Personal Reflections on Hidden Tapestry by Debra Dean

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I first learned about Debra Dean’s new book, Hidden Tapestry:  Jan Yoors, His Two Wives and the War That Made Them One when initially contacted by publicist, Jessica Jonap, about the possibility of reviewing it on my blog.  I found it to be an interesting read, well researched, and a good addition to the growing documentation about the Tapestry Art Movement beginnings here in the United States.  It is also quite a story of Jan Yoors life, his role in the Resistance of World War II, his wives, Annabert van Wettum and Marianne Citroen, and their lives together in Greenwich Village, New York City during the 1950’s - 1970’s.

I was disappointed that there were no large, full color images of any of the Jan Yoors tapestries, which in turn lead me to search out where I could see more of his work.  The first version of Carol K. Russell’s Tapestry Handbook (Published by Lark Books, 1990) has one image of “New York Skyline" (p. 60).  A recently published catalog is available here,  plus a few links to some images:  Exhibitions  and  Collections.

Marianne and Annabert Yoors with tapestries in the Forty-seventh Street studio.          Photo courtesy of Debra Dean and Yoors Family Archives

Marianne and Annabert Yoors with tapestries in the Forty-seventh Street studio.          Photo courtesy of Debra Dean and Yoors Family Archives

I was especially interested to learn more about the beginnings of Paternayan yarn here in the States, with two brothers, Harry and Karinig Paternaya, who were sole survivors from their village in Turkey of the 1915 Armenian genocide. After walking to Palestine, they eventually ended up in New York City and started a business that utilized their knowledge of rugs: importing and dying quality Persian wool yarns. 

By the time I started working with the crewel weight version of these yarns in the 1989, JCA Corporation in Maine was producing both the Persian weight (three strands plied together) plus a crewel weight (thinner strands) with separate palette of over 250 colors. A mainstay yarn for many tapestry weavers in the United States, it was a devastating blow when JCA shut down all production of Paternayan yarn and closed their business in May of 2012. We were forced to find other yarns. Fleur de Paris began production of its new Anahera line.  In 2016 the Paternayan Persian weight became available again, but the crewel weight can only be found when weavers die and their studio inventory is sold.

Debra Dean wrote good descriptions of what was required in the production of Jan Yoors’ tapestries: the building of the 15-plus-foot vertical loom, the preparation of the cartoon, the warping of the loom, and the hundreds of hours required for sitting at the loom and weaving.  The fact that Jan, Annabert, and Marianne were all self-taught speaks volumes for how the act of weaving can be assessable to those who have the patience for it.  Jan Yoors ultimately did not, so relied on his wives to produce his tapestries, which at the beginning were woven in the spirit of collaboration, but less so in later years.

Marianne and Annabert Yoors weaving.  Photo courtesy of Debra Dean and the Yoors Family Archives.

Marianne and Annabert Yoors weaving.  Photo courtesy of Debra Dean and the Yoors Family Archives.

In Hidden Tapestry, however there are some unfortunate errors from the tapestry weaving perspective that need to be corrected, for the sake of accuracy. Jean Lurçat’s last name. the cédille accent below the c is missing.  Probably a typo, but this changes the pronunciation from what it should be --“Lursah”-- to “Lurkah.”  Referring to the number of “stitches” per inch is more appropriate for needlepoint or embroidery, not hand woven tapestry, where the coarseness or fineness of the weave is described in terms of warp ends per inch, the grain—or bead--of the fabric, or la portée in French tapestry.  Indeed, 3 ends per inch of the Yoors tapestries is quite coarse, giving a more textural and chunky quality to the woven surface, compared to French and Flemish tapestries from the Medieval and Renaissance periods averaging around 24 warp ends per inch, which makes for a smoother woven surface.

Most disturbing is the perpetuation of the myth that the terms “high warp” and “low warp” also refer to a “high” and “low” quality of weaving based on the use of the vertical or horizontal loom and the likelihood of making mistakes while weaving from the back vs. weaving from the front of the tapestry, as Debra Dean states on page 179.  This myth has been around for years, and its origins and veracity are very debatable. It is also debatable which style of loom is older, as the earliest found illustration dates around 5000 B.C. of a horizontal ground loom from Badari.  (A similar loom is still in use today by Bedoin nomads).

