I think weaving is a marvelous process. Take some thread and stretch strands of it side by side on something as basic as two sticks held under tension, then interweave other thread into those stretched strands, over and under, over and under…what could be simpler? That’s one of the amazing things about weaving. It can be just that easy. And it can also be incredibly complex when the weaver or the tools or both combine to make it so.
My love for weaving has led me in many directions over the years—and when handwoven tapestry captured my attention, I was hooked. I just love the surface of weft-faced tapestries in which images of all kinds, from very pictorial to abstract and non-objective, can be created.
In tapestry weaving the weft takes the starring role and the warp plays a behind-the-scenes supporting part. Tapestry techniques are pretty basic since most are done in weft-faced, plain weave structure.
A detail of tapestry process with Array weft in bundles of five strands, weaving into an 8 epi warp of #12 cotton seine twine. The cartoon is drawn on tracing paper and the outlines of the basic shapes are seen behind the warp threads.
For my tapestries, I've chosen a few yarns I particularly like to use as weft. Those have become my "anchor" weft choices. (Rebecca Mezoff gives this very helpful term to a yarn you know well. She suggests that beginners consider using a kind of yarn for a while to become familiar with it so you'll know what to expect when weaving with it.)
When Gist introduced Array as an option for tapestry I wanted to explore its possibilities to see if it might also become one of my preferences. Array is a 2/12 worsted spun wool yarn, made from primarily Corriedale and Columbia sheep raised in the United States, and spun and dyed in North Carolina. It is 2-ply, thin (3,360 yards per lb), and hardy.
I decided to test it by weaving several samples and a couple of small tapestries and as I began, I had a few questions:
Sampling with the #12 cotton seine twine at 8 epi on my Saffron loom.
I set up my Saffron loom for sampling, using the Maurice Brassard & Fils #12 seine twine from Gist. I wasn't familiar with this warp and I was curious how it would function in the tight tension of tapestry. I learned that #12 from this manufacturer is a 4/12/2 (four strands of size 12 cotton spun as two-ply, giving 1,260 yards per lb.). The typical cotton seine twine I've used has several strands of size 12 cotton tightly spun together: 12/6, 12/9, 12/12, etc. The #12 Brassard seine twine has two groups of four twisted strands that are plied into a tightly spun 2-ply twine. This makes the texture slightly different from the other seine twine I’m accustomed to. The #12 is also just little bit smaller in diameter than 12/9 that has 1,120 yards per lb. but it didn’t appear to have enough difference to matter, in my estimation.
I often use 8 epi for my tapestries with either 12/9 or 12/12 warp. Why not pick just one size of warp to use at a chosen sett? Well, it depends. Sometimes I want a bit more space between the warps to either increase the number of strands in a weft bundle or to accommodate the size of a weft if it's larger. Or I might want to have the warp rib show up more dominantly and a larger diameter warp will give that. It’s hard to have a definitive answer for warp choice because so also much depends on the weft--density, softness, tightness of spin, as well as its size.
The sett I select is also influenced by what I’m going to weave since the amount of detail in the image will dictate some of my decision. Archie Brennan wrote a wonderful article about why one might choose either wider or narrower warp sett and it can be found at the American Tapestry Alliance website. Archie describes how to determine a "classic" sett with a warp not used before and I referred to Archie’s article a lot when I was beginning to weave tapestry. In his method, one wraps a warp around a ruler within one centimeter spacing, placing the wraps closely together. Count the resulting wraps and use that number as the ends per inch.
Using Archie Brennan’s suggestion for determining ends per inch by wrapping around a ruler within a centimeter space.
Although the color card of Array suggests using a triple strand of weft for an 8-epi warp for tapestry, I like a bead that’s rounded rather than flat. ("Bead" is the term for the way the weft interacts with the warp when it covers a single warp. The bead can be flat or more rounded—I happen to like a more rounded bead.)
First, I tried the suggested triple strand for 8 epi and saw right away it wasn’t what I wanted. Since Array is similar in size to another weft I’ve used at 4 or 5 strands per bundle for 8 epi, I also tried those groups. Five strands in each weft bundle worked great at this sett with the #12 seine twine because it allowed for more color blending options and also gave the nice, rounded bead I was looking for in surface.
Trying different numbers of weft strands: bottom is three strands, middle is four strands, and top is five strands. I used white for this sampling to be able to see the effect of the bead of the weave best.
My subject for the tapestry was a flower and surrounding foliage so I ordered all four of the values of two of the green hues: Meadow and Forest. I added one tube of Lime for a bit of bright surprise in the greens. The flower was red-violet and for it I wanted four values of Eggplant, three different Violets, and two values of Burgundy. There was a small area of yellow in my subject so three versions of yellows were selected: Marigold in two values, and one value each of Daffodil and Cinnamon.
Designing from kudzu flower drawings and photos while comparing to the yarn choices.
For a couple of the samples, I set up a 1.5" warp and used about 12" length of the weft strands; that was enough to give five picks before changing to the next combination. I left a length of each blend at the side so I could use it as easy reference.
