Tapestry weaving is the slow, methodical and intimate art of weaving pictures. The weaver’s woven pictures can be representational or abstract, with varying degrees of detail depending on their setup.
My foray into tapestry weaving began in 2008 when I first entered Capilano University’s Textile Art diploma program (sadly, no longer offered). It was the first kind of weaving that was introduced to students, most likely because it is the perfect hands-on way to conceptualize the idea of, and the relationship between, warp and weft.
All kinds of weaving require these two sets of yarns: Warp is under tension and dresses the loom, and weft travels over and under a specific number of warp yarns depending on the pattern you’re following. There are hundreds of different ways to weave with warp and weft, but the simplest is called “plain weave,” or “tabby.” Tabby involves the weft going over one warp and then under the next, continuing this sequence until it is time to turn around and layer another line (or “pick”) of weft on top, going over and under the opposite warps as the last pick. Within the realm of tabby there are endless approaches. One such method is tapestry weaving.
Fundamentally, tapestry is unique in two ways I’ll explain below: It is weft faced, and it involves discontinuous wefts.
Weft-faced fabric is characterized by the weft yarn being the only yarn that is visible in the finished product. This is achieved in tapestry weaving when the weaver passes the weft over and under the warp yarn and packs down the weft to cover the woven warp yarn completely.
The picture above shows an example of weft-faced tapestry (at left) next to a weaving that is woven in the more common “balanced” manner, where a more or less equal amount of weft and warp appear on the surface of the finished tapestry. You can see evidence of this by looking at the warps coming out the bottom of each weaving. The balanced weaving on the right includes all of the colours of its warp, along with its dark-brown weft, in the woven surface of the weaving. Whereas, the white warp in the tapestry on the left is completely covered by the weft in its woven areas.
In order to create weft-faced fabric, the weaver must make an educated decision about the relationship between their warp yarn and weft yarn. This relationship is referred to as ‘sett’. Qualities we are looking at when talking about sett are the gauge (or thickness) of both your warp and weft yarn, as well as how far apart your warp yarns are from each other on the loom. The spacing of warps is described as the number of ends per inch or EPI, determined by how many warp yarns are in a horizontal 1-inch (2.5 cm) width of the loom as illustrated below. Weft-faced weaving can only be achieved if the loom is dressed with each end of the warp yarn far enough apart on the loom to accommodate the weft’s attempt to hug after being woven into it. If there is not enough room for the weft to hug the warp yarn, the weaver will not be able to cover the warp to achieve weft-faced fabric, and warp yarn will show through to the surface of the tapestry.
The image below shows a tapestry being woven in my online tapestry workshop with the School of SweetGeorgia. I’ve edited it to illustrate how the tapestry is woven at 8 EPI.
In tapestry, multiple weft bundles operate independently to create shapes, blend colours, and create outlines. To do this the weft stops short of weaving to the edge of the tapestry and turns around, doubling back on itself inside the woven plane wherever the weaver’s design dictates.
There are certain guidelines for setting up multiple weft bundles to allow the weaver to create pictures with the fewest technical hurdles. One such guideline is that tapestry is woven from the bottom up and never weaves into an area that does not yet have woven cloth covering the warp under it. This is because tapestry weaving is made using the use of two sheds. A shed is the space between the warps which are lifted above the working weft yarn and the ones which are left in a resting state below it. When a weaver weaves to increase a shape on top of an unwoven area, they lose the ability to create a shed with ease in that zone of unwoven warp, making it hard to weave and evenly pack down weft in the blocked area. Whether the weaver is using a pick-up-stick to create a physical space between the bottom and top warp yarns (as illustrated below), or simply weaving over and under alternating warp yarns using a tapestry needle, it is important to have unwoven warp above your working area for ease of weaving.
In keeping with the guideline to never weave into an area that does not yet have woven cloth covering the warp under it, decreasing shapes are always the first shapes to be woven when shape-building in tapestry. The first image below shows the correct first step to weaving a growing shape. I wove the background first because it decreases in shape, tapering to a point on each side.
The second image below shows an incorrectly woven shape. It increased in size to the left and right without first weaving the background underneath it, leaving unwoven warps which are blocked from achieving a shed, and will therefore be much harder to weave.
The third image shows the finished woven shape.
There is so much to learn in the realm of tapestry weaving, and I have lots to share. Next time I’ll share a tutorial in which I will lead you to determine your EPI, and to design and weave a tiny tapestry, and, finally to finishing a tapestry.
All images used courtesy of Janna Maria Vallee.