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Episode 141: Teaching and Designing Tapestry Weaving with Tommye Scanlin

In this week's episode, Sarah speaks with Tommye Scanlin. Tommye is a well-known tapestry weaver, tapestry teacher, and the author of The Nature of Things: Essays of a Tapestry Weaver, as well as her newest book, Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond. In their conversation, Tommye talks about how she began teaching weaving, and what inspired her to write her latest book.

Tommye Scanlin's Website

Tommye Scanlin's Blog

Tommye Scanlin's Publications




Five Leaves for Miss Lillian
Oak Leaves


Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.

LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.

Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, Gist Yarn & Fiber. Welcome to the 141st episode of the Weave Podcast. Sarah here, back one more time in the host seat, this time for a conversation with Tommye Scanlin. Tommye is a well-known tapestry weaver, tapestry teacher, and author of books about tapestry weaving, including The Nature of Things: Essays of a Tapestry Weaver, and her newest book, Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond. In this conversation, we will discuss how Tommye came to weaving and to teaching, and her inspiration behind writing her latest book about designing tapestries.

Hi, Tommye. I am so excited to have you on the podcast today. Welcome.

Tommye Scanlin: Thank you, Sarah. I am very glad to be here.

Sarah Resnick: Can you start out by introducing yourself and sharing how you found your way to weaving?

Tommye Scanlin: Sure. I am Tommye Scanlin, Tommye McClure Scanlin, and I’m from… I live in Dahlonega, Georgia. Dahlonega is north of Atlanta about 60 miles. It’s in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. A lot of people who think about Georgia think about the coast, maybe around Savannah, or the flat piney area in the central part of the state, but the northern part of the state is mountainous and just beautiful, so this is where I’ve lived most of my life, in the mountains of north Georgia. I grew up just about 40 miles further north of here, closer to North Carolina, the western North Carolina area.

Sarah Resnick: And when did you find your way to weaving?

Tommye Scanlin: I started weaving when I was teaching in public school in Gainesville, Georgia, in the late 1960s. That ages me, doesn’t it? I graduated from college with an art education degree in 1969 and began teaching that fall after I graduated at high school in Gainesville, and one of the things my supervising teacher wanted me to do was to teach a weaving unit with my students, and I… The only weaving I’d done before that was potholder looms, like most kids do when they’re young, and so I didn’t know anything about it, but she had shown me about little cardboard weaving, where you weave pouches by clipping notches at the bottom and the top, and then putting a warp on both sides and weaving all the way around.

So, I’d done that already, and then used a book about off-loom weaving to get some ideas about how you build a frame loom. Just a simple frame loom that you put nails at the top and bottom and put thread on then. So, that’s how I began weaving, was because I needed to teach about weaving, and all through my weaving life, a lot of what I have learned myself has come because I wanted to teach somebody else about it. So, yeah, I started weaving just with simple frame looms as me and my students were figuring it out together.

Sarah Resnick: That’s such an interesting way of coming to weaving. I’ve talked to a lot of people about their origins and weaving and I don’t think I’ve heard that many times, that it’s through wanting to teach. What was it that made you start also doing it in your personal time, and at home, and really take to weaving and tapestry weaving?

Tommye Scanlin: That’s a wonderful question because my earlier life in artmaking had been with drawing and painting and image making on paper, either drawing or painting, like I said, but also printmaking. But when I got to the weaving side of the world, I fell in love with the process. Just the… There’s a difference in the activity, I think, of the brain, when your hands are engaged in process a little bit more than with making marks on paper or strokes of the brush on paper. Now, I know there may be some people who work with drawing and painting who would argue with me about that, but the activity of making the object as well as making the image at the same time was what began to hook me into weaving.

And I did do a lot of other kinds of weaving before I came to tapestry, so process as well as end product began to appeal to me pretty early on.

Sarah Resnick: Do you still do other types of weaving, or do you mostly stick with tapestry now?

Tommye Scanlin: For most of my work, I stick with tapestry. I do have a floor loom, a Macomber floor loom with eight shafts, and about once or twice a year I try to weave on that. I call the weaving on my floor loom my hobby weaving because I usually am weaving… Oh, hand towels, or scarves, things that I can give away. I enjoy the planning and the process of that kind of weaving, as well, but for me it’s a different… It touches a different part of my brain, I guess, and my thought process when I do that weaving as opposed to the tapestry weaving that I usually engage in every day.

