The American Tapestry Alliance recently put out a call for contributors for their next newsletter. The theme was New Faces in Tapestry, and the prompt was as follows:
In recent years, a type of weft-faced weaving that can often be broadly defined as tapestry has gained popularity. A new crop of artists are learning to weave and many are not following the path of tapestry weavers before them. Unconventional techniques, broken rules and modified terminology mark a new generation of weavers.
Are you a tapestry traditionalist? Do you cringe when you see a weft-faced weaver breaking the rules? Is it jarring to you to see tapestries that don’t fit the definition of tapestry you’ve always known?
Do you welcome this new kind of modern tapestry weaver and the innovation that they bring to the art form? Are you excited to see interest in tapestry weaving and excited to work together within a diverse community of weavers?
Are you a member of this new group of weavers? Do you feel like a part of the tapestry community? Is your ultimate weaving goal to learn traditional tapestry or do you want to be a part of a community creating their own version of this art form?
We want to hear from everyone. What do you see in tapestry weaving’s future?
Following is my response to the above. I hope to write a second blog expanding on some of the points I make here.
There are a few important things to understand in this discussion, but the first is this: Millenials live and die by the internet. We all have heard it before, but it is a key fact when we look at the new waves in the weaving world.
To be fair, every generation is increasingly turning to the web for learning and inspiration. This means that most new weavers’ journey starts out something like mine did. You start to notice a number of fuzzy, colorful wall-hangings on your Instagram, pinterest, and facebook. Perhaps you see them in a trendy boutique or restaurant as well. You’re not sure exactly how they’re made, or by whom—pinterest in particular separates images from their original sources—but you think they’re neat, you’re a fan of the neo-seventies aesthetic that is everywhere lately, and you know you could probably make one yourself.
Looking online, most of the free instructional content involves equipment you don’t have and terminology you don’t understand. At the library there are weaving books, but again, you see nothing like the fun, simple weaves from social media. Half the books are in black and white, which doesn’t help or appeal at all. Where are the frame loom books? What’s a ‘shed’? What do they mean, cloth weaving versus tapestry? I thought tapestry was just a general term for textile? What’s a ‘pass’?
Maybe you are aware that there are weaving classes out there. But if they are anything like those books at the library or those scattered online resources, you’re not sure you want to learn what they teach, or that you have enough background knowledge. Or money, or time.
For me, from 2014-2016, I got by with patchy knowledge from various sources, experimentation, and a lot of unanswered questions. I was at the right place at the right time to receive in-person recommendations from two weavers whose work I admired. Those two, Ama Wertz and Megan Shimek, (who I found through social media originally, I should add) both recommended I learn from Tricia Goldberg in Berkeley. Ama, whose weaving-related events I attended, helped me understand that it was tapestry weaving that I wanted to learn. I spent over a dozen days learning from Tricia, with weeks in between of practicing, and reading—it was the direct instruction I received that enabled me to find, select, and understand tapestry books, which has supported my continued learning ever since.
But what about everyone else, not fortunate enough to learn from Tricia or other master weavers, due to constraints of geography, time or money? A tremendous demand for accessible, google-able, level-zero weaving instruction developed, and now has been met with a few popular options. A handful of new-wave weavers, whose impeccable design and business sense have brought them tens of thousands of social media followers, have put out affordable video tutorials, to great success.
From here things get murky. We have, in 2018, a new generation of weavers who learned most of what they know from, essentially, a fellow beginner, in the true scheme of weaving skills. On the positive side, this has resulted in an impressive array of woven goods that show just how much one can do with a basic skill set. A strong sense of color and texture, and perhaps a tendency for tidiness (read: straight selvages), can produce enough attractive wall-hangings to fill a successful Etsy shop, to be sure. Yarn and looms and shuttles are being bought, and people are finding joy and satisfaction.
There are tensions, though. Some of the techniques and terms taught by the most visible new-wave weavers diverge from tradition. Some examples that have been discussed diplomatically in certain corners of the weaving internet include:
-Beating the weft only enough so that the wefts are atop one another but warps are still exposed
- A variety of time-saving finishing techniques, such as removing a weaving from the pegs of a frame loom, then spreading the wefts downward to sort of fill the space of the loops
-Weaving the main elements of a design first, leaving negative warp space throughout, and then filling in the background color last
-Creating eccentric weft by simply pushing the weft up to form the desired curve
I have also noticed a growing tendency to use the term “pass” to mean what is traditionally known as a half-pass.
I am of the opinion that some of these “wrongs” shouldn’t matter so much. Although the negative-warp space technique seems like it would be very frustrating and time-consuming, as it blocks the use of shed sticks or heddles, I have seen that it can still result in an even, tidy-looking final piece. Having “lice” doesn’t seem to be a concern for anyone not traditionally trained, and I myself can’t help thinking how I could be building my shapes up faster if I didn’t keep squishing them down. Once again, I have seen plenty of weavings with exposed warp that structurally seemed just fine.
What I don’t know is how many people’s weavings turned completely warped and wonky after cutting off, a devastating result after so many hours, due to unreliable techniques. I do occasionally see “fail” posts online, but I assume there are more out there than are posted. And the advice given in response is sometimes as problematic as what caused the issues in the first place. Or how many people tried to read a traditional tapestry book, but became utterly confused and gave up due to differing meanings from what they thought they understood.
The trend among this “new wave” is not one of rules being broken, but of not being known in the first place. It seems to me that there are two distinct bubbles in which a weaver can exist today, and neither bubble is fully aware of the existence and practices of the other. Of course, there is overlap between and among these two groups, and I consider myself lucky to truly have a foot on each side.
But the thing that perhaps negates the discussion entirely: From what I know, none of these “new wave” weavers ever claimed to be weaving tapestry, whether or not they know what it is. What I see emulated above all is the experimental fiber art of the seventies; Sheila Hicks is probably the best-known name, apart from the contemporary Instagram stars. I also see the word “fiber artist” as a self-identifier quite often, and many whose practice includes equal amounts of weaving, macramé, fiber sculpture, and other crafts.
Can we really scoff at “poor” or “improper” technique if the desired result isn’t the same as ours? The New Wave Weaver wanted some wall art, and s/he got it, and had fun in the process. If s/he isn’t ever going to do pictorial weaving, or kind of likes that wonky look, or isn’t trying to make an heirloom, perhaps we should celebrate the existence of a simplified, accessible mainstream version of weaving.
It is unfortunate for tradition to be lost, or perhaps eclipsed. It is truly unfortunate if this means the erasure of sacred cultural practices or the work of feminist activists in the art world—i.e., if when we think of weaving the picture does not include those who came before us. If we can keep all the different spheres of weaving alive, there should be room for one more.
My personal disclaimer: I have sought workarounds in my weavings; I have cheated, and I still do. Sometimes this teaches me why the traditional rules exist, while others it saves me time and turns out flawless. But overall, I abide by the rules I was taught. I make sure my warps are covered. I’m not a particularly rebellious person.