Does anyone else have a thing about bags -- that deal where you can't imagine leaving home, much less making it through a trip, without having your elemental stuff in the perfect bag?
Or maybe you think you're set with a satchel that is comfortable to carry and has room for all the essentials (flashlight, mug, pocket hang glider, ear plugs, spindle, pencils, dictionary, novel, etc), but then you start a new project
that generatesa bunch of material you absolutely MUST have with you at all times to survive whatever the future brings
which means that the extra large custom spindle case must be called into action
and the bag you were counting on is too small and the one that might work still needs mending
and is not, truth to tell (thanks to previous scattershot approach to reinforcing disintegrating fabric),
the most sophisticated thing you've ever made, much less mended?
Well that never happens to me...
I seem to be out of words.
Here are a few pics though.
Ever wish you had eight arms?
If I were to claim an historic textile practice,
I would be needlepoint.
After nearly 30 years as a tapestry weaver I have spent far more hours in front of a loom than with needle and canvas,
but for as long as I can remember,
the marriage and yarn and image has been a given,
and that certainty began with with needlepoint.
My grandmother, unless she was driving somewhere very fast in her pink Volkswagen bug or cooking something with lots of butter, always had a piece of stitching (needlepoint or crewel or sometimes knitting), in her hands.
So did (and do) at least two of her five daughters (my aunts, not my mother who was otherwise occupied getting a masters degree, learning to program computers back and teaching mathematics). Grandma's stitching was an endlessly compelling and yet unknowable backdrop to many of my youthful imaginings.
Once, in my youthful innocence, I asked her why she stitched other people's drawings instead of making up her own. Apparently that was a ridiculous question,
but I was left with a longing to give form to my own ideas--
if only I could figure out how.
My Mother and Aunts now have most of Grandma's work (rugs, bags and more cushions than I can possibly imagine), but I've never needed the physical manifestation of her stitching to know that, should I ever need it, permission to draw with yarn and needle was already granted.
Not, of course, that one should make a career out of it.
Except, well, I did.
For all the goodness that has come from tapestry and knitting however,
stitching on canvas has remained in the background--
a secret hobby the mere mention of which causes some tapestry weavers to draw back in horror if the two words appear in the same sentence.
"Needlepoint is NOT Tapestry!!!!!"
Of course it is not.
But neither is it a lesser medium.
(It probably has not escaped your notice that my needlework and tapestries look an awful lot alike....)
Truth to tell, for most of my tapestry life, other than mending and sewing the occasional garment, there hasn't been time for needlepoint.
In the midst of constant weaving, knitting, teaching, spinning, dyeing, drawing, hanging out with my husband and son and doing the dishes, the last thing I needed was another thing.
Indeed, I don't recall quite why I picked up needle and canvas 10 or 11 years ago,
though I know a conversation with Sarah Haskell about embracing the grid of warp and weft (she loved it, I spent my weaving life trying to defy it), had something to do with it, as did learning about Knotted Pile from Sara Lamb.
I do remember that the desire was fierce and immediate, and that the moment I found a piece of blank canvas I snatched every second to stitch, enthralled by the sound of the yarn swishing through holes, riveted by the the glow of the stitches -- so different from tapestry even though I was using the same yarn.
I made some bags, and cushions (as one does).
Then I began to study comics.
And that, for a time, was that.
Stitching, sewing, storytelling,
dyeing, drawing, dreaming,
wild and magical and playful freedom to do as I pleased --
I'd never seen or done anything quite like it before.
When not tied up in knots about where the story was going
or how best to tell it once I knew,
I was entirely at my ease.
Needlepoint Comics provided a kind of elbow room I was not, at the time, getting with tapestry,
though those familiar with my work may notice that Stripes is connected to the tapestry book Casting Off, picking up where that book ends.
None of this stuff happens in isolation.
In fact, most of the work on these comics took place as I was writing the novel that would become the Rough Copy series of tapestries -- sequential narrative finding its way into tapestry in a different form.
When I began to actually weave those 13 pieces though, I had neither time nor creative energy for anything else -- and certainly not something as demanding and compelling as needlepoint.
But now I'm back.
And it was those tapestries that are responsible --
the addiction to words that was not entirely (even remotely) cured by weaving them,
led to unscripted writing at the loom (no cartoon),
which generated an idea that I might be able to write longer sentences on a backstrap loom,
and sucked me down the rabbit hole I'm currently in (discussed in myriad previous blog posts),
and then the lightbulb moment (lights are good down in rabbit holes),
that I have been weaving the linen grid I longed for back when I was making those giant comics panels above, but couldn't figure out how to do without a floor loom.
