Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Real Physical Labor, Material Understanding and the Wisdom of the Weaver’s Hands


American Tapestry Alliance

Fiber may no longer feel like the mainstay of our contemporary world, but the virtual webs technology has introduced to our daily lives most certainly are. Email has replaced hand written letters, cell phone messages and voice mail the personal visit and films get downloaded via broadband in lieu of a trip to the cinema or theatre. Virtual though it all may be, the pervasive influence of technology is based on many of the same notions that draw us to textiles. The interconnection of seemingly discrete elements into a larger whole, the possibility of rendering material that which exists in the imagination and the security which stems from a network of connections that bind and tie individuals together are all “woven” evidence of the striking similarities to be found between our virtual and material webs.

When considering the place of tapestry in the twenty-first century, it is important to acknowledge these connections and understand that textiles need not be understood as marginal in contemporary society. Textiles are in fact utterly central to the ubiquitous computing that increasingly defines our lives. Sadie Plant, author of what has been coined the cyber feminist rant Zeros and Ones explains, “The yarn is neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material, gathering of threads which twist and turn through the history of computing, technology, the sciences and arts. In and out of the punched holes of automated looms, up and down through the ages of spinning and weaving, back and forth through the fabrication of fabrics, shuttles and looms, cotton and silk, canvas and paper, brushes and pens, typewriters, carriages, telephone wires, synthetic fibers, electrical filaments, silicon strands, fiber-optic cables, pixeled screens, telecom lines, the World Wide Web and the Net, and matrices to come.” If we are to think of weaving as the basis, rather than the periphery, of contemporary life then tapestry can be understood as the material foundation of a new ruling system that desires to permeate every level of our lives today.

But tapestry’s real strength may lie in its ability not only to speak to, but also to shun, the ubiquity of computing, technology and the simulacra. The World Wide Web speeds communication and information transfer. It also flattens, mimics and repeats; plagued by viruses and worms that feed on the ease with which copies can be generated. The tactile – at least for now – is wholly absent. As is warmth and scent. Color is no longer nature’s invention. Texture may appear to our eyes, but cannot be revealed to our hands. The sender’s voice is as frequently unsolicited spam as it is desired, thoughtful communication. Thus the links technology provides are webs that are both infinite and at the same time entirely limited. A first hand experience of fiber takes on an even greater value for societies inundated with the virtual fibers of technology. In fact it is the material voids the virtual world creates that make contemporary tapestry art such a vital contribution to the twenty-first century’s increasingly complex web making.

Perhaps more so than other textile traditions, contemporary tapestry weavers face the considerable challenge of reconciling the rich and lengthy legacy the discipline inherits from history with a desire to make modern, to increase relevance and respond – through fiber – to the cacophony and chaos of modern life. While responses to this call are as personal and individual as the maker’s who have woven them, they somehow continue to shed new light and bring into question aspects of a tradition based upon deep and significant historical roots. Updating the imagery tapestry contains is one way to confirm the tradition’s relevance to modern life. In particular it is the chaos of contemporary living that many artists record through densely layered and overlapping woven imagery. The ordered rhythms of weaving offer a counter balance to this agitated pace and, one would like to hope, provides succor not only to the maker but also to those invited into their presence.

At the Sixth Biennial of the American Tapestry Alliance viewers will see the breadths to which contemporary tapestry artists have asked the tradition to stretch. Imagery is appropriated from other media as well as born straight from the imagination: marks of graphite, photographic negatives, leaf veins and portraits both iconic and familial are all in evidence. Eye watering detail is deployed to capture the faded and uneven frank on the perforated edge of a stamp. But so too are experiences that often defy translation into material: pollen, darkness, moisture. Making material the intangible proves the expressive breadth contemporary tapestry art tackles.

Assumptions about the possible parameters and ideals of tapestry are also eloquently thrown into question. The rich ability of tapestry to render subtle gradations of colors is challenged by works that embrace a flat paint-by-number effect. Self-scrutiny is apparent in woven images of cloth, perhaps one of the most challenging images to make: the image of cloth made by cloth. The ubiquity of computing is also reflected in the hand weaving of pixilated imagery, which re-appropriates the virtual by returning, through the exhaustive work of the hand, the organization of our computer or television screen to the material. By rendering pixels in fiber the invisible systems that increasingly control –and record – our lives are visible, tactile, real. Somehow, seeing them makes it all seem a little better, a little less suggestive of surveillance and a little more concerned with a life of interconnectedness that can be understood as support rather than entrapment.