For the record, what does go into the “gold standard” for quality of a tapestry involves the coarseness and fineness of the weave, the integrity of the cloth (sound woven structure), types of yarns used (silk, cotton, wool, linen, strands of gold or metallic threads, etc.), the compatibility of the design to the language of the loom, the skills of the weaver(s) and the vision of the artist. All of this can be achieved on either the vertical or horizontal loom.

I have woven on both haute lice (high warp or vertical) and basse lice (low warp or horizontal) looms. While some of the vertical looms I have used have had foot treadles for changing sheds. I prefer to use a basse lice loom for my larger format tapestries. It does entail weaving from the back of the tapestry, as well as from the side of the design (instead of bottom to top). The loom bench is angled for proper alignment of the back, and my feet can rest easily on the foot treadles, leaving my hands and my concentration totally focused on the weaving process. Weaving horizontally also is ergonomically better for my wrists. I occasionally use a mirror while I work, to check an area before moving on.  One can catch mistakes by simply paying attention, regardless of whether one is weaving from the front or the back. Each time I am ready to advance the warp, I will pull back the cartoon and crawl beneath the loom to look what I have just woven.  I now also use this as an opportunity to photograph the tapestry’s progress for later viewing on my computer screen.

Other reasons for working from the back of the tapestry entail keeping the face of the tapestry pristine and smooth, with no possibility of making the wool weft fuzzy from brushing against it while weaving.  Weaving from the back can be more efficient when ending and beginning new colors, and when using specific shading or interlocking techniques. When a tapestry is hung from the side, or by the wefts, the light reflects differently off of the grain of the fabric and the woven image.

Regardless of whether one weaves from the back or the front, when a mural-sized tapestry is hung sideways, by the weft, it can better support the tremendous weight of these works.  When such a tapestry is hung warp-wise, the weight and gravity over the decades and centuries will cause the weft to shift downwards and expose the warps, thus weakening the structure of the tapestry cloth.

Tapestry weaving does require paying close attention to detail, and hundreds of hours, as Debra Dean so aptly describes. My tapestry, The Veils of Time, woven at 10 ends per inch and measuring 50” x 60, ” took about 1,200 hours from the designing stage to the warping of the loom, through the weaving, finishing, and preparing it for mounting and hanging.  This was all done over the course of twenty-two months, around my teaching schedule and the demands of daily living.

The Veils of Time   Aubusson-style hand woven tapestry  50" x 60"                                         © 2017 Elizabeth J. Buckley     Photo Credit:   Elizabeth J. Buckley

The Veils of Time  Aubusson-style hand woven tapestry  50" x 60"                                       © 2017 Elizabeth J. Buckley     Photo Credit: Elizabeth J. Buckley

The “high stakes gamble” (p.184) of time, money, and resources involved in weaving large-scale, un-commissioned tapestries that the Yoors experienced in the 1950’s continues to be true for tapestry artists today. Just as public expectations, means and misunderstanding around the pricing of a one-of-a-kind hand woven tapestry that the Yoors encountered over 60 years ago still remain, despite the more recent historical exhibitions mounted at venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, in addition to the contemporary, juried biennials by the American Tapestry Alliance, and numerous regional and national exhibitions showcasing the art form of tapestry.

Tapestry in the United States continues to grow as an art movement.  At the time of Jan Yoors death at the age of 55 in November of 1977, on the west coast Jean Pierre Larochette was setting up the San Francisco Tapestry workshop.  Coming from a family of Aubusson tapestry weavers who moved to Argentina in the 1930’s, Jean Pierre also had helped Jean Lurçat set up the atelier connected to the Nazareth, Israel Tapestry School after World War II ended.  There is where he met his future wife, Yael Lurie, and together they have worked collaboratively over the years, creating many tapestries, mostly for commissions.

Also during the 1970’s, New York based artist, Gloria F. Ross, was increasing her role as “tapestry éditeur” coordinating American painters and other visual artists, cartooniers (specialists in adapting images for tapestry weaving), dyers, weavers, galleries and their clients in the production of modern tapestries.  She worked with ateliers (tapestry workshops/studios) in Scotland, Aubusson and Feletin, France, and later with Navajo weavers here in the United States.

