Weaving Tapestries to Express Contemporary Concerns

This article was printed in the BTG (British Tapestry Group) periodical Tapestry Weaver, issue 27 March 2020.

On the homepage of my website my artist statement finishes with:

“… I find the dichotomy of the ancient medium of tapestry expressing contemporary subjects a powerful tool.”

Fréo Ellenlic

As weavers we know that historically, tapestry was used to tell a story. In medieval Europe, where the majority of people were unable to read, pictorial tapestries hung in places of worship and told stories from the Bible. As time went on, tapestries were used to express the political and social power of royalty by telling stories of battles won, hunting expeditions and more. These magnificent weavings were full of symbols, many of which are lost to us. But, we have our own symbols and new imagery to express what matters, or doesn’t matter, to us today. 

Our dreams are full of symbols, subliminal messages. They can be very powerful, disturbing, exciting. We are awash in symbols through advertising and social media and we have been trained to respond. Wikipedia describes the proverb: We are all familiar with the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As an artist I infuse my work with an images and symbols convey meanings more effectively than verbal descriptions.

I sometimes use tapestry to express my personal views, and I often use symbols which are conveyed subconsciously, sometimes even to me. 

My recent tapestry, Fréo Ellenlic is a particularly illustrative example of how I use symbols to convey my personal views. The title, Fréo Ellenlic, is Anglo Saxon for daringly, valiant woman. She is boldly courageous, brave and worthy. This tapestry is full of symbols beginning with the image of a female archer on horseback with her arrow nocked, bow drawn, ready to shoot. When I tell you that this tapestry was inspired by the #MeToo movement you may see more than first meets the eye. 

Little Devil Corset

To Fréo Ellenlic is not any woman: she is all women. She is not just sitting on a horse, she is mounting her bridled power. She is focused and heroic.  When the arrow strikes the target the score is irrefutable and true. The feathers or fletching on the arrow provide stability and accuracy in flight. They are yellow, the color of clarity, enlightenment and honor. The background surrounding the archer is woven in cool greens, the archer and her mount are predominantly warm colors. Cool colors are cold, impersonal and antiseptic. They are also comforting and nurturing. Warm colors can convey excitement or even anger. The color purple which is used in the archer’s clothing and sash is synonymous with royalty. This mysterious color is associated with both nobility and spirituality. Because the color is derived from a mix of a strong warm and strong cool color, it has both warm and cool properties. 

Another recent tapestry of mine, The Little Devil Corset, was inspired by the Apocalypse tapestry in Angers, France. This tapestry, a masterpiece of the medieval era, represents the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations and focuses on the heroic aspects of the last confrontation between good and evil and features battle scenes between angels and beasts.

Little Devil Corset interior structure and tapestry exterior before being sewn together. More names were written on the interior before completion.

Using pulled warp techniques to create a three dimensional piece, The Little Devil Corset expresses my fascination with the ways people have distorted their bodies in the name of beauty and art. The imagery I have taken from the Apocalypse tapestry includes stylized water, clouds and land, little devils, a fire breathing creature and vines. The little devils are reaching for the corset laces behind the wearers back. What are they about to do? Are they going to tighten the laces, loosen them? What or who do these devils represent? 

Historically, one goal of corsets was to reduce waist size. The Little Devil Corset reduces my waist by four inches, a common goal called tight lacing. I can tell you from wearing the corset that it is very uncomfortable and breathing deeply is impossible. Tight lacing still goes on today, but in general has been replaced by extreme dieting, anorexia and bulimia. Many women believe that ideal beauty is to be thin. This is a difficult notion to let go of. I have intentionally designed the corset to be difficult to get in and out of.

The Little Devil tapestry is supported by a sewn substructure in the form of a simple, traditional corset. I taught myself how to draft and sew the corset which includes a tightly woven, heavy cotton fabric, stays, grommets and lacing, typical of most corsets. I have used vines, which are used throughout the Apocalypse tapestry, in the weaving and on the inside of the sewn corset. The vines on the interior are composed of names, beginning with mine, that I have collected and hand written in red. These are names of men and women who have been sexually abused, harassed and/or raped. I chose the pattern of a vine wrapping around the inside of The Little Devil Corset to represent strangle hold and shame these atrocities have upon people.

The wire armature displays the corset and allow the interior to be seen by peeking inside. The armature suspends the piece off the floor to the height it would be when worn. This propels the corset into the world of sculpture. When transferred from a wall hanging to the format of a corset, the imagery takes on added meaning. My intention is to give the viewer something to consider beyond the technical and visual aspects of the work. Using corsetry I am employing the art of tapestry and the imagery from the Apocalypse to expose sexual exploitation.

Showing interior of Little Devil Corset with names of people whoo have been sexually abused.
Photo by Morgain Bailey

In this world of information overload, sometimes a symbol can break through the clutter in a way that words cannot. Symbols are powerful, inspirational and often instantly recognizable. I use symbols in my work consciously and unconsciously. During the design and weaving phases I make many decisions. Once I complete a tapestry I write an artist statement, sometimes researching some aspect of what the works relates to. Occasionally, in my research I find the meaning in choices I have made fit the tapestry in a way I had not intended, but am happy to adopt. For example, I chose yellow for the fletching in Fréo Ellenlic. When I was writing this article I found the meaning of the color yellow to be clarity, enlightenment and honor. This fit beautifully with the story of the tapestry. Is that group consciousness at work or dumb luck? Whatever it is, it happens to me a lot as I immerse myself in my tapestries.