Text In Tapestry


Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger

My experience with text in tapestry is varied.  My first attempt was with one of my very first pieces a portrait of Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood.  I used sepia tones for the piece which is 10” x 8.5” and 8 epi.  I decided to include her name because I figured no one would know who this was.  It’s woven in all caps two warps wide.  For a first attempt with text I think I did fairly well.  The challenge was to find a color that would work tonally next to light and dark.  I brought in a new color for most of the letters and used the darkest tone in the piece for a couple of the letters.  In retrospect I could have stayed with the one new color.   Using two colors is eye catching and not in a good way but the text does help the eye move around in the composition.

Golda I
Golda I, 9.25″ x 9.25″

My next experience was with Golda I a black and gold image of Golda Meir, a past Prime Minister of Israel.  I did two versions, Golda I & II because I thought I could improve upon the composition.  I was correct.  Golda I (9.25” x 9.25” 9 epi) has GOLDA woven down the left side, black letters on gold, the face in both versions is gold on black.  By this time my control had improved the lettering is good but in the second version  (Golda II, 16.25 x 14.15, 8 epi) I removed the lettering and changed the composition.   This tapestry is one of my more successful pieces.  That said, Golda I with the text works well too but the thickness of the letters which are woven on their side could have been more consistent.

I’m a member of the Wednesday Group.  We sometimes do group projects one of which was to design and weaving a tapestry to commemorate the quatra centennial of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river we know as the Hudson River.  I decided to try something new and weave a landscape of the river with two fisherman hauling shad also known as silverbacks.  Along the bottom I had the words The silverbacks are running.   I wove the words in cursive which I really enjoyed doing.  The problem I had was I couldn’t bring myself to weave the landscape.  Instead, I wove a portrait of Henry Hudson (21” x 18.75” 8 epi).  In lieu of a frame which is traditional on a portrait I framed  the portrait with the name Henry Hudson in Lucinda Blackletter Regular, repeated two times. This font is a bit difficult to read at first especially on it’s side and upside down which I like.  In the corners I put N, S, E, W for the points of the compass, a nod to Hudson’s numerous attempts to find that elusive northwest passage.  I think I did a really good job with this tapestry.  The text works quite well as it serves a dual purpose creating a decorative frame and naming the portrait.  The only criticism I have is the spacing could have been a bit better with the compass points.

Henry Hudson
Henry Hudson

Several years ago I designed a tapestry I have yet to weave.  I found a photograph taken by Lewis Wickes Hine (September 26, 1874 – November 3, 1940) an American sociologist and photographer. Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States and they are in the public domain.  The image I used is of a young girl in a factory standing between two long rows of spinning machines she was tending.  I reworked the image using Photoshop and again framed it with text.  Across the bottom I wrote Little Spinner Girl  in Lucicda Calligraphy Itallic.  Up the left side, across the top and down the right side I wrote A is for accident, B is for bobbin, C is for cotton, D is for doffer in American Typewriter Regular.  When I first designed this piece I really liked the words.  Now I’m wondering if they are needed, something I wonder about with other pieces too.  Which leads me to my next two tapestries.

I was in Egypt a few years ago and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo I spent quite a bit of time in the mummy rooms.  Imagine standing in a room full of cases close together, each one with a mummy laying as it may have been in it’s sarcophagus.  Now add to that dozens of people walking up and down the rows and me with my small sketchbook and pencil in hand drawing mummy heads in between people walking between me and my subject.  My sketches were more like scribbles as I was jostled and bumped while I drew.  

King Amenhotep II
King Amenhotep II

I did come out with some drawings I liked and decided to weave King Amenhotep II in repose.  I wove two versions, I & II.  In version 1 (13 x 11”, 9 epi)  I wove from the side and included the title ‘King Amenhotep II’ across the top.  In version 2 (8.5 x 8.75”, 10 epi) I wove from the bottom and left out the title.  I used flying shuttle and blending in both versions to get the sketchy quality from my original drawing of the image and in the text to copy my scrawl.  Having the text required a rectangular format which effects how the eye moves through the composition differently than the almost square format of the second version.  The text is a copy of my poor handwriting and matches the line quality of the image.  I like how the text at the top helps guide the eye back down to the image.  It acts as a grounding element.

My latest experience with text was not a success.  The tapestry: Fashion Series: Revolution I (27.5 x 60”, 8 epi)  is a large piece for me.  The design is based on a red and white striped walking dress from 1780 France.  The original design had text around part of the border.  It read: ‘fashion[fash-uhn] stylish. 2 current: popular: fashionable [fash-uh-nuh-buhl] adjective 1. observant of or conforming to the’  It was a lot to weave and I wove about 90% of the text.  Then I took a good long look at what I had woven and I did not like what I saw.  I decided to remove the text and I was grateful that my border was sewn on because I was able to cut the stitching and remove the offending member ten reweave the border without text.  The weaving of the text was not well done and did not really add to the the composition.  It grabbed the eye away from the main event which was not my intent.  I don’t know why I didn’t see that in the cartoon.  Maybe I was too attached to the idea but it did not work.  The final piece stands alone without need for elaboration.  

I have used text in service of the art but it can also be the art as in The Weston Tapestry a collaborative piece by Pat Taylor, Taiseer Shelhi and Vivien Allen In this tapestry hand written text is in the form of a flat spiral.  The words can be read but are a geometric shape an end in itself.

So, after all this I have to consider what I have learned from my experience with text.  It can be a design tool used to elaborate on the image, enhance the composition and help move the eye through the composition as in King Amenhotep.   I have used it to balance and ground a composition as in GOLDA I.  Used as a frame, text can be something more than text alone as in Henry Hudson, Henry Hudson or just be a frame as in my cartoon for Little Spinner Girl.  

One exercise that has helped me improve my weaving in general and with text specifically is taking a line for a walk.  Weave a small sample maybe 6 inches wide at what ever sett is comfortable, (I like 8-9 epi).  With a plain background and a vertical line two or three warps wide begin weaving a line.  As it goes up begin turning and curving all the time working to keep a consistent width.  I found that what makes letters look best is to have consistent widths if you are using a traditional font.  It also requires good planning when designing a tapestry with text so there is room for the text without unwanted crowding.

One thing I ask myself now is: Do I really need the text?  Will the composition stand up better without it?  In my last attempt with Fashion Revolution the answer was no but sometimes text does enhance the work and that to me is primary, the text must serve the art to provoke and suggest, urge and instruct, compelling the viewer or rather, the reader to explore realms beyond the physical presence of the tapestry.