Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

Mining Historic Textiles as a Route to the Future

The following is a Guest Post by weaver Mary Lane about her recent work and her participation in a workshop led by Gerhardt Knodel on mining historic textiles for design inspiration.  I was a participant in this workshop as well, but I asked Mary to write about her experience because of how closely the topic relates to her current work. What she has been exploring in her weavings, and how she goes about designing these works, is fascinating.  I hope you enjoy reading this special post.

I was very excited when I saw an announcement for a master class entitled, Mining Historic Textiles as a Route to the Future. The workshop was part of a symposium sponsored by Northwest Designer Craftsmen which included a panel discussion, a national crafts exhibition, Currents 2020 (hosted by the Schack Art Center in Everett, Washington), a series of master classes, and other events. Mining Historic Textiles was taught by Gerhardt Knodel. Knodel’s influence in the fiber field is huge, both because of his four decade long career making work that embraces a broad range of conceptual, spatial and material investigation, and because, as the head of the graduate program in Fibers at Cranbrook Academy of Art, he taught many of the highly respected artists currently working in the field. The focus of the workshop fit my interests perfectly. I have always been influenced by historical textiles and my current work references it quite directly.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Flower Powered,” 2015-2017 and detail. This piece was part of Currents 2020. It is one in a series of pieces that Knodel made in response to a Ming Dynasty textile from his collection.

The piece is constructed by layering many hundreds, or perhaps, thousands, of individually cut pieces of fabric that have been fused to felt.

“And to find out what we are, we must enter back into the ideas and dreams of worlds that bore and dreamt us and there find waiting within worn mouths, the speech that is ours.”

William Goyen, The House of Breath

The quote above was given to us at the start of the class by Gerhardt Knodel. It was the only handout we received, although it was by no means the only information we received!

The format of the class revolved around a series of exercises based on textiles that Knodel had brought with him. Each day four to eight textiles greeted us as we arrived. Our first task was to draw one of the textiles and then write something about what we had discovered, including an attempt to relate our discoveries to contemporary society. The musings were quite varied – descriptive, poetic, narrative – as were the aspects of the textiles that captured each participant’s attention.

By the second day my understanding of the process was more nuanced and I was able to gather more information about the textile with which I chose to work. Some of the aspects that I focused on were: the layout of the motifs across the field; the positive/negative shifts used to delineate form; the sophisticated cadence of the patterning; the play of dark and light; and the irregularities that made the textile so interesting visually.

Day 2. Drawings and writing. I analyzed the proportions and layout of the horizontal bands of pattern and also the distribution of values across the textile. I also looked more closely at an area in which a component of the design was defined by using both positive and negative space.

Day 2. Collage: paper, cloth and pencil on black paper. Moving from the drawing and writing to the collage was not particularly easy. Each day I had frequent starts and stops before I found a direction, which often was not that closely linked to the original textile.

Day 3. Drawings and writings. These were based on an Indonesian ikat depicting a Dutch Queen (left) and a Kutch (northwest India) cradle cloth (right). The image of the queen flips along a horizontal axis, so that it reads the same when the textile is draped over, or around, a body. The architecture surrounding the queen uses the familiar building blocks of weaving, squares, rectangles and triangles. The figures are represented hierarchically – the queen being larger than her attendants. The cradle cloth was fascinating. It looked like a game board! There were several “disturbances” in what, for the most part, was a symmetrical composition. It is these “mistakes” (intentional, or not) that can make a patterned textile so fascinating.

The drawing and writing was followed by hands on work with a variety of materials and techniques - fabric, paper, trimmings, drawing, sewing, painting. You were only limited by what you, and everyone else, brought. The sharing of materials was fun and greatly expanded the possibilities, since each of us worked in different fiber techniques and brought a different stash of materials. I would describe the end product, in most cases, as collage, although some people created hanging sculptures or other three dimensional forms. On the third day we all worked with the same textile, the Kutch cradle cloth from northwest India.

Kutch cradle cloth, one of the objects of Day 3’s investigations. See if you can find the irregularities in the layout.

Cradle cloths made by the class participants.