In the Midwest, Muriel Nezhnie Helfman was designing and weaving tapestries for public buildings in St. Louis, Missouri beginning in the mid-1960s.  In the Southwest, many generations of Pueblo and Navajo weavers had been creating tapestry rugs and chief’s blankets for trade since the 1700’s, in addition to the Saltillo-style blankets produced by Spanish weavers in the Rio Grande Valley from the 19th century forward.

Now in 2018, the Tapestry Art Movement in North America continues to gain momentum, as evidenced by over 870 members of the American Tapestry Alliance, the majority of whom both design and weave their works. We also now have the opportunity to know more about Jan Yoors’ part through Debra Dean’s book, Hidden Tapestry:  Jan Yoors, His Two Wives and the War That Made Them One.  Northwestern University Press, April 15, 2018.   ISBN-13: 978-0810136830

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References:

Eric Broudy, The Book of Looms:  A History of the Handloom from Ancient Times to the Present, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1979, p.14.

Ann Lane Hedlund, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry, Yale University Press, 2010.

Kate Peck Kent, Navajo Weaving: Three Centuries of Change, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM, 1985.

Evelyn Bingham Prosser “Weaving in San Francisco Part I,” The Weavers’ Journal, Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall 1981, pp.44 – 47.

Evelyn Bingham Prosser, “Weaving in San Francisco Part II,” The Weavers’ Journal, Vol VI, No. 3, Winter 1981 – 82, pp.50 – 53.

Carol K. Russell, The Tapestry Handbook, Lark Books, 1990, p. 60.

Deborah Slater, “Tapestries of Muriel Nezhnie Helfman,” Handweaver & Craftsman, Vol. 23, No. 5, September/October 1972, pp.43 – 45.

Honoring Navajo Master Weavers

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This year during Women’s History month, I especially celebrate and give gratitude for the generations of master Navajo women weavers, who’s work is so eloquently featured in the book:

Navajo Textiles:  The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Authored by Laurie D. Webster, Louise I. Stiver, D.Y. Begay, and Lynda Teller Pete, plus Ann Lane Hedlund, who wrote the introduction. 

I first saw this book at the Albuquerque Public Library in their “New Arrivals” section.  The cover alone grabbed my attention and I had to pick it up.  As I spent time gazing at the pictures, reading different chapters, I came away profoundly moved.

The Preface begins with:

This book began as a simple invitation to write a catolog about the Navajo textile collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) and grew into a collaboration and friendship among Navajo and Anglo textile scholars.  The four of us share the love of Navajo textiles, and two of us grew up weaving them.  We each contributed different expertise and knowledge and learned from each other in the process.  We also had lots of fun.

In the Foreword Stephen E. Nash, Chip Colwell, and Melissa Bechhoefer describe the response upon first viewing of the works in person:

One by one, staff unrolled the 130 (out of 380) selected textiles.  Few had ever seen many of the weavings—some were so stunning as to leave even the experts momentarily speechless.  Then, each scholar began to share her viewpoint.  Each perspective enriched the others—weaving together the strands of technique, history, culture, place, and personal experience.

In addition to its many stunningly beautiful textiles, this book is also an eloquent glimpse into history, culture, and the multifaceted role of Navajo textiles across generations. Each author’s essays and narratives, as well as the commentary and descriptions accompanying each textile, is a full and generous sharing of personal, historical, and scholarly perspectives. The power of this collaboration speaks so well for how textiles can bring us together and connect us, transcending boundaries that often divide us. This is a must read and must have for one’s library.

 

 

 

My Mother Tongue is Tapestry

Elizabeth Buckley's hands weaving photo credit: Lany Eila

Elizabeth Buckley's hands weaving photo credit: Lany Eila

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.

Book Cover

Book Cover

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)

Book cover of Huari and Inca textiles, a Dover publication

Book cover of Huari and Inca textiles, a Dover publication

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!

Book cover

Book cover

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.

Book cover:  The Song of the World Tapestries  Angers, France

Book cover: The Song of the World Tapestries Angers, France

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.

detail of weaving process©2016 Elizabeth J. Buckley photo credit: Elizabeth J. Buckley

detail of weaving process©2016 Elizabeth J. Buckley photo credit: Elizabeth J. Buckley