Dyeing for Tapestry

I’ve been using sheep fleece for my dyeing experiments as it is much cheaper and I knew there would be more failures than successes (how true that was!). So I’ve been a tad worried how my mixes would translate into the actual yarn and although they’ve come out darker and stronger, I’m really pleased. The gold needs to be toned down – I wrote the formula down wrong so I was winging it a bit. When I was doing all that experimenting, there were times I thought I’d never find my colours so I’m really chuffed to see these hanks all in a row. As I run into difficulty down the  line, I just need to remember I got through this stage; as long as I persevere, it might just work out. These colours are for the eye area which I’m doing as a test piece for my tapestry weaving project.100_1360

What you don’t want in tapestry is areas of single, flat, dead colour. If you blend yarns on the bobbin, when it is viewed from a distance the brain will see new colours. You just have to look at the variations used in the seemingly simple and utterly stunning Wallace Tapestry to realise the subtle shading and colour changes that can be achieved. You can also help yourself in the dyeing process. Normally you want the dye to be taken up evenly, but by encouraging an uneven take up you can automatically build in a bit of interest and variation. So I was careful not to soak the fibres prior to dyeing, I made sure there was too much yarn in the dyebath and I also did not stir it. It all felt a bit naughty but I am very pleased with the results!

I love that there is this process before the weaving can even begin; not only are you making your own colours that are individual to you, it really makes you think about what you are about to do  and why; it helps you bond (if that is the right word) with the project ahead. Joan Baxter equates it with the medieval artists grinding their own paints in this great video. There are a couple more on Why Tapestry, and The Future of Tapestry – well worth a look.

The Girl

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My great-grandmother Alice Oldknow was born in Ashby de la Zouch in 1892, the daughter of an agricultural labourer and sometime soldier. Her mother Ada Ann Poyser died when Alice was just 8 years old following the birth of a short-lived child. Yes, I have talked about her before on this blog, I know you’ll indulge me!

In 1919 she married Harold Ellison, a carpenter. She lived in a Brook House, a purchase made possible through the legacy of a well-to-do aunt who had been robbed of her only son in the Great War. She had four children – her eldest Marjorie died of diphtheria as a child, and Cyril, her only son, was the navigator of the Star Tiger which crashed and killed him just after WW2. Her two daughters however, lived into old age including my grandmother.

What else can I tell you? Her father-in-law was an alcoholic ostler, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law were housed in an asylum, she worked on the railways during World War II, according to one relative she had ‘the sight’, she was a keen photographer and once entered a competition run by a newspaper, she was furious at catching my grandparents ‘kissing’ on the sofa, she was a talented needlewoman, she encouraged my grandmother to study for a chemistry degree in the 1940s, when widowed she opened her house to boarders, she raised her granddaughter, my mother, for the first few years of her life, in old age she liked making children’s toys. She died in 1968 aged 76.

Whilst there is some drama and tragedy in this brief biography, and hints of talent and ambition, in truth it was an ordinary life, normal, domestic. There is of course no depth to my understanding of who this woman was or the minutiae of her daily existence; what I know is based on records and from snippets of relayed memories.

But I do know what she was doing briefly one summer in 1911. Aged 19 she stood at the back of a group of people who were having their photograph taken. The image was made into a postcard and posted to her, and a brief note at the back makes mention of a trip to Gopsal Hall where, presumably, the photograph was taken.

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It is a striking image of her; there are a number of blurred faces and movement yet my great-grandmother, first left on the back row, is still and firm. She is young and beautiful, whereas the other figures are, shall we say, more eclectic (and quite frankly no relation to me I hope). She is also the only woman not wearing a hat and her luscious and beautifully arranged hair is showing and there is a rose pinned to her dress, there is something natural and unaffected about her. She looks like an outsider, that she does not belong. In modern vocabulary, she almost looks photoshopped into the image.

After scanning the postcard and mucking about I ended up with this. Regardless of this girl’s relation to me, I’m rather haunted by it and have been for a long time.


It seems to say something to me about the promise of life, a life yet to be lived, potential emerging, perhaps accentuated by one’s knowledge of the normality of the life she did lead. Her stillness, for me at least, has translated into something else, into strength and perhaps even a wee bit of defiance, and thus that sense of being an outsider remains.

However much I love weaving there is a limit to the story you can tell – you can express something that inspires you through form, texture, pattern and colour, but you can’t explore a narrative, an idea, except of course with tapestry weaving. You only have to look at the work of some modern weavers such as Anne Jackson, Sara Brennan, Aino Kajaniemi as well as the work of the Dovecot Studios and the Australian Tapestry Workshop, to see the progress it has made as a contemporary art form. It has a number of intrinsic qualities – they are generally large, architectural, monumental, sculptural, permanent, they take months if not years to complete and as such they are prized objects. They are a complete antithesis to Alice’s picture,  a few inches of creased card, forgotten and unvalued, buried in a box of old photographs left to be thrown out as rubbish when my widowed grandfather moved house. The image captured on the postcard is just as fragile and ephemeral and small – a fleeting, momentary gaze at a camera, an unknown thought parting her lips.

I am fascinated by that contrast and so I have gotten it into my head to turn this image of 19 year old Alice Oldknow into something else, from a thumbnail size image on a battered card, into something massive and which can’t be dismissed, and to explore better who she was and my reaction to what it represents to me.


A beautiful tapestry loom (Doris) was welcomed into Chrissie-land not too long ago, but at 6ft by 9ft my tapestry will be too big for Doris although she will be great for making samples. The yarns will have to be hand-dyed as I will be working with a very limited and subtle palette of golds, rusts, chestnuts, pearls and blacks. Work is just about finished identifying the colour combinations I need. Alas I can’t use natural dyes because 1) I suck at it 2) I need the colours to be repeatable due to the size of the project.

Next I’ll start work on the cartoon that will sit at the back of the loom and which will be my guide; I also need to start finding the scaffolding I need to make the loom, as well as encourage my local tame woodturner to make me some bobbins. And when it comes to the actual weaving I’ll be weaving her sideways. So this is what I am going to be doing over the next few months, as well as, of course, my normal weaving, as and when my floor loom Boris demands.

A few close friends have been privy to this plan for a wee while now, and it has been suggested that I find a way to enable anyone who is interested to follow this project, perhaps through some sort of video diary, or web page or Facebook page and I’ll be giving this some serious thought. There are a few other things in the archive I would like to do something similar with so hopefully this will be the first of a series.

Why walk when you can run?