chagall, but it was also a tapestry in its own right, it was a big lesson in how tapestries interpret a work instead of just reproducing it.

The Met museum proper was nearby. Again many tapestries were on display; my favourite was from the Courtiers in the Rose Garden series. Beautifully created figures, with lovely costumes woven just using hatchure stood before a striped background and roses. I loved the background, as I had with the bear tapestries in the Louvre, it seemed to give instant vitality to the design. I also loved how the formality of the hatchure and stripes contrasted with the more free-flowing and stylistic roses.

I had a whizz round the museum itself, it was a strange experience turning a corner and always seeing something that was already so familiar, whether it was a Van Goh self-portrait or the Nimrud Ivories. There was much inspiration there that will keep me going for a few years!

However I was at the Met to visit the Antonio Ratti Textile Centre. Very kindly I was invited before my arrival to choose some tapestries that were not normally on display to view. I selected pieces that would be of a size to be practical and would give me access to work of a type that I had not seen before. Alas the Crucixion was not available, sad as it was one of the earliest in the collection (around 1325-1350) and I had been particularly keen to see it. Nonetheless I was able to see the Madonna and the Eight Saints, sixteenth century so much later, but clearly related to an earlier tradition. The level of access was fantastic – I even got to see the back.

This was another tapestry with the faces left blank, this time they were embroidered rather than painted. Interestingly there was very little hatchure, but there was some double interlocking. The colours and preservation were spectacular.

One of the conservators popped in to see if I would like to see a tapestry they had in the laboratory. When she mentioned it was the Crucifixion, I had to stop myself doing a little tapestry dance. It was spectacular to see, I couldn’t take photographs as it was being worked on, but what a privilege! (the one below is from their website) .

I already had an appointment the following day at the Met’s Textiles Conservation Laboratory, but they asked if I would like to join them in the morning for a talk being given by another visitor, it was great to be able to join the conservators and to be made so welcome – I felt I was amongst my tribe! Over coffee and the most fabulous cake ever, we listened to attempts being made to safeguard traditional Japanese dyeing techniques. I was then given a tour of the laboratory, which included a demonstration of how the latest digital photography techniques are being used to better understand how weavers of the past made tapestries. I cannot wait to see how this develops further. I also got to see a gigantic door curtain from an inner chamber of the Kaaba at Mecca and more Mortlake tapestries.

The following day I was scheduled to meet with Simona Blau of Vojtech Blau gallery. I arrived slightly late having discovered my bank cards weren’t working, and had to contact the bank whilst simultaneously trying to figure out how I was going to walk back into Manhattan and live under a bridge in Central Park for the rest of my life as the two dollars cash I had was going to have to last me for ever and ever. I was very sad that I was never going to get to see Yorkshire again. It all worked out in the end, and Simona was very understanding following my slightly flustered arrival! It was interesting to see her tapestries in a domestic setting, showing how relevant they still are to modern interiors.

I learned a great deal with Simona, and learned of more artists that I had not come across before. The tapestries too were spectacular, especially one designed by Lee Krasner and again woven by Yvette Cauqill-Prince, and with the same energy and vitality as the Chagall (detail below). Interestingly it was woven with the warp running top to bottom.

In the afternoon I had an appointment at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute. One of the conservators at the Met had told me about a thirteenth century tapestry they had in their collection. It is normally stored off site but fortunately it was at the museum’s labs and I was granted access. It was only a fragment, but something I had not come across before, having been woven in Moorish-Spain. It was woven in silk and gold and incredibly fine. There were lots of slit weaving and plenty of eccentric wefts. It is known informally as the Beautiful Ladies and it is clear to see why.

The following day was a big highlight for me, meeting with artist Erin Riley in Brooklyn. She is someone who has almost single-handed brought tapestry to a new generation, her subject matter making the medium relevant, whilst at the same time providing a fascinating juxtaposition with the tradition of the form. She also engages brilliantly with folk through social media such as Instagram and I felt I knew her studio already, it was strange being on the other side of the iPad screen.

It is easy to think one knows her work through her online presence, but in the flesh her tapestries popped from the wall with lovely colours and interesting surfaces, and beautifully woven. She was flipping lovely to boot! It was interesting to hear her talk of her tapestries in the same context as the Unicorn Hunt, that they shared the same subject matter, those five hundred years ago disguised by metaphor, hers more explicit. It provided a wonderful bookend to a great trip.

