The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 5: Weaving Process

This post is the continuation of my series of blog posts discussing the five Denver Art Museum videos about James Koehler.

James Koehler was a fast weaver. Anyone who weaves many hours a day is a fast weaver. But James had a real ability to focus. He could tune out everything and just weave. When there were students and apprentices in his studio as there often were, he was frequently pulled away from the loom to answer questions or supervise an apprentice's activity (I could wind balls of yarn like a champ, but when I got to work on re-hemming his tapestries, that made him nervous... which frankly made me nervous). But when we all went home at 5 pm, he worked. I frequently would return the next day to find that a piece that had several inches left to weave at 5 pm was off the loom. Sometimes he had even done the finishing and the tapestry was rolled up, ready for the photographer.

I talk some about why I weave on a floor loom and what I like about weaving all the way across using the beater on the loom. James wove much of his work all the way across. All the pieces like this Chief Blanket piece we are discussing in these videos were woven one pick at a time all the way across the loom. To do the joins he used in this piece, he had to weave it that way as everything was interlocked all the way across in some sections.

I weave all the way across whenever I can in part because I learned that way, but also because I use this join and a lot of irregular hatching to move color around. When using hatching, the color areas are interpenetrating and you can't weave one section before the other. If my color blends are going throughout much of the piece, I have to weave all the way across.

The other reason I talk about in this video is the nature of the fabric created. I don't see this reason talked about much at all among tapestry weavers. My tapestries certainly feel like a fabric. They might even make a nice blanket. They are fairly soft, thin and flexible. James' work felt similarly. When using the beater on the loom, it is possible to get a very even beat and to create a fabric that is not thicker in some areas than others which also means that it hangs very flat on the wall.

However, weaving all the way across is not possible all the time if you want to utilize the full range of tapestry's potential. James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces were woven somewhat differently. He wove up each curve and often outlined the edge of it before filling in to as close as flat as he could, beating with the beater bar on the loom, and then building up the next wave. I often weave up in shapes with the intention of outlining something or completing a section faster than another one. I like the flexibility of using a floor loom as it allows me to weave both ways in the same piece depending on the imagery I'm creating.

Just a note on what Barb says about an iron. Neither I nor James uses an iron on our tapestries. I use a steamer. For the most part, I don't want to squish the tapestry at all, I just want to use the steam to get a little shrinkage in the fibers to make the tapestry lie completely flat. James used a Jiffy steamer, but any clothes steamer that can be used horizontally (with the tapestry lying flat on a table not hanging on a hanger like a shirt would be) will work.

Below is the last of the five videos. See the links below if you missed the other four.

If you receive these blog posts via email updates, you'll have to visit my blog on the internet to view the videos or look for them on YouTube.

This is the fifth in a series of five posts about the James Koehler Denver Art Museum videos.
Here are links to the first four posts:
Part 1: Color
Part 2: Flat Tapestry
Part 3: Meditation
Part 4: Teacher

Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillation pieces. This one was woven sideways and each of the curves would have been woven up to the curve and then he put in an eccentric outline before continuing weaving straight across the grid. In this case you can see that the eccentric outlines were done with a lighter color which really accentuates the curves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXIII
I want to thank the Denver Art Museum for giving me this great opportunity to speak about James Koehler, my experiences as his apprentice, and his work. James died in 2011 but we do hope his work lives on especially through his students and his student's students.

The sweater the dog ate...

There was a time in my life I lived in a rural off-grid cabin without running water. That means I peed under a tree and took a shower in town. But it was a good time and the stars were very very bright. Through a rather surreal plot twist, a friend from that time came back into my life because, well, she is in the same PhD program as my wife (I didn't marry the rural cabin owner. I'm okay with a composting toilet, but I found that I really like a shower every day a lot more than I thought I did).

And I'm immensely glad to have her back. Kelsea is a knitter. She made this fantastic sweater. Her favorite sweater. And then she took care of a dog who decided to eat one of the buttons. He swallowed the button (it wasn't found) and chewed a large hole in the yarn underneath in the process.

This is the initial mess with a few live stitches picked up.
I wasn't sure I was up to the task of repairing this. I am a fiber junkie, but I don't have the best knitting skills. I am kind of a stockinette or garter stitch sort of knitter. Sometimes I'll throw in an ssk or a yo, but really, I like it pretty simple.

This repair required picking up live stitches, reknitting a portion (I didn't have the pattern), and then Kitchener stitching the rows of live stitches together--and I had to do it backwards! I also had to secure four rows worth of severed yarn and reattach the new knitted fabric to the rest of the ribbing. I suppose the very best way to fix this would have been to rip out the ribbing back to the hole and reknit the whole thing, but I didn't have the pattern, I don't have the same knitting tension as Kelsea probably does, you would have been able to tell the difference between the older worn sweater and the new yarn, and basically I'm lazy about this kind of thing.

