Susan Iverson was in Fort Collins this week to do a couple lectures in conjunction with the show FABRICation which is traveling from Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU is the school where Susan was a professor in the School of Arts, Craft and Material Studies department until her recent retirement.
Susan's practice of tapestry weaving has many similarities to my own. We both weave on floor looms. We both value abstraction and weaving tapestry that relates to the gridded nature of the medium. And there is a deep sensibility from her around materials. She likes a firm wool weft and she uses one strand at a time instead of weft bundling. Her forms are graphic and solid in color and I don't think she has any need for weft bundling! She loves a linen warp and sometimes uses it for weft also.
So it was wonderful to be able to hear her speak and have a dialogue about tapestry weaving while looking at textile examples and her work.
She started her Friday talk saying that in tapestry weaving "you only ever have two choices." The structure is over, under, over, under. It is such a simple structure, yet so versatile. But, as Susan emphasized, it is very hard to weave a good tapestry.
She talked some about Peruvian influences for her work and we looked at a couple examples from the Avenir Museum's collection. She used these examples to talk about world-wide weaving influences, the different ways patterned weaving is done, and to emphasize the long span of time over which humans have been making textiles filled with pattern and form.
The work is done using spacers in the weaving. The spacers leave open warp as she weaves and then once the piece is off the loom, she pulls the warp to bring the weaving together and create a shape.
These two images are directly from Susan's Instagram account. Please look at her work there and follow her. In this image you can see the protrusions coming up from the weaving during the process of pulling the warps (I believe in this piece those were eventually pushed backwards). In the second photo she is weaving with the spacers in place.
I love talking to tapestry weavers who dye their own yarn. Susan uses wool weft and a linen warp. She uses a dark colored linen to hid the places a warp might show at the hems and in the finishing. I've never seen a piece by Susan Iverson where there was even a hint of warp showing through anywhere. Her technique is too perfect. But I found it interesting that using a dark warp was still a precaution she took.
She uses both acid wool dyes (Lanaset) and Procion MX dyes (for silk and linen) for her materials. I will admit that it was awfully nice to find yet another professional weaver who has made similar choices in materials and dyes. Lightfastness is important in tapestry and these dyes are the best made for our materials.
She also does some painting of yarn. I was interested to hear this considering my own forays into this method of dyeing.
Making decisions at the loom
This particular discussion was one of the most salient for me. She was talking about cartoons and how she uses them. For Susan, the cartoon is a reference. She does have a cartoon pinned to her weaving, though it falls away and she has to pull it up to compare it to her work (due to using a floor loom with the beater bar). Susan was talking about something I believe strongly myself: the cartoon is a reference. I see weavers often using cartoons as a sort of paint-by-number guide for their work. I do actually mark on my warps, but marks move as you weave. My cotton warps stretch quite a lot depending on how tight I have the loom and what the humidity is (or how long I've let it sit before weaving). The marks are a reference only. What is important is learning to see and not blindly following marks on the warp or even a cartoon attached behind.
Susan didn't put it quite that way, but I think that is what she was getting at. As an artist in a medium that is so gridded, you have to learn to look at what you're doing. You learn to know how much a shape will pack down with a particular yarn and how much yarn is needed to make it become the shape you want when everything is finished. This will definitely mean that often marks on the warp are not in the correct place to make a curve go the way you want or make a form as tall as it needs to be as you weave more on top of it and it packs in.
Decisions at the loom come from experience and from really looking at what you're doing, not blindly following a cartoon.
The show, FABRICations
I will be returning to the gallery to get a look at the show in a quieter environment, but here are a few photos of Susan's work.
The Surface, to the left in the photograph below, is about the pond near her home in rural Virginia. She says she has a love-hate relationship with it depending on the time of year.
Susan spoke of the piece below, Beyond, having a lot of human emotion and being about things "beyond where I'm going." She said that she likes this piece because of the power. The red is aggressive and confrontational.
I do apologize at the poor quality of these images. A phone in a dark gallery without tripod is not the best way to get a good shot. Please see the catalog for better images!
The catalog for FABRICation can be viewed and purchased via Blurb here: http://www.blurb.com/b/5592092-fabrication. There is a thought-provoking essay by Jessica Hemmings in the catalog and all of the work included is worth exploring.
A few delightful nuggets from the talk:
Susan's selvedges are perfect. We both weave on floor looms and use the beater on the loom frequently. This absolutely helps keep straight selvedges, not so much because it controls the warp width, but because it is an immediate visual cue if you're drawing in or pushing out. If the warps are centered in the middle of each reed dent, I know that my selvedges are straight and the piece will remain the same width. The reed doesn't lie.
I often get questions about blocking tapestries and apparently Susan does also. She says:
There are many ways people weave tapestries on many kinds of looms. Some of them are not as friendly in terms of creating an even textile as a good floor loom and so I can imagine that there might be times when people want to fix wobbly selvedges and the like when the piece is off the loom. But Susan has an excellent point. If you keep working to perfect your skills, the piece will not need any modification when off the loom. Modified or blocked pieces will return to their initial form eventually with changes in humidity or if they get wet. As Susan went on to say, don't necessarily think you can fix it later! Do it right from the beginning.
Buy good materials. The definition of "good" is varies for each person, but I agree with Susan that trying to learn tapestry with poor yarns is a losing proposition.