It was my last full day in New York, so I played hooky in the afternoon. I felt I hadn’t seen New York, I had been flitting from one meeting to another, and had spent so much of it underground on the subway. It seemed rather ridiculous to have come all that way and not get a feel for it!. From Brooklyn I headed to the Staten Island ferry and did the statue thang, and I strolled around the south of the city, including the tourist coated Charging Bull and Fearless Girl (it is in there, honest) and I also a nipped to the 9/11 memorial, a rather uncomfortable experience, seeing folk sitting on the names, taking pouty selfies.

Also at various points in the week I was able to dart into the Museum of Modern Art and into the Museum of American Folk Art and in the latter saw a great exhibition of Carlo Zinelli. I think I am allowed to be knackered, aren’t I?

Well no, is the answer, I am heading to London tomorrow for the Heritage Craft Association’s Texture of Craft conference on Saturday, sadly I had to bow out of the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords but it would have been the death of me. I also need to start weaving like a demon to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail at the end of the month. And there’s the WCMT report to write. I also need to start planning the next leg……..

Flip, better get on with it! x

Churchill Fellowship 2 – Paris

I am on the train to Angers (pronounced more like an-jay). I am desperately sad to be leaving Paris, not least because I am heading off a few days earlier than expected. But now I know how long it is possible for me to stand in front of a tapestry, I knew I needed longer in Angers, the home of medieval tapestries. But I am ahead of myself.

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Woodcutters at Les Arta Decoratiff in Paris

I knew from research that the Les Arts Decoratif had a few tapestries, as did the Louvre, but I was completely unprepared for the vast numbers on display. Obviously tapestries are delicate, and are generally displayed in rotation and it quickly became clear that there was some disparity in what the catalogue claimed was on display and what was on the walls, but all to my favour.

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Detail from Woodcutters

There were some spectacular tapestries, including the Woodcutters, woven in Tournai around 1460-1475. The detail, characters and vitality was simply wonderful, as was the quality of weaving.

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Faded colours in the Woodcutters

This was also of note for the faded colours which left the most fascinating skeleton of slits and gaps, ghosts of hatchure and colour changes, no longer visible. I don’t know why I became so fascinated by these, perhaps it is the archaeologist on me, always fascinated by what is gone, rather than what survives.

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One of the tapestry galleries at the Louvre

I was not expecting the number of tapestries at the Louvre either, and ended up having to spend two days there. As well as the medieval tapestries they have a vast collection of Baroque and Neo-classical pieces on display, which alas I had to ignore. Many of the medieval tapestries were hung high and in near darkness, making access difficult, but seeing such a collection covering such a time span left me with an amazing picture of the development in the styles of tapestry, including those seeming infested with needless heads and shoulders, and many more millefleurs tapestries including the well known Noble Pastorale series.

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Noble Pastorale Series

It is always odd seeing things so familiar in books, in the flesh. Again one tapestry in particular stood out, and for the same reasons as the Woodcutters – the vitality and quality of weavings. The Repas de la Chasseurs was also possibly woven in Tournai at the end of the fifteenth century and  had a plumpness to the figures and economy of colour and it put its faith in hatchure to do its job rather than bury them in the depiction of luxurious fabrics. It was a stark contrast to those tapestries where a more realistic depiction was attempted.

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Le Repas de la Chasseurs

I am gong to be diplomatic and skip over the adventure that was getting into the Gobelins, because despite the tears, the self recrimination, the development of an alcohol and drug dependancy problem, the counselling, and for a brief period, turning to God, I did get in and the staff and guides were utterly marvellous. I will only add that I have worn many hats in my life, but in the community of weavers I have never come across such mutual support, friendliness and acceptance – you know who you are, thank you. Photography was not allowed so I have little to share, but over a couple of days I got to see the carpet, basse lisse and haute lisse workrooms. I have a bit of a crush on basse lisse looms at the moment, just before this trip I had been experimenting weaving on a low warp and the back ache has not yet deterred me. But seeing their magnificent haute lisse looms rekindled my love of my upright looms. With the low warp I wove from the back and I think I am going to try to do this with my upright looms when I get home, as they do at Gobelins, I can see the sense of it. Such a great experience to see these workshops, and how professional they were, it gave me a great deal to think about and bring back with me.

