Tapestry Came into My Life

Pregnant with my first child and still living in San Francisco (with my first husband) I suddenly got this urge to weave again.  I had been producing a fair amount of needlepoint, and even though I could finally afford the materials I needed (although I was still in cheap mode and never splurged on anything . . . that would come later, thank goodness, because splurging on art/craft supplies is imperative!) I wasn’t satisfied.

Oh, but I must digress here.  I have to tell you the needlepoint shop story.  If you’ve ever been in a needlepoint shop you know how they work:  usually quite small with lots of beautiful yarn in gorgeous colors handing from the wall along with an enormous assortment of painted patterns in kit form.  And one person behind a counter watching your every move if you happen to look about seventeen (I was at the time 28) and have a nice big motorcycle helmet under your arm.  I was most likely also wearing a black motorcycle jacket.  My 180cc Vespa was parked outside.  I was standing in front of that stunning wall of yarn trying to pick out six colors for a piece I was making.  I would grab a hank of yarn and then another, compare them, put one back.  I was deep in color mode and not at all aware that this poor woman at the counter was certain I was there for evil purposes.  She kept coming around, watching me, circling me, asking me if I needed help.  All I wanted was for her to leave me alone so I could pick out my colors.  But I looked terribly young and why in heaven’s name would someone that young be in that store for any good reason?  I finally bought some yarn and left in quite a hurry because I couldn’t get that woman’s stare out from between my shoulder blades.  Now back to my real story . . .
I discover a tapestry weaving class and Fort Mason in S.F.  I had seen and fell in love with the Unicorn Tapestries years before.  I was also enthralled with Navajo weaving.  I had a vague idea of the concept of weft-faced weaving.
The class had two parts:  dyeing and weaving.  The first class, we used onion skins to dye white wool.  There was a pot in front of the classroom boiling away with the skins and, I believe, pennies used as a mordant.  And although I knew this was called “natural dyeing” I also had this nagging sense that the mordants, although also “natural”, might not be the best thing for what was growing inside me.  The instructor said it would be just fine, but I was neurotic enough to not really believe her.  So I stayed clear of the dyeing pot and sat as far back in the room as I could.
The first class for me was not the first class for many of the students since they would just keep retaking this workshop.  So many arrived with looms sporting almost finished tapestries.  There seemed to be only one other student who was new at this game.  We sat together and with minimal instruction (we were given a rigid heddle loom and told how to measure the warp, and off we went to warp the loom).  Now we all know how much fun it is to warp a loom for the first time and those of you who have used rigid heddle looms know how much fun it is to get even warp tension that will work for tapestry on a rigid heddle loom.  I believe I spent the first class trying to achieve that elusive goal.
Next class I started weaving.  I have no memory of what.  Again, the instruction was minimal because this was really a tea party (and yes, it was very inexpensive) for tapestry weavers to gather and weave on their inappropriate looms.  After the third class I decided to buy a rigid heddle loom and then I failed to return.  Something about the new heavy metals they were using as mordants kind of scared the heck out of me and I wasn’t exactly fitting in and learning much of anything.  I have to admit, I am not the workshop going type.  I much prefer to teach them!
My then husband and I traveled to a store outside of S.F. which still exists, but whose name I am not going to remember until I post this blog.  They had Beka rigid heddle looms.  I bought one (I still own it although I haven’t used it in years) along with a bunch of alpaca yarn. Apparently, I had decided to leave tapestry for a while and weave scarves, which I then did. Lots of them.  Everyone I knew received one of those scarves and people I barely knew made requests for them.  They were deadly boring to weave.  I mean deadly.  But I wasn’t in creative mode.  Everything creative was happening in my belly and on the outside I just needed to make something, anything, and get that baby born.
When Layna turned one we moved back East, eventually ending up in Northern New Hampshire where my husband was marketing director for a paper mill.  When Lay was about two, I dusted off the loom, ordered some rug yarn and taught myself how to weave tapestry. Since I had no book, no teacher, just a vague memory of those three classes I attended, the learning curve was slow and hard.  I made very mistake in the book.  I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to not pull in the sides of the weaving.  I couldn’t understand how to layer colors so that they would be in the right shed.  Heck, I didn’t even understand what the right shed was. But tapestry is intuitive and eventually I figured a lot of it out on my own.  I bought a larger rigid heddle loom that stood on a stand.  I started making purses and even sold some of them to give me an excuse to make more of them.  It wasn’t until my second child, Zach, was born five years later that I finally bought a real tapestry loom.  By then I had mastered many of the tapestry techniques and even though I was using totally inappropriate weaving equipment I was able to get straight edges, somehow!
My new second hand loom was a Leclerc Tissart.  It was big and beautiful and it had great tension.  My first piece on that loom was so easy to weave.  I had gotten so good at weaving on the wrong loom that when I finally used a loom suitable for tapestry weaving it was magical. Straight edges just happened.  The warp never showed because the tension was so fabulous.
I got myself juried into the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and began selling my tapestries and purses in their stores.  I was on a roll.  At the same time I discovered that the general market was not going to provide the colors of yarn I needed.  I bought a bunch of natural colored rug yarn, some acid dyes, some big pots and taught myself how to dye wool.  I have a memory of the wooden drying rack in my kitchen laden with skeins of dyed wool.  Kind of blotchy, some of it, but again I was on the low end of the learning curve.
Next blog:  another move, another loom, a visit to Convergence, The American Tapestry Alliance, and a spinning wheel!

