Jean Pierre Larochette

Why would you weave a tapestry from the back?

"Really? You weave your tapestries from the back? How do you know what it looks like?"

I get this question a lot when students come to one of my classes for the first time. I try to let them know ahead of time, but many miss the message. I let them weave from the front. I even teach them how to do it. But I continue to make my work woven from the back.

If that isn't bad enough, I also use a low-warp loom. Yes. I weave my tapestries on a horizontal loom with treadles. And it even has a beater. And I use it. I know. Crazy.

For those of you who don't understand, I can only list the reasons why... and then shrug a little and tell you that this is how I learned.

Let me give you a few reasons why you might want to try it.

1.  For the first I'll defer to a true master. When reading Jean Pierre Larochette's new book The Tree of Lives recently (see excerpts in this post), I came across this passage. Given the well-deserved reverence for the name Jean Pierre Larochette in tapestry circles, I feel just a little smug in quoting this from page 317-8 (just in case you have the book and want to make sure I wasn't making this up).
I do not intend to eulogize low-warp weaving. But feeling the urge of a vanishing species -- the low-warp, weaving-from-the-back tapestry weaver -- I have to point out that there is an experience, regardless of the merits of the outcome there is a physical and mental experience that is unique to the practice of weaving from the back. Of course I am thinking about the weaver's experience, but to some extent this is perceived by the viewer, too. It is part of the enchantment and attraction that tapestry exerts on us. Weaving from the back allows for the inclusion of the intuitive, that which transcends the individual effect of any artist, beyond the analytical eye-driven decision making process. The sensorial wholesomeness of the traditional approach has inspired weavers of all ages. As in any art form, weaving is an attempt to capture and communicate an idea. The idea in the artist's mind, always elusive, can be expressed only by approximation, lyrical suggestion. The tapestry expression is best fulfilled when it retains its poetic spirit. In the effort toward visual control the woven image is often dissected to such an extent that, although we may admire its well-crafted quality, that which speaks to our emotions is lost.*
2.  Another giant of contemporary tapestry weaving, Archie Brennan, began weaving from the back. Somewhere along the way he switched to weaving from the front. He has frequently stated (or at least it is frequently repeated by tapestry weavers) that weaving from the back is driven by technique and weaving from the front is driven by image. In a world where WYSIWYG**, perhaps this is the way it should be. All I know is that mysterious quality that Jean Pierre talks about in the quote above is something that is important to me.

3.  Technique. Several techniques I use frequently are easier from the back. One is a jump-over technique which is just a form of regular hatching. I hate trying to fish those pairs of butterflies out from behind every other sequence and have much more success with their placement and color change from the back. Another is splicing. I love having a clean back to my tapestries. It makes them float in the air, means they can be thin and flat, and sometimes seen from the back. So I like to splice my tails so I can snip off the ends instead of sewing them in, and it is easier to splice with the tails coming toward you. And the one interlock join I use (see this video) leaves a flatter join when woven from the back. Other people use joins like the double weft interlock which also are easier from the back.

4.  When weaving from the front you are in constant contact with the front side of your work which makes it harder to keep it clean over the length of a project. This is probably more of an issue on a low-warp loom where the fabric goes across the breast beam than a high-warp loom.

5.  I get the surprise of seeing a piece I have never seen before when I cut it off. No matter how I think I know what it will look like, I don't. Fun, right?

6.  It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I like it my way.

I suppose the unfortunate majority of you who weave from the front will come back with something like, "but I can see exactly what I'm doing!" And in response to that, I send you back to Jean Pierre.
*Larochette, J.P., Lurie, Y (2014). The Tree of Lives: Adventures Between Warp and Weft. Berkeley, CA: Genesis Press.
**What You See is What You Get

Jean Pierre Larochette, Yael Lurie, and The Tree of Lives

I found the house with the help of a crumpled flier and the GPS in my iPhone. There were excited, jolly people gathering outside on a back street in Golden, CO in mid-October. I was welcomed into the crowd and ushered into the large-windowed splendor of Sally’s house. We were there to attend a book signing by Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie. Jean Pierre and Yael are a weaver/designer tapestry team whose influence on the medium in the west is legendary. This was something I knew intellectually, but after diving into their newly released book, The Tree of Lives, their influence and story came alive in my mind.
I have enjoyed many long hours reading Jean Pierre’s stories over the last few weeks. He grew up in Argentina and the string of stories he tells brought me right into his young life. He and Yael also talk about her early life in a kibbutz, their meeting, and their decades of adventure since. Their lives have been full of travel, friends, and art. When reading the book, I felt the same genuine love and sense of wonder at the world that I felt in their presence.

Here is a taste straight from Jean Pierre’s vision:
Verdures are tapestries of great attraction and meaning to me. Since my earliest childhood they became the representation of a natural world I longed to discover. Before I was old enough to be allowed to go hiking into the mountains, or camp out with my friends, or start weaving, I built for myself a pocket-size survivor’s kit. It contained fishing line, hooks and a box of matches. Armed with my kit I felt I could adventure safely into the landscape of the Verdures, stepping into the tapestries in a fantasy journey full of mysteries. Walking at the edge of a ravine upstream following the soft rolling hills, going past the oak trees toward the distant castle, alert to the signs of animal life, hiding from hunters, in my imagination I discovered the lure of traveling the ancient way, with just me, a walking stick and my survivor’s kit.*
They gave a short talk about their book, tapestries, and lives that night at Sally’s house. And wonder of wonders, they brought two tapestries we could examine. Yael’s designs are, as Jean Pierre describes them, baroque in nature. They are dense with activity especially images of birds and hands. They have completed many tapestries for synagogues and there are color plates of four of their Tree of Life tapestries in the book. Jean Pierre says that he envisioned this book as “a tree with branches symbolizing the lives that have touched us – family, friends, places, relationships – that even if distant in time, have helped shape our lives.”

Jean Pierre finishes the book talking about the cycles of life. Each February and March he and Yael create a new piece in the Water Songs series, “Foreshadowing the arrival of spring, the process has become a rite, a woven evocation.” And in each decade they have completed a Tree of Life tapestry. “The recurrence of this symbolic theme has given us a sense of continuity, of moving forward, stimulating our resolve in times of uncertainty.”

The Tree of Lives: Adventures between Warp and Weft is a fascinating account of two adventurous souls and the place tapestry has in their journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet these two wonderful people and happy that they put their stories into print for the rest of us to enjoy.

*Larochette, J.P., Lurie, Y (2014). The Tree of Lives: Adventures Between Warp and Weft. Berkeley, CA: Genesis Press.

UPDATE 11/15/14: If you'd like a copy of The Tree of Lives, you can email Jean Pierre to order. He hopes eventually to have them available online. Email jplarochette (at) earthlink (dot) net