tapestry weaving from the back

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

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.