As virtual experiences continue to encroach upon the fabric of our daily lives, long overdue recognition of the contemporary tapestry artist’s command of a craft that is both an imaginative wonder and a physical labor is also needed. In his 1927 novel Laughing Boy Oliver La Farge writes of an American-Indian woman who grows up outside her community and must learn to weave as an adult. La Farge writes that learning to weave would, she thought, “complete her idyll.” But as any weaver knows, the learning process is a lengthy one: physically, intellectually and emotionally. “She dearly longed to reconstruct that scene, but after just a little her back would ache,” La Farge writes, “her forearms grow heavy, and in the backs of her hands would be sharp pains, while the threads were like demons to outwit her. The patient, monotonous spinning was pure torture, and she knew little or nothing of dyes.” It is quite easy, and part of our enjoyment, to observe tapestries for the lushness of color, beauty of fiber and surprisingly detail the structure allows. It is time to acknowledge that these skills are not ones arrived at easily. They are not born of a virtual web, nor do they come into existence through anything less than real physical labor, material understanding and the wisdom of the weaver’s hands.

Plant suggests that there is in fact an “obsessive, addictive quality to the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth; a temptation to get fixated and locked into processes which run away with themselves and those drawn into them.” The work displayed here certainly adheres to this desire, but also questions it. The addiction and necessity to complete is challenged in works that remain materially ‘unfinished’, bold moments where rhythm is suspended and expectation denied. Unwoven, unpicked, unraveled areas reflect the fragility of cloth and the eventual outcome of all cloth to return to its unwoven state. But intentional elements such as the unwoven warp of a contemporary tapestry also challenge preconceptions about finished or secure structures. Beauty need not result only through completion, nor may the making material of emotional insecurities be perceived as a flaw.

In our ever more physically comfortable lives, tapestry’s original purpose may seem obsolete. While it is fair to accept that the role of contemporary tapestry has shifted from one of both decoration and function, to one of decoration the discipline continues to have its work cut out for it. For the most part our homes no longer require drafts to be blocked or insulation to be added. Our eyes can be entertained with the ever-changing imagery of the television screen. But that is not to say that our senses have forgotten what the presence of fabric can provide. Our modern experiences can be rife with echoes, hollow spaces in need of acoustic dampening and emotional, if no longer physical, warmth. Protection, less from the chill of winter than the threat of postmodern irrelevance is still very much in need.

Contemporary tapestry also finds itself released from the wall. Three-dimensionality is explored as well as unconventional forms that fly in the face of what a woven structure is assumed or expected to be able to achieve. Viewing these tapestries at close distance allows one to appreciate the woven structure, the blending of color and the expressive possibilities of texture rendered through fiber. But what viewing at close distance does not afford is a view of the ‘big picture’, as they say. Clarity is possible when you step back from the structure and the image comes into focus. The same could be said of the place of contemporary textile art in the broader field of the visual arts. Though under-acknowledged, the contribution textile art is making to the visual arts as a whole can be appreciated when observed from a distance. Increasingly, thread and cloth are making their way into mainstream galleries, appreciated at least in part because of the sheer relevance they hold to our daily lives.

Again it is Plant who suggests that “because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design, cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production: how many women worked on them, the techniques they used, the skills they employed. The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it; the program and the pattern are continuous.” Tapestry makes material structures increasingly felt to be beyond our control. Exposing the program is a necessary step in recovering control over our daily lives. In Women’s Work Elizabeth Wayland Barber offers a sage warning of the interpretative mistakes generations can make if the separation between use and making of textiles grows too great. Barber suggests our common understanding that Homer’s Penelope wove a funerary cloth by day and unpicked it by night to stall her suitors is based on our collective ignorance and distance from the pace of weaving. “Homer’s audience,” Barber argues when she suggests that we have long misunderstood just what Penelope wove, “would have know that only the weaving of a nonrepetitious pattern such as a story is so very time-consuming, but we who no longer weave or regularly watch others weave are more easily misled.”

What further mistakes could we be making, not only in the interpretation of great myths, but in our understanding of the virtual webs that are being ever drawn around us if we allow an increasing distance to develop between society and the weaving of the webs that bind us together? Plant explains, “the textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage long before anything was written down.” But today, when we can record in code and type all that we think we may know, we must realize that the knowledge our hands posses is precious beyond measure. It is a knowledge in many ways beyond language, a knowledge that has survived the test of time and one that tapestry artists today keep alive through on ongoing commitment to the development of contemporary tapestry art.

Dr Jessica Hemmings holds a BFA in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, an MA in Comparative Literature (Africa/Asia) from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and wrote her Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh on the role of textiles in the fiction of Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera. She is a contributing editor to the magazines Selvedge and Modern Carpets and Textiles, a frequent contributor to The Surface Design Journal, Craft Arts International, Embroidery and Fiberarts and is a Lecturer in the Theory and Practice of Textiles at the Winchester School of Art, England.