Everything Worthwhile Starts in the Mind
My journey as a weaver started over fifty years ago, firstly as a fabric weaver and in the 1970s it developed into constructed three-dimensional textiles, and then ultimately into my chosen field of woven tapestry. Having studied both textiles and wood I have been able to create my own equipment, particularly looms and associated tools. From the more complex floor looms, warp switching devices and heddle shedding tapestry looms I have evolved to the simplicity of a vertical rectangular frame. The size can vary but all have the same construction, two side pieces and a top and bottom bar which have a series of wooden pegs, four pegs spaced diagonally in each inch. I use my fingers to make the shed, no heddles or similar, and a four-pronged fork as a placer. The prongs can be adjusted to allow for differing warp settings.
The warps I use are three-ply rug yarns, usually in a light colour, which I pass through a spinning wheel to add extra twist and hence greater strength. I warp ‘continuously’ from the top to the bottom bar passing over the pegs to create a warp with a given sett or number of threads to the inch. This is often six to the inch which achieves the textures I require in my fabric. By taking the warp over one or two of the pegs or missing out a peg in sequence, a variety of setts can be achieved. This must be consistent across the whole warp. Being ‘continuous’ I only need to pass the back of my hand across the full width of the warp to even up the tension across the whole. At this point I insert a wooden bar between alternative front and back threads which when twisted holds the front and back threads apart. This is the natural shed and the alternate shed is achieved by finger shedding. I do not incorporate a tension device but the frame will allow for an extra bar to be placed at the back of the warp which when twisted will increase tension.
Perhaps the weaving is the easiest aspect of tapestry. What is far more demanding is the initial starting point for a design and the subsequent processes involved in exploring, rejecting and selecting each and every element.
For example, my tapestry Ganga and the River of Life was inspired by my journey to the Himalaya. The ‘high places’ of the Himalaya are the reason for and the source of the mighty river Ganges. Warm moist air from the ocean rises up into the colder regions of the mountains, condenses and annually forms the monsoons. After the snows of winter it was an unruly body of milky snow melt water bursting to be free, pushing and forcing its way along the easiest course to find a way onward.
The ‘Ganga Mate’ is the mother of Hindu worship who descended from heaven to earth, and she is also the vehicle for the ascent from earth to heaven. It is the desire of all Hindus to have their remains returned to the purifying waters of the sacred Ganges. They believe that the river flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld, that which lies between the physical and spiritual worlds.
The river Narayana in the foothills of the Himalaya in Nepal was our host as it made its journey along with others to form the mighty Ganges. As we floated down the silver-grey waters we were moved from one side of the river to the other. The currents, the ‘river of life’ were taking control of our basic wooden boat. Was this a metaphor for life through its many trials and tribulations which result in changes of direction in life’s journey?
As the current took us further down river, directly ahead was the quickly setting sun. It was no longer the ‘golden globe of enlightenment’, for the colour had gone and we were in an auditorium of platinum, silver-greys, blue-greys with a hint of magenta. As it progressed to the horizon the reflections became broken and disconnected as the rippling water took over the sphere and created multi-elements which were yet still part of the whole. The sun was now in an intimate relationship with the earth, the atmosphere was full of emotion, highly charged and tinged with anticipation. As the sun settled lower and lower toward the horizon it kissed the tips of the ripples and wavelets with soft flesh pinks, apricot and deep salmon tints. In the curling troughs darker colours reigned, hues of blues and steely darker greys, bronzed fawns and coppers. The earth, the sky and the water were now united into a single palette, it was difficult to discern the tree-lined banks from the sky. The flows of the river added great movement and a tangible spiritual feel to the occasion. This was so similar to the experiences I had felt in the isolated and lonely deserts and other high places and indeed in the great cathedrals of Western Europe. We had entered into a natural earthly cathedral and not one created by man.