Sarah Resnick: And what kind of tapestry materials and yarn and looms do you like to work with?

Tommye Scanlin: I like to work with upright floor looms, or upright tapestry looms, rather than horizontal floor looms, although a number of tapestry artists do work with horizontal looms. And in the traditional […. style], but also some people are working with MACOMBER looms, or Gilmore looms to do their tapestry work, and other looms, too. I’m sure.

But I like to see the image in front of me in a vertical position in the high warp or the upright warp on my tapestry looms, and I’ve got several looms. I have… I don’t think any looms that are any looms new to me other than looms that I’ve built myself out of either copper pipe or galvanized pipe, the smaller frame looms that I build. But it’s… Yeah, those. And I don’t think any of the… Yeah, I’m looking around. None of the looms that I currently have, my upright tapestry looms, none of those are currently being manufactured. Yeah. It’s a shame.

Sarah Resnick: Yeah. What kind of materials and fibers do you like to work with?

Tommye Scanlin: With my tapestry, I often use cotton seine twine for the warp. I have two or three sizes that I typically use. Most of the time, my sets for my tapestries are either eight ends per inch, and for that I frequently use a 12-9 or 12-12 cotton seine twine. I use six ends per inch frequently on my wider loom that weaves up to 60 inches wide, and for that, I usually use a 12-15 or a 12-18 seine twine.

Some tapestry weavers work beautifully with very small threads. Kathe Todd-Hooker, especially, is one who uses 24 to maybe even 30 threads per inch for her very wonderfully intricate tapestries. I have a bit of arthritis in my hands, so using my fingers to manipulate anything any smaller than the scale that I work with is a little bit… I mean, I can do it, but it’s a little bit painful after a while with the way that I use my fingers. And also, I can see something slightly larger a little bit more easily. So, yeah, so cotton seine twine for warp.

For weft, I frequently use wool. I have two or three kinds of wools that I really like a lot, and I’m hoping that there will be a nice tapestry yarn coming from Gist Yarns soon that I’m gonna like a lot. I’ve got some samples here that I’m gonna try. That’s my next goal on my small pipe loom, my galvanized pipe loom, is to give those sample yarns a good workout. They look great, so I think they’re gonna weave up really well.

Sarah Resnick: Yes. We are quite excited about it. We’re launching our new tapestry yarn later this summer. We’re recording right now in July of 2021, and it’s been in the works for quite a while, and I’m just so excited to start seeing tapestry weavers playing with it and making pieces with it, so-

Tommye Scanlin: Right. Yeah. It’s a great size. In my own work, I like to bundle up yarns and use several strands together, so even for the eight ends per inch that I work with, I like to have more than one weft yarn that I’m using. It just gives me a better range of color control. So, I was excited to see the size of the yarn that you’re gonna be making available.

Sarah Resnick: Yes. Yeah, we made it designed to be bundled. So, you recently published two books, and I’m wondering if you could tell us first about the first one, which is The Nature of Things: Essays of a Tapestry Weaver, and what inspired you to write this book?

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. I started thinking about doing this book probably in about 2017. I had the fortunate experience to teach at Spring Concentration at Penland School of Craft along with Bhakti Ziek. You know Bhakti, I know. Bhakti and I taught together at Concentration, an eight-week session, and during that time she and I both at two separate occasions had invitations to speak to a textiles group in Asheville, North Carolina. So, when I was preparing my own presentation for that, I finally wrote down my talk for my PowerPoint. First time I’ve ever done that in the times that I’ve done presentations about my work over the past number of years. I usually just talk about it, because it’s my work and I knew what I did when I did it, but for that presentation I felt like I needed to have my thoughts a little bit more organized.

