Les Bons Gestes

By Elizabeth J. Buckley

This article was originally published in the American Tapestry Alliance newsletter, Tapestry Topics, Summer 2010, Vol. 36 No. 2. It is reprinted with permission of ATA.  Additional photos have been added here by the author.  Photo credit, when not otherwise stated:  Elizabeth J. Buckley.

Elizabeth Buckley's hands demonstrating Les Bons Gestes                                                                              photo credit:  Lany Eila

Elizabeth Buckley's hands demonstrating Les Bons Gestes                                                                              photo credit:  Lany Eila

            Sometimes, the fine-tuning of technique comes with a journey into another century, another language, another culture. Fifteen years ago, I first walked the gray cobbled stoned streets of medieval Aubusson, France.  Morning mist still hovered over the red geraniums spilling over the flower boxes along the drive leading to the atelier of maître-lissier, (master weaver) Gisèle Brivet.  I opened the heavy black door in the long stone building, and began climbing the wooden stairs leading to the second floor.  My footfalls echoed an announcement of my arrival, as I placed my feet in the middle of each worn step, where the center dipped lower than the edges.  I kept thinking, “I am walking in the footsteps of many apprentices.”

            At the studio door, Gisèle greets me, the first time we have met after months of correspondence.  She is bright-eyed, with short-cropped auburn hair.  She barely comes to my shoulder.  I follow Gisèle down the center of the long, rectangular room, as she eagerly shows me around her atelier. “Voilà les métiers de basse-lice.”

            Indeed, here are the low-warp looms, which I had seen only pictures of in historical tapestry books.  To our left, one large loom spans nearly the entire length of the room.  No warp is on it, but the cartoon tray is piled with skeins of yarn and baskets of bobbins.  Colors jumble together, yellows and oranges next to blues, purple, and reds.  In my mind’s eye, I can picture ten, maybe twelve, weavers sitting side-by-side on the loom bench, leaning forward as they work on a mural-sized tapestry.

            I turn as Gisèle moves to my right, to show me the looms we will be using.  “This one,” she explains in French, “is over four hundred years old.  It sits lower and is more comfortable for shorter people, comme moi.”  She grins.   “This loom over here is better for those who are taller.”  She looks directly at me.

            “The looms you work on aux Etats-Unis, they are different, n’est-ce pas?” she asks.

            “Oui, ils sont différents,” I respond.

            Alors, I will show you several things.”

            In one swift movement, she swings her legs over the loom bench, stands on the treadles and leans back against the bench, which is not horizontal, but at a forty-five degree angle.  “This allows the back to be in good alignment.  Thus, you can be more comfortable when leaning forward to weave, resting your stomach against the front beam, comme ça.  The treadles are long, like skies.  It is easy to get them crossed, when trying to change sheds.  It helps to keep your feet parallel, comme ça.” 

            I climb into the loom by lifting one leg over the loom bench and straddling it.  I shift to balance myself, swing the other leg up and over, then carefully lower both feet onto the treadles. I lean back against the bench, and try shifting the treadles with my feet, feeling awkward and clumsy at first.  But then, the movement begins to take on a rhythm.

            “It is a little like a dance,” I say to Gisèle.

            Exactement!  It is the dance of the low warp loom.  I think it is an element of the spirit in Aubusson tapestry.”  Gisèle’s blue eyes and her whole being radiate a vibrant energy.

            I touch the dark wood of the loom with a sense of awe, as if I were feeling the residue from all of the tapestries that so many weavers birthed on this loom.  I could sense their hands, their thoughts still lingering.

            Gisèle continues speaking eagerly and rapidly.  “There is a clear distinction between pure Aubusson tapestry and ‘tissage’ (weaving).  It has to do with the perfection of technique unique to this area, but more so with l’esprit d’Aubusson.”

            Gisèle pauses, as if to give me a moment to absorb what she is saying.

            “I have this passion for tapestry.  I began weaving when I was fourteen years old, and have been weaving tapestries now for over forty-two years.  My mother taught me, and she learned from her mother, my grandmother, who in turn learned from her mother, my great-grandmother.  But now no one in my family wants to learn, which is why I am wanting to teach you what I know.”

            Gisèle turns to pick up a shallow basket containing three wooden hand beaters, used for packing the yarn tightly in place while weaving.  She picks up one with missing teeth, narrower than the others.   “This beater, ce peigne, is the one my great-grandmother used when she wove.  I like to use it in sections which are small and narrow.”

            She gives it to me, and I know that this is more than a tool that I hold.  I feel its weight in my hands and its smoothness.  I trace the grain in the wood.  I feel a vibrant energy tingling in my fingers, as if the hands of her great-grandmother were still there.  I know that in this act, Gisèle is handing over to me a part of her heritage, to become engrained in my own cellular memory of master weaver hands.

            Now, fifteen years later, I sit at my own basse-lice loom in my own studio.  I pick up the hand beater I brought with me from Aubusson, and pack in the area of indigo blue in the tapestry slowly emerging before me.  Gisèle’s hands join mine, as do her forebears of previous centuries.

            Their presence links me with the mythic tradition of making cloth, as well as with my own history of first learning to weave from my mother.  Over the millennia, in regions and cultures all over the earth, old and sometimes gnarled hands have shown young small hands the feel of evenly tensioned warp and the arc of the weft to ensure a straight selvedge.  

            I think about how Gisèle’s hands showed me les bons gestes, the good gestures for the most efficient hand movements for faster weaving:  using the thumb of the left hand to lift the warp threads in the immediate area of weaving, and the right hand passing the bobbin through, then right middle finger tamping the weft into place.  At first, I had to put bandages on my left thumb to keep from developing a blister from the taunt warp.  Now, Gisèle’s bons gestes are a part of my own rhythm at the loom, like breathing.

            Gisèle’s atelier no longer produces tapestries, having closed about 9 years ago. Yet in my mind’s eye, I continue to return to l’esprit d’Aubusson, as embodied by Gisèle Brivet, maître-lissier.

Medieval bridge over the Creuse River in Aubusson, France

Medieval bridge over the Creuse River in Aubusson, France

Building location of atelier

Building location of atelier

Outside entrance to atelier

Outside entrance to atelier

Stairs to the atelier

Stairs to the atelier

Basse-lice looms 

Basse-lice looms 

Outside entrance sign to Gisèle Brivet's ateleir                                                                                photo credit:  Elizabeth Buckley

Outside entrance sign to Gisèle Brivet's ateleir                                                                                photo credit:  Elizabeth Buckley