But I was gifted two marvelous bags of fleece from my favorite local shepherdess in exchange for this repair, and I was determined to save the favorite sweater.

So here it is.
Thank goodness that button is big. Since the button that went through a dog's digestive track was not found, this one was moved from the collar.

This project was one in the pile of UFO's which I spoke about in the Love the One You're With blog post. I'm making good headway on that pile. My bedroom floor has been a veritable sea of blocking.

Stay tuned for the last in the James Koehler videos tomorrow.

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 4: Teacher

This post is a continuation of the series of blog posts about the Denver Art Museum's videos of James Koehler.

Barb starts this video talking about passing on the knowledge of tapestry. I agree with her about this. Though weaving tapestry is a rather crazy way to spend a life in some respects, the rewards are great and passing on those things to a new generation of weavers is important. It is why I do so much teaching now myself.

In the video I talk about seeing a piece of James' at a lecture and knowing that that was what I wanted to do. That is quite literally what happened. I was a student at Northern New Mexico Community College in their fiber arts program and James came to give a lecture one afternoon. At NNMCC I was studying traditional Rio Grande Hispanic tapestry weaving which is a wonderful tradition with many expectations and rules. Once I understood the possibilities of contemporary art tapestry, I knew I had to leave that program and learn the techniques necessary to create my own vision of tapestry art.

It is true that the inspiration for James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces was a sine wave. Once he started playing with this mathematical form, he was able to create tapestries with these waves that looked like they were three dimensional.

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Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillations pieces which were designed from sine waves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL
James did love teaching. There are crazy stories from students about workshops he was teaching while he was sick in his last year when he just kept teaching. I struggled for a long time with feeling angry at him for not taking care of himself. For not stopping when he knew he was sick. But he couldn't. He was teaching in southern New Mexico just a day before he died.

The Rhythms of Nature pieces were ones he did very near the end of his life. I believe this one was woven around 2010 as it was included in the Albuquerque Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus show.
James Koehler, Rhythms of Nature III

The James Koehler Videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 3: Meditation

This post is the continuation of my series of blog posts discussing the five Denver Art Museum videos about James Koehler.

James Koehler was a Benedictine monk. He lived for about a decade at Christ in the Desert monastery in Northern New Mexico and this is where he learned to weave.

James talked about needing to weave as a meditation while at the monastery. When talking about why he left the monastery, he often sited the fact that the new prior would no longer allow him to spend his private meditation time at the loom.

In his own words:
When I entered the monastery in 1977, there were only six monks. In many respects, it was like a family. We met every morning to discuss some aspect of the Rule of Saint Benedict and to take care of community business. The prior acted as a moderator who helped us come to a consensus on any decision that had to be made. In many respects, we were a young and idealistic community.
As time went on, many aspects of our life there changed. Several men arrived to experience monastic life. Sometimes, they stayed for a few months, and sometimes, they stayed for a few years. The community became progressively more stable. The increased size in our membership affected [sic] several changes in the structure of our lives together.
In 1983, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert was received as an independent priory into the English Province of The Subiaco Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. Consensus was no longer our modus operandi. Clear lines of authority were established along with a system of anonymous voting on important issues. Our Customary, a document that described our daily life in great detail, was rewritten by the prior. Many of the ideals that drew me to monastic life at Christ in the Desert had been written out, and I now found life there to be increasingly difficult.
For many years, I was able to arrange my schedule so that I would be able to weave whenever possible. Brother Philip had encouraged me to explore the creative process through my weaving as a way of experiencing the Creator. But now, I was allowed to be in the weaving shop only when I was scheduled to be there during work periods. I was to spend all of my personal time alone in my cell.
That was really difficult. It was at the root of my discontent, and it started a struggle for me that lasted a whole year and a half. I kept asking myself -- Should I really be here? 
One of the things that James modeled for me so well was his ability to focus. He could focus on his work to the exclusion of everything else, whether that was a good or bad thing for life overall. When he was working, he was working.

In this video, Barb talks about his use of the golden mean in his work. He taught this frequently in his classes and he used the proportions of the golden mean in all of his tapestries, from the outer dimensions of the work to where to place certain elements. I am not quite sure that my statement, "Every single design he ever did was based on that" is true, but he did emphasize sacred geometry heavily.

Here is the video where Barb and I discuss James' ability to focus and his feeling that weaving was meditation for him.
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Near the end of this video Barb talks about how he applied the golden mean ratios that he loved to color dyeing. I am not sure the actual dye ratios were based on the golden mean, but they were definitely based on a mathematical progression. And then of course because he was using a singles yarn and mixing at least three colors in each bobbin, the color choices became so vast that he labeled every bobbin.