I used 12” lengths for the five strands in the color gradations. To speed up the process I measured each gradation combination and taped the little bundles to the worktable.
I wanted to have a value transition in progressive order for each color, either from darkest to lightest or in reverse. For instance, using Meadow green I began with five strands of darkest value; next came four of darkest and one of the next lighter value in a weft bundle; then three darkest and two lighter; two and three; one and four; to finally five strands of the lighter value of the hue. Then I worked through the next pair in the value range in combination. Blending four values this way gave sixteen color options—four that are the solid hue for each value and twelve blends.
Value gradations for Meadow (bottom right), Forest (top right), Eggplant (bottom left), and Violet (top left). There were four values of each hue except for Violet—only three in that gradation.
After sampling with all of the available hues in several ways, I began working on the cartoon. For the design I used a painting based on a photo I’d taken last fall of a single kudzu flower. These reddish-purple flowers hang within the green, leafy masses of the kudzu vines and are quite small and sometimes hard to spot. There's a small touch of yellow in the interior of the larger petals.
All of the sampling with yarns before weaving the tapestries gave me lots of information about the way I could mix the colors I wanted for the designs.
As I looked at the initial design I knew that the almost vertical thin vine on which the flower grew was an important element of the image. Because it would be easier to weave the vine more smoothly in the horizontal direction I decided to turn the image 90˚ on the warp. I simplified the cartoon while drawing it to be sure shapes were large enough to adapt to the warp sett but small enough to give some detail. I used tracing paper over the image to draw the basic outlines for the cartoon. This was placed behind the warp as my guide while weaving.
The cartoon was a line drawing done on tracing paper.
I set up a larger loom for the tapestry using the #12 seine twine at 8 epi, with an 8" wide warp. After weaving a small hem I stitched the cartoon to the tapestry using a curved needle and regular sewing thread. To do that, I made large running stitches through the face of the tapestry and into the cartoon paper, then back to the face for the next stitch. I re-stitched frequently to keep the cartoon close to the warp threads making it easier to follow the design. You could also hold the cartoon in place with several small magnets used in pairs, one of each pair at the front on the tapestry face and the other of the pair behind the cartoon.
The first tapestry as it was underway—the studio was quite chaotic at times!
The warp was long enough so I could weave another small tapestry above the first. I didn't prepare a cartoon for the second one but instead developed the design as the weaving progressed.
Second tapestry in progress—I didn’t have a preliminary cartoon for this one but worked more abstractly using colors from the photo reference I put nearby.
For it, I used one of the photos I'd taken of kudzu and its flowers as the inspiration for placement of colors, with small diamond shapes suggesting many small flowers peeking from the green leaves.
The photo of a mass of hanging kudzu for inspiration.
For the first tapestry I planned a hem at bottom and top to turn back when finishing. On the second piece I used a braided edge that put warps to the back after braiding. (You can find an example of this end finish in Rebecca Mezoff's book, The Art of Tapestry Weaving,pages 270-271.)
The tapestry with the single flower will be my entry to the upcoming American Tapestry Alliance un-juried small format exhibit “Tiny but Mighty” to be held at The Emporium Gallery in Knoxville during Convergence this summer. Requirements for that exhibit are that the tapestry must not be framed or mounted, but I wanted to cover the weft tails on the reverse so I stitched on a fabric backing.
Hems are turned back and basted down before stitching. I’ve trimmed the weft ends to about ½” at the back.
The warp ends of the second tapestry were braided so they lay toward the back. They were trimmed off and the tapestry will be mounted on a fabric-covered board.
I used a piece of cotton flannel to line the back of the kudzu flower tapestry, making it just slightly smaller than the tapestry and hand stitching it in place.
After a month of exploration with Array wool and the #12 cotton seine twine I can say that I like both quite a lot! The size of the Array is such that I can bundle as many as 5 strands together with 8 epi to give the blending of color that I like. A nice feature of the yarn is the variety of values available for each hue. As I mentioned there are several other brands of wool wefts I’ve used for years and regard those as anchor yarns in my tapestry palette. Now that I’ve given Array a workout with several samples and two small tapestries I can confidently add it as one more “go to” yarn for weft choice. Now I want see how Array will combine with the other yarns I typically use. I'll also soon warp up the #12 cotton seine twine at 10 epi to give that a test with either three or four strands in the weft bundle. Then, why not try Array with the other warps I’m accustomed to? So much to explore with these new resources! As far as tapestry design goes, will there be more kudzu flowers in the future as I continue to discover what these yarns and I can do together? Maybe!
Tommye Scanlin has been weaving and exhibiting tapestries for over thirty years. Tommye has taught many workshops in tapestry techniques and design at Arrowmont, John C. Campbell Folk School, and Penland. Her books, The Nature of Things: Essays of a Tapestry Weaver and Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond: Planning and Weaving with Confidence are available through most booksellers. Please visit her online at https://scanlintapestry.com or https://tapestry13.blogspot.com