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Detail from Repas de la Chasseurs

The visit to Gobelins also instilled a much greater appreciation for the role of weaver as interpreter of designs, something I had not fully considered before as I weave my own. This trip had been, in part, inspired by Jean Lurcat’s book on tapestries; he had not been terribly polite about Gobelins criticising what he viewed as rather wasteful ways. It was incredibly enlightening to hear their take on it, and I feel I have a much more balanced view, and can see his instance on weavers working solely from a coded cartoon without an original art work for them to interpret themselves, was to the detriment of their skills.

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Detail from Repas de la Chasseurs

The plan was then to go to the workrooms at Beauvais and the National Tapestry Gallery there. This too had taken an extraordinary amount of phone calls made on my behalf, resulting in a ‘you shall not pass’ that would have made Gandalf proud. What anyone had failed to say, despite their website being so to the contrary, was the National Tapestry Gallery was no more, and a comment on trip advisor triggered my spider-senses and I was able to confirm this was the case, just in time before I set off. It meant a day unexpectedly free, I instead explored the narrow streets full of independent art galleries that surrounded my lovely apartment in St Germain.

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Gobelins workshops

As I said, it became clear as the week progressed that I would need more time in Angers that I had previously thought. This was also sparked by the fact that it was to Gobelins and Beauvias I was looking to to see some twentieth century tapestries, but that instead I hope to see in Angers.

When I set off from Yorkshire I set nine separate alarms, just in case, as you do. This morning, just the one. I feel I am growing as a person. I even managed to brave the Paris metro during rush hour and with a suitcase. I know many Churchill Fellows get to have great adventures in exotic places, but I now feel I can hold my head high amongst them.

So, Angers, here I come!

Churchill Fellowship 1 – Brussels

End of week one of my Churchill Fellowship. I am sorry for not blogging throughout as planned, the truth is my time at the institutions I am visiting is pretty focused and my evenings are spent sorting photographs and writing up my notes. WordPress has also proved frustratingly uncooperative to use through my Ipad.

A week ago I was heading from Yorkshire towards my Eurostar train, the journey entirely easy and uneventful. My hotel in Brussels was easy to find and perfectly located near the Grand Place.

My first stop was the Cinquantenaire Museum. Obviously Brussels was a major place for the manufacture of tapestries, and the museum’s collection is one of the most prominent that exists. But last week I saw that the textiles were included in their list of galleries closed for renovation. Did it include the tapestries too? An email to clarify went unanswered, but in truth it was too late to change my plans either way, so I had to just go for it and hope for the best. Fortunately when I arrived and stated why I was there, the guide pointed me to the gallery circuit of medieval galleries. Phew!

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tapestry woven around 1495 in the Rhineland and now in the Cinquantenaire Museum; the face was painted on

I am quite glad I had an empty bladder, because what was waiting for me was utterly beyond any expectation. I had not expected so much of the collection to be on display, room after room was filled with gigantic tapestries. And this was only one circuit, there were others, although of much later works. I am hoping this video works, it has taken about twenty attempts to link it in WordPress, but it gives an idea of how overwhelming it was; my access to tapestries was so limited before, and now I was literally wallowing in them. I spent most of the day in the first two rooms, it was quite hard to focus initially and I was glad of my reference sheet to guide me. Access to the tapestries was much freer that I had expected and I was able to get very close up.

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Detail from Scenes of the Passion woven in Tournai 1445-1455 and now in the Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels

I went home when the museum closed with my brain rather overwhelmed and stalled and it was a good job it was closed the following day as I was able to use the time to make sense of what I saw the day before, to collate it all, assess if my approach was the right one, look at my notes and images and to try to see the best way to go forward (thank you Starbucks for the office overlooking the Grand Place). I had always thought about this adventure in terms of ‘the project’, the bigger picture was what was important, I hadn’t taken the time to think what I myself wanted to get from the experience. I also realised this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to act accordingly, I had to pick my battles, I wouldn’t be able to do everything.

