Last year, my local reenactment group won its bid to host a high-level competition in Arts and Sciences, which encourages research and experimentation in almost any sphere of medieval technology. As it happened, I’d been looking for a long-term project to sink my teeth into– an ambitious project to improve my skills. (Rather than, say, a sweater to dawdle over for a year or two. Several of those are already hibernating cozily in the nooks and crannies of my apartment.)
So, I knew right away that I wanted to enter something. But what? I could make early Renaissance lace-trimmed goodies. I could build miniature models of historical looms. I could print woodcut maps…. I was at this stage of deliberation when, as I idly browsed museum websites, it struck me.
I could weave a tapestry!
I’d done a few samples back in 2011 and 2012, but not much, so there was some prep work to do. To put together a compelling entry (and for my own senses of academic propriety), I had to research the history and development of tapestry weaving in Europe and worldwide, I had to determine the appropriate techniques and materials, and I had to… learn to weave tapestry. With six months to go, I set to work.
Now, I knew that I didn’t want to design my own picture from scratch. The tapestry medium has some unique properties that I thought would be difficult for a novice weaver to predict. I also knew that I wanted to do something small in scale.
This delightful creature lives in the Met. He’s about three feet square, a fragment of a larger hanging. According to the experts, the collar symbolizes restrained lust or the taming of nature or something along those lines— however, I just found him endearing.
When adapting the design of the Fabulous Beast to a smaller format, I scaled certain elements up and down and reduced the overall level of detail. Here are some of my cartoon sketches:
I planned to weave my beast in the opposite direction from the original tapestry. This, I thought, would make it easier to compare my weaving to the original as I wove from the back of the tapestry. (As it turned out, I would have been fine either way, but that’s mostly thanks to the new loom I purchased partway through the project. Photoshop felt like cheating, and also I didn’t think of it.)
I also wove the image sideways. Vertical elements (like trees and legs) are much more smoothly woven at a 90-degree angle to the warp, and if you look at the warp ribs in the original tapestry, you can see that it too was woven sideways.
So, that was enough to start with. On to the materials!
Here’s what I planned to use:
- Handspun 8/3 linen warp
- Handspun, naturally dyed Wensleydale weft
- My Good Wood Slant loom, propped up vertically, with an 8-dent rigid heddle as a raddle and string heddles for shedding
Here’s what I actually used:
- Webs 8/4 linen rug warp
- Habu 48/2 merino, 6 strands together, for weft
- A new and shiny Mirrix Zach loom with treadle
I set up a sample with the Webs rug warp and had at it. As the sample progressed, I was actually quite pleased with the results I was getting, so I continued on with it… right until my poor cherrywood loom, which really wasn’t designed for this, started torquing under the tension.
Oops! (Who could have seen that coming, right?)
I scratched my head over an assortment of frame looms, priced out the cost of building a copper loom, scoured Craigslist ads for used tapestry looms– suffice to say that after a complicated series of events, I obtained a Mirrix at the end of December. Hooray
But by then there was no time to spin the Wensleydale, and no budget left to order the dyes I wanted. I was able to spin a reasonable rug warp out of the flax sliver I had on hand, but thought my time would be better spent… well… I was impatient to get that beautiful loom warped.
I was up and weaving again on January 1st.
The deadline was in early March.
I made it to the end by the skin of my teeth. The thing was off the loom less than twelve hours before the competition, and tacked to a canvas mount less than twelve minutes before the competition. (The other elements of my entry have been previously featured on this blog, aside from a small book’s worth of documentation and references. Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph the display.)
No, I didn’t win, but I placed in the finals and got a face-to-face judging– very good for a first attempt, I think! As the current champion of my local group, I was anxious to make a good showing, and I hope I did them proud.