James used Aubusson bobbins to hold his yarn. He would write in pencil the numerical tag that he had created for each combination of yarn on every bobbin so that he could keep them straight. He wove on a 100 inch Cranbrook loom which had a tool tray hanging at eye-height the entire length of the loom. Frequently that tray was completely filled end to end with Aubusson bobbins with little penciled numbers on them.

Below is one of James' artist statements, written for the Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus project and show we did together with Cornelia Theimer Gardella. You can read more about his life and work in his autobiography, Woven Color, available now on Amazon.

James Koehler -- Artist Statement

Tapestry focuses on the creative, constructive process.  My woven images reflect the relationship of this process with the rhythmic, repetitive and unpredictable processes inherent in the natural world.

I am influenced by the extraordinary landscape and the unique cultures of New Mexico and by an aesthetic of simplicity, purity and portraying only what is essential. The source of my design inspiration often is found in meditation.

James Koehler is an internationally recognized tapestry artist whose work can be found in several museum, corporate and private collections.  He began weaving in 1977 and has worked with numerous students since the mid-1980’s.
This image was one that I took at Convergence 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the first day his book was for sale and he was taking his turn at the author's table, signing autographs.

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 2: Flat Tapestry

I have to admit that I am a proponent of the very flat tapestry that James taught me. I am almost as picky about it as he was, and that is saying something because James could be picky. He would probably not like that word. Perhaps exacting or particular would be better words. Being particular leads to a mastery of craftsmanship and James definitely was a master craftsman.

This is the second of five blog posts about the Denver Art Museum videos of Barb Brophy and I talking about our teacher, James Koehler. I am talking in this video about the interlock that James used in most of his work. I have posthumously named it the "James Koehler interlock", but it is really just a specific variation of a weft interlock. If you're interested in learning this join, I have a video on my YouTube channel about it HERE.

If you receive this blog via email updates, you will need to go to the internet to watch the movie. You can see it on my blog in your browser at

The search for a very flat join can be traced back to a desire for a very flat textile. A lot of tapestry weaving is not very flat and in fact can be quite thick with yarn tails hanging on the back. Everyone has their favorite style, but I love the way James taught me to weave. His work was exceptionally flat, thin, and flexible. There were no tails hanging anywhere and most of his pieces were virtually reversible. This James Koehler weft interlock join contributes to that sort of textile because it is very flat when done correctly.

This join can be seen throughout James' work. The piece below is Ceremonial Masks which is in the State Library Archive in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The date on the plaque is 1998.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks
And here is a detail of that join. Note that he did the join every other sequence. I also use it in this way. It is faster and even flatter than if you interlock every sequence.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks, detail
And here is the same join in the Denver Art Museum piece, Chief Blanket with Blocks. Note the warp is running right to left so the joins are happening between the green and red at the top and bottom of the photograph.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail
And one last example of this join which shows what an expert he was at it. This is from Harmonic Oscillation XL from 2006.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL, detail
And this is an edging technique that James no longer used when I knew him. The Chief Blanket piece at DAM has this fringe folded over the top in hanging. In his later work, all his work was hemmed.

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, installation Denver Art Museum Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry show

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 1: Color

A few months ago I did a long interview with the curatorial staff at the Denver Art Museum about my tapestry teacher, James Koehler. The interview, broken into five parts, is part of a display of one of James' pieces in the current tapestry show at DAM, Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry.

I'd like to talk a little bit about each of the videos here on the blog. Of course I have background stories about all of them and I thought you might like to hear some of them. If not, I'm sure I'll be back to my regularly scheduled salad of tapestry information soon.

In this first video, Barb Brophy, another Koehler student, and I talk about James' use of color. We talk about his ability to create intense colors in his hand-dyed yarn. Many of his very intense colors were created for student use however. James' work was more subtle than that and the colors he used were toned or created with some complimentary colors mixed in.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXI
As many of his apprentices did over the years, I spent a lot of time watching the dye pots. He would not let us measure the dyes. His one secret in relation to his work in tapestry was his dye formulas. He even (and I'm not kidding here) had cans of dye in which the labels were covered with duct tape. I have a few suspicions of what was in those cans, but we'll leave his secret where it is for now.

In the dye process, he measured out the dyes himself, dumped them into water baths which he heated, strained, and stirred on his dye kitchen stove, and then let me take it from there.

He had three huge dye pots just outside the studio heated by propane burners. He could dye three pounds of a color at once with acid wool dyes. He only did one run a day. So for most of the summer, the pots were running. Nine pounds a day. Much of it for the workshops he taught constantly.