To go through this entire process in a day was quite quick, but it promoted fast thinking and decision making. Repeating the process from something given (historical textile) to something new (collage, etc.) multiple times allowed us to develop some facility with the method. Working quickly discourages one from seeing anything as too precious. It stretches our usual ways of thinking and working and, in the best case scenario, allows us to enter a flow state. (I was reminded of Mark Adam’s exercise of making a 3’ x 4.5’ cartoon every day for six days.) The end products were not finished or polished. They were sketches in fiber that were meant to make manifest what we had learned from our textile and how we interpreted that through the lens of our own experience.  

After we worked through this process each day, Knodel took time to share additional information about the textiles with which we were working. Each grouping was united, for him, in some way.  Some of the themes that were mentioned, and which could serve as fodder for conceptual relationships between an historical textile and the work inspired by it, were: the space it commanded; the space opened up within a design; the elements of time and use as they were manifested through wear; geometry; symmetry and asymmetry; the way in which the structure and form of a textile merges with the design or imagery; integrated dissonance; fragmentation; cacophony; ambiguity; the relationship of a textile to the body; and the power that resides in cloth. The challenge, as a contemporary artist using historical materials as inspiration, is to learn from the past and then do something new, to move history forward. Ambitious and worthy goals!

As I mentioned, the designs for my recent tapestries reference historical textiles. My previous work has also been influenced by historical pieces, but the new work has a more direct connection. 

In the fall of 2019, suddenly with a lot more time to be in my studio, I started experimenting a bit with woodling – doodling while weaving – a term I first heard when Kennita Tully used it on the American Tapestry Alliance’s Let’s Talk Tapestry Facebook Group. I used my woodles to, as I have been putting it, learn to weave like a tribal weaver. To me this meant being able to weave patterns directly, by counting warp threads and weft passes. (I am a natural born counter. I could sub in for The Count on Sesame Street!)

I started by drawing patterns from existing textiles. I felt that mapping them on paper would help me learn what I think is a fundamental way of thinking about weaving that characterizes cultures that produce patterned textiles. I have many pages of the drawings and refer to them as my dictionary. As you can see, I drew not just geometric patterns, but also stylized representational imagery (plants, animals, etc.). Working with graph paper helped me understand the language of pattern and also allowed me to relate the drawings to the grid created by the intersection of warp and weft.

The pattern drawings served as a reference for my woodles. The only thing that was decided before I started weaving was the initial pattern I was going to weave, which, in turn, determined the number of warps I needed.  For example, a square might be defined as three, four or five warps wide. If I wanted ten repeats of the square across the width then I would need thirty, forty or fifty warps. Triangles always resolve more successfully if they contain an odd number of warps. If the squares and triangles interact in a specific way in the pattern, then the number of warps for each kind of shape have to be worked out together. This kind of thinking is more evident in “Woodle 1.” In “Woodle 2” I was trying to work in a more improvisational way. Still, as I wove up the warp and decided which pattern to introduce next, I had to decide how many warps each shape would be so that it would resolve successfully across the width of the warp. After that, when I decided to shift to a new pattern, I had to figure out how many warps the shapes in the new patterns would use based on what I had already set up.

“Woodle 1,” 9” x 9,” 2019, cotton warp, wool weft, 10 epi

“Woodle 2 ,” detail. 12 epi. This section is 14” x 8.” The entire piece is 24” x 8.”  I don’t consider the entire piece very successful, but in this section I felt like I gained a little facility in using the patterns in new ways.

After the woodles, I began working on collaged, patterned designs in Photoshop. I had been playing with Photoshop techniques for a while. The design for my 2016 entry to the unjuried small format show employs them. Since the fall of 2019 I have completed five small tapestries, experimenting with this way of designing and weaving, following various paths that I find compelling and that have rich veins to mine. Most of the tapestries combine patterns and details from old textiles. My goal is to fuse the source material visually so that something new arises. The imagery from the source material is usually recognizable, but not necessarily obvious.

“Boundless,” 24” x 14,” 2020, cotton warp, wool weft, 8 epi

The most recent piece in this series is entitled “Boundless.” It is composed of two different tapestries. The more colorful and patterned tapestry on the top is 15” x 10”. The tapestry on the bottom with text is 4” x 10.”