I have photographs of the journey but they do not truly give the impression I saw and experienced, they are merely an ‘aide-memoire’. When travelling I draw with pencil the chosen selected elements and forms from the landscape. I photograph and I write in prose or prose poems to elaborate and expand the concepts and if I have time I add colour washes to the sketches. Later I move from sketching to watercolour paintings, to wrapping chosen colour yarns on strips of card to see how one interacts with another, to reading around the subject and to looking and observing how other artists in other disciplines have treated similar themes. This is a journey which is always in progress, and perhaps never-ending, but the words and marks on paper last forever and I do refer back to previous sketch books. With my preparatory images created with watercolour paints I am fully aware of the translucent quality of this media and the light which emanates from the paper. The dancing light on the rippling river water was full of hues and tones and constantly changing. There was much energy not only to cleanse and purify but also to renew.
My initial ideas for Ganga were looked at over time and many designs were considered. It is not unusual that at least a dozen paintings or more will be completed before I make a final decision. This may mean that I will proceed to complete a tapestry or that I have explored the theme and feel that, at this moment, I do not wish to take it to the loom. Once a design has been identified it is transferred to a full scale cartoon on tracing paper; this is placed between the back and front threads and from the back of the loom I mark on the warp threads the outline of the shapes and forms using a marker.
I then select the colours from my yarn store. It is important for me to handle colour, to try out colour combinations, to seek both harmonies and contrasts. It is not unusual that during the weaving process I add to the colour range according to the effect I am trying to achieve. My use of colour has evolved from the subtle natural hues of the 1970s to a more confident use of strong primary colours. Similarly my drawings and paintings have changed to the point that I am very positive with the rhythms and shapes I now use.
I believe that the creative process is sequential in that previous experience and work is a stepping-stone towards future development. A stepping-stone for Ganga came as a result of the colours from the drying head of a hydrangea bloom. This shrub had given great pleasure during the summer and now in the autumn the colours captured brilliantly the colours of the sunset river journey. It renewed my experiences and thoughts and gave me the impetus to challenge this theme. As in many of my tapestries I had to include the sensation of light, the epitome of seeing and knowing.
The weft yarns I used were two- and three-plied rug type yarns which are synthetically dyed and contain approximately 80% wool and 20% nylon. These are wound on to a tapestry bobbin (which acts as a reservoir for the yarn and also a placer/ beater) either singly or doubled thus allowing me to accommodate colour matches. As the weaving progresses I am constantly aware of the need to use the gradations of colour to elaborate on my aims and objectives. I do not merely copy the colours in my watercolour paintings but extend the tones and hues to incorporate both contrasts, discords and harmonies. The loom comes to life and weaving can begin.
I aim to weave every day, this ensures continuity of thinking. My tapestries are around a square metre in size and they take about 120-150 hours to complete. This may mean it will take anything from four to six weeks.
Did I do justice to this sense of feeling and understanding, the concepts and ideas the Ganges inspired? I knew my colour palette had to be restricted, disciplined and controlled yet with a wide variety of similar tones. I felt it must be an image which could stand alone and still create in the eyes of the viewer something of the elements that I describe. The more I weave the more I am concerned with my design process and attempt to concentrate on the minutiae. This is ongoing and has become a way of life. I am not too concerned with an end product but see it as a stage of development. My time at the loom is not only when I weave, but it is an opportunity to relive, to think and consider my aims, objectives and the underlying elements and search for further explanations and reasonings. Every session I spend at the loom I am being transported back to the event and recreate the experiences in my mind.
About the author: Since retiring from his weaving studio in Ireshopeburn, Weardale in 2002 after 25 years, Michael spends his time travelling, writing and continuing his development of his ‘processes’ of tapestry weaving. He would welcome a dialogue with similarly interested textile artists. He may be contacted on email. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in edition #262 of the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.
The Journal is published on behalf of the Association of Guilds of Spinners Weavers and Dyers. It covers a wide range of textile subjects, including articles on historic textile techniques and cutting edge modern design.