In the video I make it sound like making the colors James did was a mystery. There were a few colors I have been unable to create in my own dye studio (see prior comment about mystery ingredients), but for the most part, a good dyer with a solid knowledge of color theory can create amazing things with acid wool dyes. Yes, James had a special ability to produce lovely evenly dyed yarns. But many of you could do it too if you wanted to. I bet James would tell you that himself if he could.

The piece that the Denver Art Museum owns is one of the Chief Blankets series. This is what James has to say in his book, Woven Color, about those pieces:
But the images I really liked--that had an aesthetic of simplicity and were efficient in terms of my being able to weave them--were from the Navajo Chief Blankets. . . . I looked at the Chief Blanket as though it were a triptych. There were three areas of color that were separated by very broad repetitive bands of black and white. The stripes could be woven with relative ease, and the color areas could be done with tapestry techniques. So it was like weaving three smaller tapestries as part of that large format. I approached the creating of design elements for the colored panels as if I were designing a triptych.
Here is the video:
As always, you can view it on YouTube by pushing the icon in the bottom right corner of the player. If you are receiving this blog post as an email, you have to visit the post on the internet to see the video. Just go to my blog here:

Here are the yarn balls Barb talks about in the video.

And here are some more photographs of that Chief Blanket piece. You can visit the show to see it in person. It runs from now through March 6, 2016. It is a great excuse to visit Denver.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
One of James' trademarks was subtle use of color. Get a close look at the diamond shape in the center of the red squares. The violet and blue are so close in value they are difficult to tell apart, but there is a blue square in the center of the violet diamond. I suspect it is the same blue as you see in the three intermediate squares though the violet shifts the color somewhat (simultaneous contrast!).

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail

If you are interested in more of the story, here are some blog posts about the time in my life I was apprenticing with James.


I'll have more about the other four videos in the next week.

Yarn lovers unite!

I received an email this week that made me gasp a little bit.
Village Wools is closing.
This is the yarn shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico that my mom brought me to as a kid. It has been open for 44 years. I love the smell. I loved hearing Franzi call, Hello! when we walked in. I was a little afraid of her because she seemed so on top of everything and was so assertive. She knew everything about yarn. But when I got older and had questions about patterns and yarn substitutions, I sought out Franzi every time.

I loved touching all the yarn and flipping through the patterns and finding a new book to go home with. I loved this place because it was always a destination. We're going to Albuquerque [with some dread faced with the two hour car ride and uncertain errands at the other end, turned to anticipation with...] Let's go to Village Wools!

I was talking to another yarn store owner friend of mine awhile back and she was telling me how she is afraid that brick and mortar yarn stores are all going to disappear. I understand that fear given the different climate of internet sales and marketing. But I think we need brick and mortar yarn stores. We need a place to go with shelves of patterns, employees who know the difference between sport and worsted weight yarn, and the needles for any project right there. We need the community that yarn creates. And we need them everywhere.

I wish more yarn stores sold weaving supplies. I've lived many places where I had no alternative other than ordering on the internet. But if your local yarn store does carry your weaving yarn and tools, buy them there for goodness sake! (The Recycled Lamb in Golden and Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins in Boulder are two great Colorado options.)

I do not think that brick and mortar yarn stores are necessarily on their way out. I think that things just have to be different in this marketing climate than they were two decades ago. Seeing things on social media about your local shop is helpful. Blogs with stories, presence at local fiber events, lots of great classes all draw people in. I'm not a yarn store owner, so I don't know if any of that can overcome how easy it is to buy the exact yarn a pattern calls for by pushing a button on the internet, but I can hope.

There are several fantastic yarn shops in Fort Collins. I love them all for different reasons. I was in My Sister Knits the other day just to get a size of needle I needed for a project (yarn and book purchased a few days before at the Brown Sheep Company mill) and left with yarn for two new projects. I'm super excited about both of them. I bought it all because they had marvelous samples of things I really wanted to knit and wear and Theresa who was helping me, recommended some combinations I would not have known about if I hadn't listened to her experienced voice. (And well, I'm a total sucker for yarn. I have wanted to try some Habu for the longest time and of course they carry it and had a marvelous sample scarf knit with it... sold.)
Believe me, I am familiar with the internet. I know you can buy large quantities of yarn at big discounts from online dealers. And maybe sometime you need to do that. But for your average project, consider the experience you get by going to your local shop. Thumbing through the pattern books for a pattern or asking the shop staff for appropriate yarn substitutions for that pattern everyone on Ravelry is knitting. Pay attention to the hottest new fiber or ask them what their favorite yarn is and why. I've discovered some amazing new things by asking these questions.

Go to a knit or spin night. Take a class (what could be more fun?). Life is for experiencing yarn. Live it up!

And for Village Wools, please remember,
(Photo taken in their very bathroom.)