Details from two historical textiles are used in the composition of the top tapestry, a double weave with a motif that has rotational symmetry and a weft faced textile with a series of nested stepped triangles of different colors. The detail from the textile with the stepped triangles is the same size as the entire composition and so is one layer in Photoshop.  I isolated one repeat of the motif from the double weave and duplicated it fourteen times in the composition, in two columns each with seven rows. Each of these fourteen units is a separate layer in Photoshop. Having the units separate allows for blending the two source images differently in each of the fourteen units. The stepped triangles include colors that are light, medium and dark in value. Photoshop allows one to control what range of values blend, so the possibilities for varying the blending between the two source images in different areas of the composition is quite high.

One of Gerhardt Knodel’s suggestions to me was to introduce different elements, or disjunctures, into the designs using patterning. That advice inspired me to weave the second (lower) component in “Boundless,” which, in turn, inspired its name. I am thinking of weaving the lower part again and making it as wide as the mount, perhaps with a darker blue. A side note: The blue in the lettered tapestry is the same blue as the darkest blue in the patterned tapestry, but it looks different because of the colors that surround it. It could have been an illustration in Johannes Itten’s book, The Art of Color!

AWW: Brockett Deer,” 10” x 10,” 2016, cotton warp, wool weft, 11 epi

AWW: Brockett Deer” is a shaped tapestry. The mount is 10” x 10.” This is the 2016 tapestry that I mentioned before. It is the first weaving from the many layered and blended images I have played with in Photoshop. It is composed of three different source images – a drawing of birds in flight, a detail from a photograph of rocks and a detail from a colorful Andean textile patterned with stylized Brockett deer. Each source image is its own layer in Photoshop. The interplay between the three different components is adjusted not only by blending, but also by the order in which the layers stack up in the composite image.

Two more pieces in this series of work:

(Title undergoing revision…) 10” x 8.25,” 2020, cotton warp, wool and cotton weft, 12 epi

(Title undergoing revision…) 10” x 8,” 2020, cotton warp, wool weft, 8 epi

After weaving three woodles and five tapestries based on layered and blended composite images, I was ready to step back, assess what I had done and get some feedback. Gerhardt Knodel’s class - Mining Historic Textiles as a Route to the Future – challenged me to think about how I could push my work. Several concepts we worked with, and discussed, seem particularly relevant to my recent work. 

One strategy that intrigued me was that of disjunctures, something unexpected, something that, on first impression, is not a logical, or easy fit with the rest of the piece. These “hiccups” invite the viewer to think about how the various elements fit together both visually, and perhaps, conceptually. Because my recent tapestries employ, primarily, visual strategies, creating disjuncture by introducing disparate content could open up many new possibilities. Conceptual themes that interest me are the element of time as it relates to making and the social, emotional and psychological power of textiles. I would also like to experiment with incorporating additional methods of interlacement and stitching. One of the strengths of tapestry is its ability to marry differences into a seamless whole. Because of this, creating disjunctures within the actual woven tapestry is challenging. Incorporating additional techniques could be one way to upset this propensity of weft faced weave to dampen disparity.

Another strategy that Knodel discussed many times in relation to his work and to the historical textiles with which we worked, was opening up space. His encouragement to consider space as a key player in a design invites me to reconsider the flat, overall nature of my patterned designs and the way they are delimited in space. Actual space could be created by shaping the tapestry, using open warps, creating void spaces and building designs with multiple components. These strategies enlist the wall as an active component of the design. For smaller tapestries, new approaches to mounting could break down the traditional right angled approach to tapestry. Space could be created in the woven areas through imagery, color and a considered approach to positive/negative interactions. Circling back to disjunctures, manipulating space also offers an additional strategy for creating dissonance and ambiguity. 

I look forward to exploring these new paths. I will be doing this by, as they say, going back to the drawing board. Interestingly, a recent book on Knodel is titled What If Textiles. “What if” is an attitude that Archie Brennan cultivated in his work. I am going to keep that in mind as I further my explorations.

Mary Lane is an artist and an art historian. Her tapestries reside in private and public collections and her writing on contemporary art has been published in journals, catalogs and magazines around the world. She is the former Executive Director of the American Tapestry Alliance.

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