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Detail from the Judith and Holofernes woven in Tournai in the early sixteenth century, now in the Cinquantenaire Museum

I returned to the museum the following day, much more organised, much more able to focus and not let myself get overwhelmed. Whilst lots struck me in terms of how the tapestries were woven, what came to the fore was the ubiquity and technical excellence in the use of hatchure. Of course one is familiar with the technique, although I have never really used it much myself, but seeing it in tapestry after tapestry after tapestry, has installed a huge admiration in me for its versatility and what could be achieved with a line.

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Hatchure used to create drapery. a tapestry woven in Brussels in the early sixteenth century

On Wednesday I went to the Brussels City Museum in the Grand Place. I knew they had some tapestries although I was rather unsure of what exactly. I also knew they were undergoing the restoration of a 16th century tapestry cartoon, the Martyrdom of Saint Paul.

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As they were often made of paper and roughly treated, they are incredibly rare so I was keen to make use of the opportunity to see it and although the restorers were not at work that day, the staff very kindly allowed me in nonetheless.

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Tapestry cartoon under restoration at Brussels City Museum

The restoration was supported by an excellent and informative exhibition which included the history of the cartoon, the findings uncovered during the restoration, and wider topics around tapestry weaving and its creator. As well as windows into the workshop, there was a facsimile of the cartoon, a later tapestry woven from it, and very useful digital information panels. This was all a huge unexpected delight.

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Of the five or so tapestries on display elsewhere in the museum, two in particular were of note, one being part of the series I had seen the day before at the Cinquantenaire, and another, Tristam and Morgain’s Shield woven around 1600 in Brussels which, although later than the period of my study, was noteworthy for the wonderful textures created using floating wefts.

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I then left for Paris. I seem to have landed myself the most spectacular AirBnB possible, just off the Boulevard Saint Germain, right in the heart of the city, and with a wonderful host. On Thursday I headed off for Gobelins exhibition and workshop. I knew they would be the least straight forward place I wanted to visit, their website is a mine of misinformation, and absence of contact details. My host kindly tried to call on my behalf, but things were none the clearer due to the recorded message. I decided to go anyway and see what was what. What, was a handwritten note on the gate saying they were closed until the end of April. Disappointing for sure, but there is hope the cause is not lost. Watch this space, as they say……. I decided to take the opportunity to rest for the afternoon. I am struggling somewhat with fatigue and am trying to be sensible in managing it. I woke from a snooze, just in time to catch the last of the sunlight and walked along the Seine to have a nosey at Notre Dame. As you do.

The following day, a little worried about how tired I was, I decided to stay close to the apartment, and went to the Musee de Moyen Age, (or the Cluny as was) it is only a couple of minutes down the road. I have a meeting with one of the curators there next week, but I wanted an easy goal after Gobelins.

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I must confess millefleur tapestries aren’t my thing, I don’t really do twee, but of course the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries had to be included in my trip. I cannot express how utterly magnificent they were. I wonder if they suffer from overexposure, we think we know them, they are so familiar to us, but in truth I was not prepared for walking in and seeing those beautiful and majestic images. Their new presentation was first class. I spent several hours with them, again access was surprisingly easy and I am collecting a huge photographic resource, thousands of images a day. They are of course the epitome of the tapestry weaver’s skill. In fact I was so in awe of them, last night I finally cracked open Tracy Chevalier’s book, a gift from my AirBnB host. Of course the Lady and Unicorn tapestries are not the only works at the museum. There were three or four early pieces in just about every room, much of them millefleur tapestries, but not all.

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Detail from the Annunciation woven in 1499 – is the error in the tiles the fault of the cartoonist or weaver?
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Detail of a tapestry woven in the Rhineland in 1480 and now in the Musee Nationale du Moyen Age
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Les Vendages woven in the Southern Netherlands at the beginning of the 16th century (Musee Nationale du Moyen Age)

Seeing so many tapestries in so concentrated a period and with such a focus does mean I feel like I am ‘plugging in’ to the vocabulary of these tapestries (if that makes sense), and tapestries woven at the height of technical skill. I need to think about how this is going to affect my own work, but even after a day it was clear to me that this experience will change me as a weaver for ever.

Today I head off to the Musee les Arts Decoratifs. It doesn’t open til 11 so it seemed a good chance to catch up with this here blog. Tomorrow I brave the crowds at the Louvre – wish me luck! In the mean time do follow me on Instagram and Facebook, I am going to try to be more organised with it this week.

ttfn x