So, I wrote that out, and in doing that, I realized that I probably could tackle some of those thoughts that I was having sort of in a more brief way in that presentation and explain both to myself and maybe other people a bit more about my motivation and my inspirations for making the tapestries that I do. I did call it The Nature of Things because in the last decade at least, and slightly longer than that, but I can identify in the last decade my imagery for tapestry has really been focused on the world in which I live. This natural environment of the north Georgia, western North Carolina mountains, the foothills of the southern Appalachians.

So, that’s how that began. I started with thinking I’d like to write a little bit more in depth. I got in touch with some author friends who I’ve made over the years to ask for their advice and with working through their suggestions, I began to write, and it seemed as I started writing I should probably focus on topics that I… or themes, or whatever you would want to call it, types of subjects that I’ve done in several iterations, like stones, or leaves, or feathers, or whatnot.

So, that began that way. I just started writing. One of the author friends whose advice I asked for is Nancy Peacock, a wonderful fiction writer, and she said, “Think about what your overarching theme is.” And I thought, “Well, that is this whole idea about why I’m working with the natural world and the inspirations that I’m finding there.” So, her advice and her feedback was really important to me as I got started.

Sarah Resnick: Did you find as you were writing that book that it impacted what you decided to weave? Like did really deeply thinking that through and writing about it change your artwork?

Tommye Scanlin: You know, I’m not sure if it did. I think that it may have made the thinking about particular subjects a little bit more focused on how I would describe later to someone who might be seeing the work something about what I was being inspired by. So, it might have, and that’s really an interesting question that you’ve asked because I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it very well might have engaged my mind with those subjects in a bit of a different way than before.

Sarah Resnick: And I was really excited last week to receive a copy of your newest book, which is called Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond: Planning and Weaving with Confidence, and it’s a bit… It’s like a long book. It’s a really in-depth resource that introduces tapestry weavers to tools and concepts about tapestry design and leads people through workshops about it, and I’m curious why you decided to write this book and who you wrote it for.

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. It was written for my students. Although I’ve dedicated it to my husband and my mother, who’s no longer living, it really was written for my students because it wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the students I’ve taught through the years. And in doing not only my classes when I was at the university, but also the workshops and short classes that I’ve done since I left my university job, developing handouts to use in those classes and trying to make my ideas as clear as I could, getting feedback from students about things they didn’t quite understand, or I wasn’t making clear enough in my written word to them, and also my class instruction, that’s how it started was I had put a lot of time into developing handouts. Every time I’d teach even the same topic somewhere else, I’d revise what I’d written before.

And at first, I was giving my PDFs of those away after I had decided I wouldn’t teach quite as much, and I then thought I’ve worked a lot on getting these materials together. Maybe I’ll contact a publisher and see if there would be some interest in having a book developed from those. So, I was lucky that Schiffer Publishing was interested in that and that’s how that started.

I’ve said elsewhere that I kind of thought this would be just a revision of my handouts and that would be pretty much it. Well, I got a… Right away, I realized no, that’s not gonna turn out just to be an easy task. So, I revised everything that I had done and added a lot of additional information that I thought would be pertinent to somebody who might be thinking about using this book as a resource, and that’s what I would hope it would be, would be a resource.

I also was able to… Through my involvement with tapestry, I know a lot of tapestry artists around the country and a few elsewhere in the world, so I wanted to use examples of wonderful tapestries that showed how the elements and the principles of art and design are applicable in the tapestry medium, so I contacted a number of people about using their work as examples. And everyone I contacted was so gracious to allow me to use their work, and I really wish I could have included just many, many more people than I did, but it was… I think that makes the book really the best. I think that’s the best feature of the book, really, is the examples from the artists who were allowing me to use their work in the book.

And it is a focus on elements and principles of art and design. And then how one working in the tapestry medium could interpret it with the processes that you know about tapestry. But at the same time, I would think that maybe somebody working with art quilt, or rug hooking, or any other fiber medium might find some of the ideas about the elements and principles to be of interest to them, too.

Sarah Resnick: Yeah. So, beginner tapestry weavers are, as you know very well, I’m sure, working hard to master the techniques of weaving, but also learning the right ways to think about designing pieces that express what they want to express. And I’m curious what you find design wise that beginner tapestry weavers struggle with most and what advice you give them.

