When I sit at the loom, absorbed in the weaving growing before me, all words fall away, and I am in my mother tongue. Tapestry is like breathing for me: automatic, and the air that sustains me.
My college French teacher, Marguerite Hessini, spoke of la langue maternelle, one’s mother tongue, the language one first speaks and the language one automatically uses to articulate one’s thoughts. She, herself, grew up speaking three languages: Alsacian, French, and German, then subsequently learned and became fluent in English, Arabic, and Spanish. She later completed her doctorate in Linguistics and spent one summer living in the desert, assisting a Southwest Native American culture in documenting their mother tongue and in developing educational materials written in this language.
For me, the term, la langue maternelle, goes beyond the verbal linguistic realm to that of hand woven tapestry, and the language of the loom that I was well-versed in by the age of 10. It made so much sense to me, and I loved how my hands could make vertical and horizontal lines, hills, valleys, angles, and shapes in the warp. For me, la langue maternelle of tapestry also literally did come from my mother, Esther J. Kolling.
As I developed my verbal language skills in English as my primary language, and in French as my secondary language, my eyes and hands also were becoming fluent in the non-verbal languages of woven structures and color. In many ways, the language of the loom became my mother tongue, as my initial thoughts tend to come as images, colors, textures and techniques before I translate them into words. I automatically think in this non-verbal language, and my hands often know things before I have the words for them.
I recently came across the term, mother tongue, again in the book written by K. David Harrison, entitled: The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages. Here he describes how:
Everyone values their mother tongue, and few people would be willing to part with it. (p.13) ...language not just as a way of speaking or a domain of cognition. It is an entire conceptual universe of thought, compactly and efficiently encoded into words. (pp. 55-56)
In the case of tapestry, the conceptual universe of thought is encoded in thread and technique.
One of the amazing things about tapestry is its universality, across time, cultures, and how it transcends words. We look at a tapestry, regardless of where or when it was made, and can read it, study the technique vocabulary, and marvel at what is said in this language of discontinuous wefts.
Harrison goes on to say that:
...language’s proliferation doesn’t stop with just having a word for something. Once in a lexicon, the “mental dictionary,” a named concept takes on a life of its own. It contributes to organizing thought and perception. We have no idea how deep this effect goes…. how deeply (or shallowly) language may influence thought and perception. (pp. 47 – 49)
I am reminded of how Susan Martin Maffei has described the Huari culture of pre-Inca Peru, where everyone—children, adults, men, and women—was expected to participate in the various phases of tapestry weaving; of how tapestry was the language, the form of currency, as well as served to define social status. The dead were wrapped in up to 20 layers of tapestry fabric, to assist in the realm of the after life. What would it have been like to live in such a cultural environment!
In K. David Harrison’s book: When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge, he takes an in depth look at what we lose when languages vanish. To put it succinctly:
Language disappearance is an erosion or extinction of ideas, of ways of knowing, and ways of talking about the world and the human experience. p. 7
Again, I relate this to tapestry knowledge, since it has been vulnerable to disappearing over the centuries. Here are a couple of examples in my lifetime:
The week of November 17, 1991, the French government announced its decision to uproot and disperse Les Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture from Paris, including: Gobelins vertical warp tapestry weaving, Savonnerie rug weaving studios, in-house and foreign student training programs for both studios, the dyeing studios, and the restoration studios for rugs, tapestries, and furniture (IFROA, the French Institute for the Restoration of works of Art). Weavers not willing to relocate would have to retrain for other work. Micala Sidore wrote a page report about this in the December 1991 newsletter of the International Tapestry Network (ITNET). The global community—tapestry weavers, museum curators, textile conservators, citizens, and countless others-- responded by sending air mail letters and postcards of protest. (This was before we had the internet). The world outcry was large enough that on January 29. 1992 the Minister of Culture, reversed this proposed plan, although it did terminate the training and education program at Gobelins, shifting students to the Aubusson Ecole National des Beaux Arts and also moved the restoration studios to Aubusson.
In addition to writing my letter of protest, I also knew that I needed to go to Aubusson to learn what had not yet been documented, before it vanished. In the case of the atelier Tabard, which wove the bulk of Jean Lurçat’s Chant du Monde (Song of the World), it was too late. Their technical knowledge died with the death of the last tapestry weaver of that family.
But it was not too late with Gisèle Brivet, a fourth-generation tapestry weaver who worked collaboratively with her husband, Henri, who also had recently retired from teaching tapestry design at the Aubusson Ecole National des Beaux Arts (which is now closed and is being converted into a tapestry museum, renamed Cité internationale de la tapisserie Aubusson). No one in their family was interested in learning tapestry, so they went against the centuries-old atelier tradition of never sharing tapestry secrets outside the family, to pass on some of their love, process, and technical skills to me and two other weavers from the United States. I wish I could have stayed longer, to learn more.
In June of 2005, Tapestry Weavers West celebrated its 20th anniversary with a symposium: Tradition in Motion: New Forms, Attitudes and Approaches to Tapestry. Here Phillipe Playe, director of the Beauvais Tapestry Museum and Mobilier National in France, announced that their six-year training program was no longer going to accept new students as they could no longer guarantee jobs for its graduates. He suggested that like the grape growers in California and in France helped each other out in times of drought, perhaps the same could be done in tapestry as well, with the weavers here in the United States carrying on the knowledge. Phillipe Playe taught two workshops in the United States with Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie to textile conservators, tapestry teachers and artists, myself included.
A number of us who studied with these and other tapestry masters now teach and pass on this knowledge. Many of us do so as itinerant instructors at our studios or retreat centers, through weaving guilds or arts centers. Over these past decades, most university institutions in the United States have eliminated their fiber arts programs, some of which did include hand woven tapestry. Many of us tapestry artists are in the second half of our life spans, producing work that few art galleries are willing to represent because there are no guarantees of sales.
We live in an era that embraces high-speed internet, computer technology, and the encyclopedic form of knowledge in mainstreamed, dominant languages. It is ironic that with all of this information at our finger tips, we also are facing the extinction in our lifetime of over 500 oral human languages, and all of their accompanying vocabulary, thought systems, cultural and environmental knowledge. This is the world of the coming generations, who’s fingers are trained to text message and to type on keyboards, and who may or may not have interest in learning that there is so much more one can do with one’s hands.
Is the language of tapestry and the knowledge of weaverly hands going to survive?
I have great hope that it will. Over and over again, I see where one person can and does make a difference, be it through teaching, curating exhibitions, making videos, writing and publishing books, establishing organizations and study groups, building websites, and creating new works in tapestry. I am doing my part, as are so many others. We each do make a difference.