Sometimes I am so dense.
Now, alas, I've gone on and on,
the work is calling
and I have not addressed the technical aspects of the thing
-- yarn, sett, materials etc--
which is what I meant to talk about.
Maybe next time.
I'll know more by then anyway.
But what does work look like?
And how can you identify a distraction when you meet it?
What are distractions anyway, if not the first tiny steps -
in pursuit of a dream?
Where they begin
and where they go
(if anywhere at all)
is the great mystery.
But the only way to find out, is to begin.
It is my belief that every tapestry has the right
to move and sway and spin.
Indeed, freeing my tapestries from strictures
is what you might call a long term goal.
Not that it is often realized.
Tapestries end up on walls more often than not
(and look darned good while they are about it).
But even when on the wall, they usually have the structural integrity to hang with minimal support and do not need to be stretched or stapled or otherwise confined.
Not that I haven't done all three things to various works over time,
but it always feels like I'm being mean.
Twirling is such fun.
And cloth is so good at it.
Getting my work out into the air is made easier for me
because I work in all my weft tails as I go
so the front and back look essentially the same.
(They are not but that is not a topic for today).
I've also been helped by an endless attraction to the thrill of experimentation--
a tug toward the open air of weaving techniques I haven't seen before.
Indeed, to touch on something my friend Summer wrote about in her blog post yesterday,
I end up spending a lot of time in the guise of a beginner.
Actually, now that I write this, getting the work off the wall has rarely been the primary motivator in pursuing a work, but rather an ever-welcome addition.
I started weaving Margin Notes, for instance, as a response to my jealousy
of a character in a novel I was writing:
Tapestry books are another way to escape the dreaded frame,
the reader getting to touch each page in its turn
and experience the heft and fluidity of this amazing cloth.
One of these days, I'll return to these.
When the time is right.
Isn't it great how ideas circle around?
Nearly 20 years after that first mobile,
I'm exploring the form again.
When I started writing this morning I thought I'd end up getting into some of the reasons I find frames claustrophobic. but I think I'll save that for another day
It's all just so interseting.
First, weave a tapestry.
Decide if you can bear to sully its inherent perfection
with another medium.
Sometimes I can't.
Sometimes I must.
I have never liked mixing my media.
(Never Mix Never Worry...)
But as I've mentioned before,
some ideas are hell bent on having their way.
So in I go.
1. Draw , or trace a drawing, onto rice paper.
Note: It'd be nice if I could specify what kind of rice (or maybe mulberry) paper,
but I'm using scraps left over from some else's printing class
and it is unlabeled. Perhaps you can tell by looking?
At any rate, it is semi-translucent, flexible and strong..
In my first experiments I used cheap tracing paper
but it crumbled beneath my needle.
I read somewhere that tissue paper works, but don't have any.
2. Baste the sketch to the tapestry with thickish cotton thread
-- something that is strong, easy to see and easy to pull out--
then start stitching along the lines of your sketch with wool yarn and running stitch.
Note that my running stitches do not go through to the back of the tapestry
but stay just under the top surface .
3. When all the lines are in place, gently tear away the rice paper,
one shape at a time. Bigger shapes are easier than small ones.
This is a fiddly process. Tweezers can be helpful.
4. When the paper is all gone, the lines can be further defined
and the shapes filled in.
I generally pause at this point.
In love with the simple dotted lines
it sometimes takes a day or two before I'm ready to 'color in' the shapes.
Once started though, it is hard to stop.
The colored stitching stays on one surface of the tapestry
though as you can see below, it shows through if I've not been super careful
Also note the slight drawing in of the tapestries where there is lots of embroidery on the other side.
I often get carried away with the pleasure of needle and yarn,
but find less is generally more to my liking.
In the image below, a few solid lines
and a little detached buttonhole stitch
was all that was required.
Some works want even less than that.
Despite the signs that said, "Here Be Sharks"
this project has been compelling and refreshing
-both the weaving and and the stitching-
but now I have to pause,
take stock of the 40+ little tapestries I've accumulated in the last months
and figure out how on earth I'm going to mount them (or at least some of them)
for my show in June.
Honestly, I have only the vaguest of ideas,
but, as ever, not knowing is the fun of it all.