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. I think from what I’ve seen in my own workshops, I think that beginners struggle most with the image that they want to make. Not necessarily finding what image they want to make. They may come with some idea in mind that they want to weave. This flower, or this landscape that has this house and this garden in it. And they have not yet gotten to the point, perhaps, that they can analyze how many warp threads is it gonna take to weave the smallest thing, the smallest image that I’ve got in my design, and will my design adapt to the constraints of the medium, which is a grid? And if you’re making something curving, it’s actually gonna be created by making a series of stair steps that move away, and then other yarn move against those stair steps, so getting your mind wrapped around, “Oh, this picture of this sunflower that I want to do on a four-inch-wide warp really isn’t gonna work quite as successfully because I’m using a wider set or I just don’t have enough warp threads to make the succession of stair steps that I would need to make that curving of the petal look convincing to oneself.”

So, having experience with doing sampling of basic things, like making shapes move diagonally, or making shapes move in a more curving kind of way, even though that might seem a little bit or maybe a lot boring, I think it’s a good idea if you’re mindfully doing it to do that kind of exercise, even if you haven’t been to a workshop, to maybe set yourself up a goal of let me try different angles. How would I step back each time? How many warps would I leave before I turn and make my turnaround to make a particular kind of angle? How would I weave a 45-degree angle? How would I weave one that was lower than that or steeper than that?

So, when I was studying with Archie Brennan, one of the exercises in a basic class he taught was to weave a curving shape, and he made a point when he gave us a diagram of the curving shape that this is not a circle. Sometimes people come to tapestry thinking, “I want to weave a circle.” Circular forms are a challenge to weave, but his point was understand what you need to do as you turn your wefts and go back the other direction to make a convincing curve, and then once you understand that, then you can begin to work with other imagery, like a circle let’s say, if you did for some reason want to weave a circle.

So, that’s a long answer, Sarah, to say it sort of depends, but I think the biggest challenge is that people maybe jump in with images that they haven’t yet fully understood the limits of the technique.

Sarah Resnick: As a beginner tapestry weaver myself, that resonates with me a lot, as I have been trying to figure out how to weave different kinds of images, so that makes sense that that’s what other people struggle with.

Tommye Scanlin: Right. And you know, zooming in, enlarging, weaving a portion of, rather than trying to fit the whole sunflower in. I’m picking on poor sunflowers here, but until you… and you really do, just as you know, with any skill you have to do it a lot to feel that it flows from your hands in a way that you’re not constantly thinking through every motion that you’re doing, every part of that. So, sometimes one sets oneself up to be discouraged by making those images too complex too soon, and not understanding that you do have limits with tapestry. It’s really wide open in the ways that you can make images, but you do have limits, so once you make friends with those limits and say, “Okay, limits. What can you and I do together?” Rather than saying, “I’m gonna conquer this no matter what.” Then I think you’re on the road to becoming a real… a tapestry artist who can weave anything she wants to, or he wants to.

Sarah Resnick: That’s a really good-

Tommye Scanlin: And I’m still struggling. Go ahead, I’m interrupting there.

Sarah Resnick: No. I mean, that’s a really good point. It’s actually what it makes me want to ask you next of what are the limits that you most appreciate about tapestry weaving and what are the limits that you still struggle with the most yourself?

Tommye Scanlin: I struggle every day I sit down to weave tapestry, Sarah. I really do. The limits are exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve got a shape that I want to put within this number of warp threads, and I know that I’m gonna have to compromise with the edge of the shape in some way, so what’s the best compromise that I can make to make the shape pleasing to my eye and also to allow the shape to settle right into the warp set that I’ve got and the wefts that I’m using with it. So, I don’t take out a lot of what I put into the weaving, but I do sometimes do that. If I’m not happy with what’s happening with a little area, I will take it out. But that’s another issue that sometimes I think that people maybe are too hard on themselves about. I’ve heard people say, “I’m such a perfectionist. I really rip it out and put it back in, and rip it out, and put it back in.” Well, I don’t think that you should… I don’t think that anyone ought to beat themselves over making every part of it exactly as perfect as they could ever possibly make it.

I think you get locked into some frustration by doing it that way. I have this little saying I use that’s practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes better. So, the more you weave, the better you’ll get. The better you get, the easier whatever challenges you have are going to become.

