Sett Considerations in French Tapestry

Recently, I was asked to write about sett in French tapestry, based on my observations and experience of working in the Aubusson and Flemish traditions.

Sett in tapestry is about more than covering the warp with the weft.  Sett is also about the shape and size of the grain, or the bead, created in the weave and how it impacts the visual texture of a tapestry. The grain, or the bead, of the weave is always in relationship to the scale of the tapestry and the complexity of the design. 

In general, the French use of sett is characterized by the bead being rounded and smooth to produce a flat surface, so that light can reflect evenly off of the weaving.  Light also affects the visual impact of sett and grain in how it reflects differently off of the ribs of the warp when a tapestry is hung with the warp running horizontally than when hung with the warps running vertically.  This is especially noticeable in the use of techniques like hachures, which read differently when viewed vertically, than when viewed horizontally.  This is one of several reasons why Aubusson tapestries are designed and woven to be hung sideways, by the weft, with the warp running horizontally.

Pelican study detail

Pelican study detail

Pelican study detail, rotated with warps running vertically

Pelican study detail, rotated with warps running vertically

A smooth, rounded bead in sett can be achieved by several means.  First, is by the classic ratio used in French, Flemish, and many European tapestry traditions, where the diameter of the warp = diameter of the weft bundle = the space between warps.  Second, is by the type of wool yarn used in the weft bundle.   Firmer yarns will yield a rounder grain. Softer, loftier yarns will produce a more flattened, or oval grain.  For a more squashed and linear grain, either increase the space between the warps, or reduce the size, or diameter, of the weft bundle.

In historic mural tapestries of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, (such as those recently on exhibition at the Met) the sett is quite fine, averaging around 22 – 24 epi.  These works usually depicted scenes from history, Christianity, or mythology in highly detailed epic narrations. Weft bundles were of firm, thin wools, and sometimes silks or even gold strands.  Often the depicted garments worn by human figures included the drape of fabric reflecting the woven structure of the cloth (twills, brocades, etc.). In order to have enough warps in an inch to weave all of this detail, the sett had to be quite fine. 

Pelican   Elizabeth Buckley's study woven in Aubusson

Pelican   Elizabeth Buckley's study woven in Aubusson

When I was weaving in Aubusson, Gisèle Brivet warped the loom with cotton at around 11 epi, and we used fine, firm wool yarns (similar to the now discontinued DMC Medici wools or about the size of the 18/2 weight of worsted wool yarn currently available through Weavers Bazaar in the UK.) in weft bundles of 5 strands. I marveled at the range of possibilities in the palette for blending and mixing five-strand weft bundles.

In considering sett, it is important to gauge the size of the overall piece in relation to the amount of detail in the design. Often I use 12/9 cotton seine twine warp at between 11 and 12 epi, although my current large format tapestry, which will measure 4’ x 5’, I warped with 12/12 cotton seine twine warp at 10 epi, for just a slightly larger grain in proportion to the scale of the finished piece. My weft bundles of 3 -5 strands combine various weights and firmness of worsted wool yarns:  Appleton crewel, Anahera, plus those from my stash of discontinued yarns-- DMC Medici. Paternayan crewel--and some of my mother’s hand-dyed silks and wools. 

Elizabeth BuckleyDialogues Through the Veil  detail    sett is 12 epi,  ©2010

Elizabeth BuckleyDialogues Through the Veil  detail    sett is 12 epi,  ©2010

Generally, small format tapestries need a more refined sett, to avoid a lumpy-looking image. Kathe Todd Hooker works at 20 – 22 epi, using Dual duty craft thread, button hole twist for warp.  An example is below, her tapestry:  And He… Her weft bundles are of sewing thread and/or embroidery floss. She divides out the 6 strands of embroidery floss to get at least 6 different color changes.  In areas she wants more refined detail, she will use thinner weft bundles, just as I also do with wool at 10 – 12 epi.

Kathe Todd Hooker   And He...     26.5" x 18.5"      sett is 20 - 22 epi

Kathe Todd Hooker   And He...     26.5" x 18.5"      sett is 20 - 22 epi

Kathe Todd Hooker  And He...   detail

Kathe Todd Hooker  And He...   detail

Does sett disappear when viewing the tapestry? Or does your eye catch on the patterned texture it creates? 

Barbara Heller    One Way   border sett is 4 epi, interior sett is 8 epi

Barbara Heller    One Way   border sett is 4 epi, interior sett is 8 epi

Barbara Heller uses two sett sizes in her tapestry, One Way:  4 epi for the border area, and 8 epi for the interior.  Notice the two different textures and how the light reflects differently off of the two surfaces.

Barbara Heller   One Way  detail    Note the two sett sizes

Barbara Heller   One Way  detail    Note the two sett sizes

For warp, she uses 8/4 or 8/5 linen at 8 epi because she likes the slightly stiffer hand it gives. For weft, she uses Le Mieux or Briggs & Little 2ply (or equivalent), or three strands of Paternayan crewel (or equivalent) at 8 epi.  At 4 epi her weft bundle can have very different yarns, including her own handspun (or equivalent) for producing the more textured effect. At 8 epi she will sometimes add a thinner strand of another color, as in the water areas in the tapestry, One Way, and is careful about how this thin strand is laid in for every bead so that the yarns do not twist.

Tommye Scanlin often works at 8 epi, using either the 12/12 or 12/15 cotton seine twine, depending on the bead she wants and the wefts she plans to use.  An example is below, her tapestry:  Because of Memory.   At 6 epi, she will use 12/18.  She will do smaller format tapestries at either 10 or 12 epi, using either 12/9 or 12/6 cotton seine twine warp.

The ratio of warp, weft, and spacing that both Barbara Heller and Tommye Scanlin use is based on Archie Brennan’s recommendations of wrapping warp around a cm to determine ends per inch. It is similar in nature to the diameter of the warp=diameter of the weft bundle=space between the warps. (Archie Brennan’s on-line article on the American Tapestry Alliance website: http://americantapestryalliance.org/education/educational-articles/the-space-between-the-warps/ ).

Tommye Scanlin   Because of Memory  63" x 60"   2014   sett is 8 epi

Tommye Scanlin   Because of Memory  63" x 60"   2014   sett is 8 epi

The number of strands in Tommye Scanlin’s weft bundle varies from two to five or six, depending on the yarns she is using together as well as the sett.  She uses Vevgarn, a 2-ply wool from Norway, available through Norsk Fjord Fiber, and Alv Norwegian wool that Kathe Todd-Hooker sells through Fine Fiber Studio, that is a 2-ply worsted about 14/2 in size.  (Smaller than the Vevgarn but not as small as the Mora wool from Glimakra.  She will use these together or separately, and sometimes throw in a thin linen, as well.  Tommye states, “I like a ‘whole wheat’ sort of yarn for weft, one that's firm and not flabby. I like to have a pretty defined bead to the weave.”

Tommye Scanlin Because of Memory detail

Tommye Scanlin Because of Memory detail

For additional technical information on sett, visit Tommy Scanlin’s blog post: http://tapestryshare.blogspot.com/2012/06/warp-sett-few-options-and-opinions.html

Thank you to Kathe Todd Hooker, Barbara Heller, and Tommye Scanlin for their permission to use these photos of their work and for their generous sharing of technical information included in this blog post.  Thank you to Rebecca Mezoff for the initial inquiry.