Susan Martin Maffei

The tapestry work of Susan Martin Maffei and laughing with Archie Brennan

The tapestry work of Susan Martin Maffei and laughing with Archie Brennan

Last May I had the opportunity to visit Susan Martin Maffei and Archie Brennan in their studios in New York. It was one of those experiences that is hard to share partly because it can’t be translated well in words and partly because I treasure it so much in my heart that talking about it just doesn’t seem to bring the experience justice. But I’ll give it a go anyway.

Tapestry weaving differently

I have had a few experiences lately that have led me to believe that I weave tapestry differently than most people. This is honestly a somewhat new revelation... perhaps born of denial. I weave from the back, which in itself might be acceptable considering all the French tapestry weavers who also do this, but I also weave on a floor loom largely from side to side. By that I mean that I weave all the way across the fell line and beat with a the beater on the loom.

I can just hear the lot of you gasping in horror. Yes, what I mean is that I weave one. pick. at. a. time. All the way across.
It was a conversation I had recently with Susan Martin Maffei that sparked this particular thought jungle. Susan was in Santa Fe in June after teaching a class in Albuquerque. She gave a lecture titled Under the Influence or Is It Just Inspiration? in which we learned a lot about her process and how her work has evolved over her career. (If you don't know Susan's work, please go to her website right now and take a look. But don't forget to come back here!) I found Susan fascinating and wished her talk was hours longer than it was. She has woven on all kinds of looms in all sorts of orientations (front, back, low warp, high warp) and studied in France including at the Gobelins. She has studied many kinds of textiles including pre-Columbian, her partner is Archie Brennan whom she collaborates with frequently, she teaches and lectures frequently, and her work is quite fascinating. She currently weaves on scaffolds, moving her body up the piece so she can see the whole thing instead of rolling the tapestry in any way. And she weaves large complicated pieces without any sort of cartoon at all.

She has done a series of narrative tapestries which you can see on her website which include a piece called Morning Walk & River Tides, 12 inches tall, 19 feet long. This piece includes quipus which indicate the time of high and low tide. Susan also talked a lot about the marks of tapestry and taking into account the medium when creating. She talked some about her sett (6 to 10 epi) and how working at a coarser set forces you to work with the marks of tapestry and get in touch with tapestry as a medium instead of a way of reproducing something. I am definitely on board with this line of thinking and hope to explore it even more in my next series of work.

A few days after Susan's talk there was an opening in the studio of a local artist and I was able to go and see some of her work. Due to some unavoidable circumstances involving a job, I was quite late. Luckily for me, most of the other guests had left and I had a chance to talk to Susan. Because James Koehler was my mentor and she knew him, we talked some about him. She had mentioned in her talk that tapestry was all about building up little areas of color to make an image. James did not do this. He wove all the way across the warp one pick at a time and beat with the loom beater.

So then I went to the Pacific Northwest and spent a lot of time with weavers from that part of the country include a good studying of the Tapestry Artists of Puget Sound show (which you can see more about in THIS blog post). Most of these weavers weave on an upright loom, from the front, with bobbins, building up little shapes. I was challenged in Shelley Socolofsky's class to weave in this way (except for the bobbin part. That was asking just one bit too much.). And then I had some conversations with Mary Lane and Shelley about this. I watched Mary weave a little with her bobbins. I tried making little shapes out of my cartoon and building them up one at a time. And I realized that for this kind of image, weaving this way is much faster. There is much less picking up and putting down of tools and yarn.

Shelley talked some about the language of tapestry both in her lecture at the Small Tapestry International 3 opening and in the Traces workshop. Her class brought up again many questions for me about what can be said with traditional tapestry considering the existence of jacquard weaving. And coming from what both Susan and Shelley had said, my own questions about creating while considering the medium of tapestry and its (considerable) constraints.

I have been thinking about this for a few weeks now. Is my method of weaving really NOT tapestry? Well no. Is it traditional? Not in the medieval sense of tapestry, no. It is the tradition of the regional Hispanic weavers of New Mexico (though their techniques are different and I don't use them). I don't weave realistic images and I doubt I ever will. My work is somewhat driven by technique aimed at a certain effect and I can create that the easiest working from the back.