Or it will be once I start messing around.
ps. Before I hit 'post', it suddenly seems like a good idea to mention a few favorite books about stitching-and people-who-embroider. There are, of course, myriad how-to stitching books out there, basic instructions and ways to think about stitching as an artist, but not so many that delve into the theory of embroidery.
Here are some links :
The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker
Celebrating The Stitch by Barbara Lee Smith
Hand Stitch Perspectives and Machine Stitch Perspectives
both by Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating
Also a monograph on the artist Audrey Walker that I think I got from the Selvedge magazine bookstore, but am not sure.
In making these links (and I apologize for using Amazon, but it is an easy way to get the information across) , I see that my copy of Subversive Stitch is out of date as it has been re-issued with new material, a new cover and a new high price. Also, Celebrating The Stitch can be had for one American Penny (plus shipping).
In going through my book collection, I found that I have more books on stitching than I have on tapestry weaving, but more catalogs of tapestry exhibitions. This probably just means that there ARE more books about stitching than tapestry, and more embroiderers than tapestry weavers. But does it also mean that there are more tapestry exhibitions?
What are your favorites? Do tell!!
A number of years ago, I inherited a suitcase full of linens from my Grandmother.
There were damask napkins and linen placemats, monogrammed hankies and cocktail napkins, all beautifully stitched, finished with needle lace, drawn thread embroidery, hem stitching and other techniques I don't know the names of (much less how they were done).
Unlike my Grandmother's silver, paintings and jewelry, these exquisite pieces of cloth were uncontested, my sister and I the only grandchildren to even notice them.
Simultaneously gleeful and mournful, we 'rescued' these gorgeous things from whatever fate might have had in store for them had we left them there.
My plan, at the time, was to use them as ground fabric for embroidery--
such lovely cloth (edges already finished), cried out for imagery.
Or so I thought.
But after one attempt, I found myself paralyzed.
I'd get something out, turn it this way and that,
imagine drawing with needle and yarn,
then put it away.
At first I thought it was because I wasn't all that interested,
stitching a short-lived distraction from tapestry with no staying power.
It turns out, however, that embroidery doesn't work like that for me.
Exquisite fabric demands perfect stitching,
or at least a plan, and my deliberately messy, spontaneous needlework is more at home on bits and scraps where I am free to change my mind -- about stitches, about yarn, about whatever it is that I have to say.
This is probably why I'm not a quilter.
Pristine yardage is lovely already and cutting it to bits only to sew it together again
makes my scissors shake.
Perhaps it is also why I am a weaver and knitter.
With those techniques I can build fabric the exact size I need for whatever I have in mind.
As, indeed, I can build an phrase out of scraps.
Sometimes I worry about the linens in the suitcase.
I don't, after all, want them to feel abandoned.
So now and again I heat up my iron and give them a little press with lots of steam,
admire their sheen and think of ways I might put them to work.
Then I roll them neatly (don't want permanent creases in the folds), and put them away.
One of these days perhaps I'll start eating my granola on one of the placemats,
accidentally slop some tea in one corner then wipe blackberry juice from my mouth with my great grandmother's monogram.
Loosen them up. Loosen me up.
Until then, I'll continue to delve into my scrap basket and see what shows up.
Faces have been making me crazy for decades
but I can't seem to stop working with them.
In the past, I've gone for extremes -- a portrait, or almost no features at all.
I am not, by nature, a portraitist so getting
three people 'right' in one tapestry was definitely cause for celebration.
Easier, by far, to skip the features,
especially in small work where less is often more,
though viewers are sometimes confused by this.
"Where is her face?" they ask.
"Sometimes," I reply, "a face distracts from the story."
At other times, emptyness is the point.
This enormous commission relied on specific faces and
I spent months worrying if I would get them right.
On my next body of work, it was a delight
to skip the heads entirely
As I write this and look at these images,
I realize that avoiding the trauma/ drama of getting faces 'right'
was a large factor in my decision to stop accepting commissions.
People wanted to be in their tapestries and they wanted to look like themselves.
Too much pressure for me.
Indeed, it was a tremendous relief to focus on my own ideas
and explore ways in which body posture could portray the mood of the moment,
Studying comics added a new dimension to my work
and I found that simplifying but not eliminating the features
allowed figures to be both general and specific.
And recently, this business of using embroidery on my tapestries
has made faces positively compelling.
With each one, I'm full of curiosity, impatient to see who will show up.
How is it that this work can keep grabbing me?
ps. NEXT WEEK is my stop on the ATA Blog Tour, so I will post a day later than usual, on Wednesday the 27th, as Wednesdays are blog tour days.