Sarah Resnick: Yeah. It’s definitely true. So, you have a lot of experience teaching people who are new to tapestry weaving and I’m curious what resources you recommend for people to start with who don’t have access to a local tapestry weaving teacher in their area? And also, what kind of equipment or homemade equipment and materials you recommend they start with?

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. There are several good, good books about tapestry weaving. The newest one is Rebecca Mezoff’s book, The Art of Tapestry Weaving, and it’s available through Story Publishing and other booksellers. Her book was published last year, in 2020, and it’s just a great resource. Rebecca also has online classes and she’s been doing those for a number of years now, and those are quite good, as well. There are other books. Joanne Soroka’s book about tapestry weaving is quite good. I don’t have it sitting right here beside me, so I can’t tell you the title right off hand, but also Kathe Todd-Hooker has several books. Her Tapestry 101 book is full of technique, technical information, good diagrams, and that’s another good book. Carol Russell, a number of years ago published a book, The Tapestry Handbook, and then it was redone several years later. That’s a great instruction book, as well.

Online, like I said, Rebecca Mezoff has online classes. Kennita Tully is beginning to do some online classes about design. I’m not sure if those are up and available yet. I have not checked out any YouTube things about learning about tapestry, so I can’t say how those are. I know there’s a lot of stuff out there.

As far as equipment goes, you can easily build yourself a small frame loom with galvanized pipe, and you could use copper pipe, as Archie Brennan’s pipe loom instructions show. Archie Brennan is no longer living, but his pipe loom diagrams and instructions for building those are both on the American Tapestry Alliance website, and also on the website that’s still Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei. I believe that’s true. If you did an online search, Archie Brennan pipe loom, it would take you to wherever you could find the diagrams for that.

A number of years ago, Sarah Swett did a great blog article or blog post about her galvanized pipe looms, and it’s… Her blog is called A Field Guide to Needlework, so if you looked, did a search for Sarah Swett and galvanized pipe looms, you would come across that pretty quickly.

On the market, as far as buying a loom, Mirrix Looms has looms of all sizes. There are I think a couple of smaller looms through Glimakra, and then Schacht has their new Arras Tapestry Loom that’s available. That’s a table-top loom. I haven’t used one yet. I’m interested to see it in person, but I think Rebecca Mezoff has one and has been using it and maybe making some comments about it at her blog. So, those are a few of the resources that I can think of just quickly that would get a beginner started.

Sarah Resnick: And where can people go to learn more about you and your work and to order your books?

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. My book, the Tapestry Design Basics and Beyond is available through Schiffer Publishing and through other booksellers. I’ve heard through word of mouth that maybe The Woolery has it. I think possibly Mirrix Looms has it available. I don’t know about any of the other yarn stores, but I think that they could probably order it for you. The craft store at John C. Campbell Folk School has both of my books available at The Craft Store for walk-in purchase, but you could also get in touch with the John C. Campbell Folk School craft shop to order one and it could be sent to you. Other booksellers online have the book available, as well. And both of them. The Nature of Things was published by the University of North Georgia Press, but it’s available through other booksellers.

Sarah Resnick: Well, Tommye, I really appreciate you taking the time to write these books and to share about them and talk about them to me today. I’m wondering before we finish this conversation if you have any more closing advice or words of wisdom that you would want to share with weavers out there.

Tommye Scanlin: Yeah. Weave every darn day. Learning to weave tapestry can’t be done in your mind only. Your mind helps, but it is a process that engages your eyes, and your thinking, and your hands, so the more you weave, the better you’ll get. The more you weave, the more ideas will come to you. So, weave every darn day. Don’t get discouraged. Keep it up. Do it a lot. That’s my advice.

Sarah Resnick: That is great advice and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Tommye Scanlin: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.

Sarah Resnick: That’s a wrap. To see photos of Tommye’s work, a link to her website, and links to her books, please visit www.gistyarn.com/episode-141. That’s G-I-S-T-Y-A-R-N.com/episode-141. Thank you so much for tuning into the Weave Podcast. We will have another episode for you in a few weeks. And until next time, happy weaving!

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