Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

How an Iowa Girl found her Tapestry Groove

I think it is only fitting to start this blog adventure at the beginning and tell my story: what attracted me to textiles in the first place, and how in the heck did I get into tapestry weaving?  It is a good question. 

I grew up in Iowa. Like just about every fiber artist of my generation (I’m a Boomer), my mother and grandmother were avid makers and unmistakable influences. Sewing, needlepoint, knitting, ceramics, rug hooking: I learned and practiced all these crafts as a girl. They were both into quilting, but not weaving.  Hence I knew about Amish quilt traditions but I was totally unaware of Norwegian tapestry traditions that are practiced on the Iowa/Minnesota border.  So unlike many tapestry weavers that I know, I did not come to the practice through other forms of weaving. In fact, to this day, I don’t know a thing about floor loom weaving.

In high school, I was fortunate to participate in a study abroad program in Europe.  I’m sure my parents thought it quite indulgent to allow me to go, but I can honestly say that trip
changed the course of my life. I had never even been to Chicago and suddenly I was learning about art and culture in Rome, Florence, and Paris! I saw many impressive historical tapestries on this trip. I’m sure my fiber hobbies predisposed me notice them – REALLY notice them. I became a little obsessed with the medium of tapestry.

Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestries from the Vatican Museum collection

Influenced by this European experience, I went on to study art and art history at the University of Iowa. Unfortunately, there was no textiles department at UI. However, the bookstore carried FiberArts Magazine, and through that publication I discovered that a contemporary tapestry movement was flourishing in the ‘80’s. I vowed I would find a way to learn to learn the craft someday. Had the internet existed, I’m sure my path would have been very different, but as it was I did not have the time or the mobility required to find instruction for many years.

A yellowed 1989 FiberArts article by Mary Lane

Fast forward a decade to the late 90s and, via a convoluted path, I am living in Seattle, Washington. I’m still pouring over every issue of FiberArts and dreaming of weaving tapestries. I had just put my high paying (hahaha) career in the museum field on hold to raise my young  children when I found out that master weaver Mary Lane lived in the area and she taught tapestry. (Sky opens and angels sing) My time had come! Thereafter, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to study traditional French (“Gobelin”) tapestry technique with Mary one day per week for three years. When my youngest started kindergarten I bought a 4’ Shannock tapestry loom and was off to the races. Twenty years later, I’m still at it.  (Mary, if you are reading this – THANK YOU!!)

But there is more to this story – learning French tapestry technique in Seattle? 
How the heck did THAT happen? Stay tuned.

Can you relate to my story?  If you are interested in reading how other weavers came to discover tapestry, the American Tapestry Alliance has compiled a collection of such stories here:  https://americantapestryalliance.org/resources/share-your-story-2/how-did-you-discover-tapestry/

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