An Introduction to Tapestry Weaving: Vocabulary and Best Practices

25 August 2021

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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.

image description: the author of the article, holding a very small tapestry weaving project

The author with a tiny tapestry. Stay tuned for a series of tutorials from her on how to make a tiny tapestry of your own.

Fundamentally, tapestry is unique in two ways I’ll explain below: It is weft faced, and it involves discontinuous wefts.

image description: a close of two pieces of handwoven fabric

Weft-faced on the left, balanced weave on the right.

Weft-faced

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.

image description: a weaving project on the loom, with an arrow drawn on and text annotation, showing the  EPI

A screencap from the author’s online tapestry workshop at the School of SweetGeorgia, showing the EPI.

Discontinuous Weft

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.

image description: a sketch showing the path that yarns take in a woven fabric

A sketch of a weaving design, showing the path of the weft yarns.

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.

Image description: Small tapestry loom seen from the side, warped in white yarn with an inch or two of weaving at the bottom. A hand is pulling half of the warp threads up, creating space called a shed.

A shed.

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.

image description: a narrow warp of white yarn on a small loom, with several tightly woven rows of light blue weft, rising at right and left and dipping in the middle.

Building the shape; the background is first, because it tapers at the sides.

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.

image description: a narrow warp of white yarn has about an inch of light blue weaving at the bottom, with navy weaving in the shape of an inverted trapezoid on top of the light blue, with a small triangle unwoven at either side. Arrows point to the unwoven triangles.

Gaps indicate a mistake in the weaving.

The third image shows the finished woven shape.

image description: Light blue weft on a narrow warp of white yarn, with a rounded shape in navy fitted into the light blue.

Adding in the foreground of the design, no gaps visible.

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. 

Today’s Tapestry Glossary:

Pick: One line of weft woven into the warp on the loom.

Sett: The relationship between the warp yarn and the weft yarn.

Ends per inch (EPI): The spacing of the warps and how many warps fall within a 1-inch (2.5 cm) area across the loom.

Shed: The space where the weft passes between the warps which are lifted and the ones which are left in a resting position.

All images used courtesy of Janna Maria Vallee.

Copyright © Janna Maria Vallee except as indicated.
Janna Headshot Low Res

About Janna Maria Vallee

Janna Maria Vallee is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily within the media of botanical dyeing and tapestry weaving. In 2008 Janna attended Capilano University’s Textile Art diploma program and in 2013 graduated with distinction with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University’s Fibres and Material Practices program (Montreal, Quebec.) In 2016 Janna returned with her family to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia and in 2018, as her son entered kindergarten, launched Everlea Yarn, a specialty shop offering naturally dyed yarns for knitting and weaving, tapestry weaving supplies and knitting kits.

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