Tapestry: Constructed from Strings
Use of the word “tapestry” extends far beyond the definition of the weaving technique. The concept of tapestry invokes a complicated, rich, textural feeling—positive and often nurturing. It is often used as a metaphor for life.
A common misuse of the word tapestry is to label any wall hanging as such, especially needlepoint and embroidery, even some forms of painting and plaiting. Tested by time, true hand-woven tapestry techniques carry forward from native traditions and European castles to contemporary studio weavers, to artists working in their own homes and studios.
Tapestry is defined by the American Tapestry Alliance as “hand-woven, weft-faced fabric with discontinuous wefts”—a technical description that only begins the job.
Handwoven textiles, including tapestry, are constructions, not surface applications like paint or embroidery. Using a frame to support the vertical threads (warp) under tension, a tapestry weaver constructs the textile by weaving horizontal threads (weft) between the warps. In tapestry, the weft threads pack down to cover up the warp threads, creating the image. The fabric and the image are created simultaneously.
Weaving tapestry shape by shape, changing yarn for each color, is a process no machine can mimic. Weaving machines such as computerized looms can create images on the face of a textile, but not by using discontinuous wefts. Machines need to weave from one side to the other, but tapestry need not be woven that way. A tapestry weaver uses many pieces of yarn across the surface of the textile, carrying these in “butterflies” or on bobbins.
Tapestry artists are often asked, “That takes so long, why do it?” Personal answers vary, but many seem to feel the very reason to weave tapestry is because it is slow and deliberate, because it takes the weaver into a mindful place that is just the opposite of the place required by the hectic, digital, constantly-in-contact world inhabited when not weaving.