I think that what kind of image you are weaving should dictate the technique you are using. I really enjoyed weaving the sample in Shelley's class and intend to try weaving this way again if the image I am creating dictates that decision. I am excited to broaden my capabilities in various techniques. Am I going to change how I weave the current work I am doing? No. I feel that weaving broad color gradations that are climbing up the warp using continual hatching and color changes lends itself well to this "weaving all the way across" kind of work. And I frankly don't care if the purists tell me I am not weaving tapestry.

Here is the piece I am currently working on. The "gaspers" will be happy to note that I am going to use some eccentric weft and thus am building up some curves. Yes, I will have to use a hand beater. No, I will not be using bobbins.

Happy weaving! Feel free to share your thoughts on all of this in the comments below.

Warping the LeClerc Gobelin loom

I have never before used an upright tapestry loom except for small frame looms and my Mirrix. My grandmother Marian gave me her beloved tapestry loom when she moved across the country a few years ago. I was so enamored of the loom my grandfather gave me, the Harrisville rug loom, that I had neglected this beautiful LeClerc.  But when I moved to Alamosa and was faced with which loom I could most easily liberate from the storage locker in Taos, the LeClerc won easily. So I brought it home and my father put it back together for me and now I am ready to have a whack at using it.

It needed some cleaning up first however.
The linen warp that my grandmother had last put on the loom was still rolled on the top beam. I loved the curtain of linen it made when I pulled it down... but eventually I had to cut it off.

But not before examining how it was warped!
Clearly the loops from the cross end of the warp were at the top indicating to me that a warping board was the best way to warp this loom as opposed to some modified Navajo warping technique. As I knew Tommye Scanlin used to have a loom just like this, I consulted her for advice and she was exceedingly helpful.

I found when I unwound the old warp that water had dripped onto the top beam at some point when this warp was sitting in my grandmother's dining room waiting for a Maurice Sendak tapestry (see blog post HERE) to be woven and the two iron bars were rusted. Upon the trusty advice of my Uncle Carl, I used plain old vinegar to get the rust off the bars. I made a sort of tub with plastic sheeting and the widest crack in our back deck. It worked perfectly and only took a couple cups of vinegar. After a little scrubbing with steel wool, I had perfectly clean bars again.

There was also an issue with mold on the apron. The new version of this loom which LeClerc still makes doesn't have the canvas apron. The rod attaches directly to the beam in a slot. But this loom is an old one and the apron molded where it was wet. I opted, in this dry climate, to wait to replace it and rolled the mold right back up. I will need to replace the apron sometime soon.

I wound a warp on my warping board.  Here are the warp sections hanging ready to be put through the reed.

I then threaded each loop into every other dent in an 8 dent reed (warping for 8 e.p.i.). I held the reed vertically with two clamps as I did this and slid the loops onto the bar which would hold the warp loops at the top of the loom tied to the bar that goes through the apron rod.

The entire warp was put through the reed.  Unfortunately I don't currently own a 60 inch 8 dent reed and ended up using two shorter reeds to accomplish this. Because this piece has several sections, the break between the reeds didn't matter. If I was doing a piece without sections, this would not have worked.

With Emily's help, I tied the reed onto the frame, leash sticks below.

The warp was slowly rolled around the top beam and then tied at the bottom like you would a floor loom... ready to weave.

My grandmother loved to mark things and much of my weaving equipment like these leash sticks are covered with her writing.
Another helpful resource for warping and for this project was Kathe Todd-Hooker's warping book, So Warped. It is available from her business, Fine Fiber Press. She specifically mentions a wide variety of looms and how to warp them and I recommend all tapestry weavers, especially ones like me who like to play with a wide variety of looms, have this book on their shelves.

One of my favorite bumper stickers, also from Kathe Todd-Hooker
After the warp is on, you still have to tie leashes. This loom comes with a 1 1/2 inch leash bar which has adjustable height via chains on each side of the loom. 

The leashes are tied one at a time to pull forward the second shed. I learned this method of tying leashes from Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei in their tapestry course, Woven Tapestry Techniques. I have never tied leashes like this before as I usually use a loom with harnesses and treadles. Archie's description in his DVD course is helpful and clear.

I used a long copper bar to hold the open shed in place. The leashes are used to pull the back threads forward to make the other shed.

And the loom is tied up, the tension extremely even if I do say so myself!

Now all that remains is to turn this:

into a finished work of art.