Be sure to stop by Elizabeth Buckley's tomorrow and see what she has to say
My life is terrific and given half a chance I could wax verbose about the amazingness of
food, friends, fire, family, a roof, ice cubes, music, warm clothing, ideas, you...
but I won't because I would get really sappy in short order
and nobody wants that.
And anyway, there are two things I'm particularly grateful for at this moment and I don't want to bore you before I get to them:
information and time.
It hasn't always been like that.
At least the time part.
In my early 20s when I was a caretaker on a ranch in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness,
I got up at 4 AM, even when we didn't have hunters, to spin yards of yarn before the other work began.
Clearing trails for the Forest Service a few years later, my pulaski, shovel, sleeping bag and freeze dried food shared backpack space with elaborate knitting projects. Every break meant I could take off my hard hat
for 15 heavenly minutes and give myself to hand spun wool, sweat smearing the graphite on my graph paper charts.
Neither job was particularly yarn friendly, (nor ice cube friendly but that is a subject for another day). But I had a prized copy of
Knitting Without Tears and from its pages understood that I had a right to my obsession with this work and these materials, and for that I am forever grateful.
Other life changing volumes have shown up over the decades,
some arriving unwanted and uninvited to rock my world.
I was embarrassed to check Understanding Comics out of the library when it leapt off the shelf into my hand. What would the librarians think of me? What would I think of myself?
Thanks to Scott McCloud, however, I think I'm the kind of person who reads, weaves, draws
and (apparently, though this is still too new to confirm), embroiders comics.
I'm only a little bit shy about it.
Other books awash in ideas have also insisted on being in my life,
though it turned out I couldn't read or learn from them
until I started to write the darned things myself.
Why, suddenly, was it imperative, that I spend a bazillion hours tap tap tapping at a keyboard, pouring over Strunk and White and other books on word smithing, only to discover that instead of publishing any of my novels in a conventional way, I must spend four more years weaving a teeny tiny part of one of them into 14 tapestries? Whose idea was that? And when did I agree that such a thing would be worth the time? Is chasing ideas as important as chasing elk out of a hay field?
I haven't the foggiest idea.
But since my job is to chase ideas
and I never know what an idea will demand,
it behooves me to give them some time at the start.
Some are seductive. Others scare the crap out of me.
The best ones usually are scary, or embarrassing, or both at once
and it is imperative to be polite, be they well-groomed or grubby,
essential to offer them tea and cookies if I have them,
and beyond important to not be irritated when the less cheerful ones refuse to go away.
One of the things that keeps my irritation in check ("no, I do not have time for you right now, thank you so much for coming by, but really...."), is the potential for learning tidbits of technique.
The thrill of exploring a new skill, or adding a twist to one I think I've already mastered,
of finding new books or blogs or websites,
of opening myself up to possibility
(including the possibly of being mediocre, or even pretty bad at whatever it is),
is beyond anything I can describe in words.
It's particularly great when it all turns out well.
It's particularly useful, when it doesn't.
Even if I am sure I won't use the information or idea for a while, if ever,
it pays to be polite and listen for as long as I can stand it.
A person just never knows when or how something that has been sitting around for ages,
or shows up out of the blue,
will be exactly what she wants.
All of which is a rather long-winded wind-up to an exciting and unexpected free Christmas present (complete with prizes), the thing I intended to talk about today:
The ATA Blog tour.
Janna Maria Vallee of Vancouver Yarn and chair of the upcoming American Tapestry Alliance's Tapestry Unlimited: International, Unjuried Small Format Exhibition
has created a blog tour with six instructors sharing tapestry techniques.
Click on the links above (or Vancouver Yarn link below) for more details and to see the fabulous promotional video.
The Blog Tour Line-Up
December 23rd: Vancouver Yarn
December 30th: Rebecca Mezoff
January 6th: Terry Olson
January 13th: Mirrix Looms
January 20th: Elizabeth Buckley
January 27th: Sarah Swett
I will be focusing on value in tapestry, a topic dear to my heart and of tremendous importance in most of my tapestry work to date, and though I haven't the least idea what I will actually say when the time comes, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share some stuff I've learned that might be of use to someone. And if, while talking about grey scales and such, I happen accidentally go on about the bliss of a tensioned loom, finger picking or wool warp, please know I can't help it.
You can sign up below to receive weekly updates on the tour
(this is separate from my mailing list)
Now, what is it I'm supposed to do with all these lovely little skeins?
Sarah C Swett