Tapestry – a form of fine art
Tapestry has been a form of fine art for centuries, combining beauty with practicality and immortalizing stories, personalities and historical events.
Patricia Armour, whose work was part of the exhibition Elemental Realms at Agora Gallery this year, is a modern-day weaver, creating evocative and appealing tapestries. In this guest post she explains how so many different colors come out of the weave, what role drawing and painting play in the process, and the reason that she loves tapestry more than any other form of fine art.
Guest Post by Patricia Armour
First and foremost I am a weaver. I have always been inspired by the great European tapestries – in particular the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris, and the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Tapestry can be a basic weave structure or very complex. The complexity comes from the use of a combination of fine coloured yarns and weave structures to reveal a depth of colour that only woven tapestry can give. These colours, when blended, can develop into varying textures and shades. Students usually begin with simple blocks, curves, triangles – all the basic structures. As their knowledge and ability increases, they develop their skills to interpret more complex designs.
There are only about 1,000 tapestry weavers in the world. Some of these weavers work in commercial tapestry workshops where artists’ designs are translated into tapestries on commission. There are also “artist weavers” who work independently and develop their own designs which they then translate into the weave. Most of these weavers are artists in their own right, and draw as well as paint. I fall into this second category.
I enjoy drawing from life and from nature, and I also paint in both acrylic and oil, though I cannot say that I am a painter – I feel more at home with yarns than I do with paints. I have studied printmaking, and enjoyed the process of intaglio, and I have incorporated some of my prints into designs to be interpreted into weave. I work mainly from collage but often use chalk pastels when designing for tapestry. Chalk relates well to the blending of the yarns when woven, giving a grainy effect.
In essence, I paint with yarns. Rather than painting onto canvas layer upon layer, I work either from the bottom to top or turn the image on its side and weave that way – once an area is woven, it cannot be changed. I work with the design or painting on one side of my loom, with only the outlines of the images marked onto a cartoon which hangs behind the warp on the loom. The warp is also marked with simple outlines for guidance. While I work, I need to ‘look’ closely at the design and understand it well so that it can be interpreted into weave. I therefore create two artworks – one from paint, collage or drawing and the other in tapestry.
Tapestry is a warm medium – architects often use large tapestries in foyers and reception areas to absorb the echo of the high ceilings and the various materials that are used in the construction of these spaces. Colours are deeper, but without the reflection that comes from the painted canvas. I use up to 7 strands of yarn (usually wool) on the bobbin and these 7 strands can be made up of different shades of a single colour or a combination of different colours which create yet another colour.
When viewed from afar, the appearance of a tapestry may be totally different than at close quarters, where the individual colours can glow. When cotton or linen is used rather than wool, yet another effect is produced – a more opaque result in some instances, and when silk or rayon is used, a more shiny result. If a strand of mercerised cotton is added to wool, this gives yet another effect.
The main challenge I have faced with tapestry is having it accepted as a fine art. For centuries, tapestries have been a very important art form – being both functional and artistic – a narrative, telling tales of war and history, but also keeping drafts out of those cold castles and chateaux. It has only been over the last 150 years that women have been introduced to the weaving of tapestry as a ‘craft’ rather than ‘art,’ and as woman’s work! Tapestry is not embroidery or canvas work or cross stitch, as a large number of people believe. It is an art form of its own.
The weaving of tapestry takes skill, strength and a lot of patience. Each tapestry takes a lot of time and energy. As with painting, an artist puts their soul into their work. I have been weaving tapestry now for over 20 years, and I believe it has taken me this amount of time to perfect what I do. I have been lucky to have a flair for the art form, meaning I can reproduce most images put in front of me. In the early 1990s I worked with an artist who designed tapestries and I wove them. I found this to be very beneficial in terms of learning how to interpret the drawn line/image into the woven line/image.
Tapestry, like any other textile, is tactile. Recently, I demonstrated tapestry at an “Art in Action” event. I had work displayed on the wall and as people approached the tapestries a number of them said – “Can I touch?” I had some small sample works lying on a table beside me and gave them the opportunity to touch those. People don’t go up to paintings and touch them, but they do want to touch tapestries. I have to say that while I am weaving and after I have finished, I do like to run my hand over the surface. I never put my tapestries under glass – the glass detracts from the textural quality of the work. There is a warmth and strength in tapestry that will last a long, long time.