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How weaving came into my life

There are certain moments in your life you can never forget. One of mine is the first time I encountered a weaving loom. I was about nine years old and we were in, of all places, Macy’s. I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what department we were in. I am trying to call up an exact image of the shelf where I found the loom. I suppose it was a craft department of sorts, but no such thing currently exists at Macy’s. I can’t imagine what was on those shelves besides the one thing that caught my attention and dug its claws into me. It was a rigid heddle loom in a rectangular box. I was hooked. I wanted it. Christmas was just around the corner and I found my present.

That loom did find its way underneath the Christmas tree. I remember how I felt when I opened that box. After the initial thrill I realized that I didn’t have a clue how to set it up. At that point in my life I had not yet developed my love of setting up new things. But my brother could put together anything (and he would prove it constantly by taking things apart and then, eventually, putting them back together.) So with his help – I have a feeling I watched more than I helped – we warped that loom with the red, white and blue wool yarn I had requested also be under the tree. We set it up for a checkerboard. It became a scarf. Not half bad actually. I loved weaving it.
I don’t think I actually ever wove much on that loom mostly because of lack of materials. I don’t think my parents got it that I required the tools to ignite my imagination focused on fiber. I do remember making a needlepoint piece (I had been designing and making needlepoint pieces since I was seven when my parents brought back needlepoint from France for all three kids. I turned mine upside down and used the yarn to make my own design. An Aunt of mine then gave a bunch of needlepoint supplies to my sister, who although a great artist, had no interest in needlepoint, so I inherited it) and then using the yarn from the needlepoint to weave a backing for a pillow on that loom. Like everything I made, I gave that piece away, but I can still recall the deep reds and greens and blues and yellows that made up that pillow.
I did much more needlepoint than weaving. But in my senior year in college my brother discovered a four harness table loom in San Francsico and mailed to me in Ottawa Canada. I used whatever spare pennies I had to buy yarn and wove something, I believe a tote, although I do not have it. Most likely, I gave it away! At the time my boyfriend and I owned one piece of electronic equipment: a transistor radio. While I wove I listened to the BBC. My favorite show was “As It Happens.” Our apartment was dark and cold and one of the windows was badly cracked. It was miserable. I am sure the weaving was suitably dark and moody.
I moved to San Francisco that summer and had the loom mailed to me later. I remember setting it up in my apartment. I think I did that once. I believe I had realized that although I loved weaving, I wanted to make pictures and I didn’t actually like weaving cloth. But I didn’t know that I could weave tapestry. I had seen tapestries, but I didn’t quite understand how they happened.
Years later, pregnant with my first child, I took a tapestry class.
Stay tuned for next blog where I will share the journey that eventually became Mirrix.

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“Creating art is a human’s attempt to order the universe in order to possess, if only briefly, a part of it. The process of creating art gives one a chance to dance with one’s maker.” Claudia Chase

Ordering the universe with beads or yarn makes sense to me. I was sitting at a picnic table at the foot of Mt. Cardigan in NH, slightly annoyed that people were coming and going and I just didn’t feel like nodding or saying hi or even noticing them. So I bent my head down into the tray of beads and I started ordering them. That’s what we do when we attach these little gorgeous things together whether we use a loom or just needle and thread.

I live in what some would consider the middle of nowhere. In fact, it isn’t at all that but compared to where most folks live, I guess it is. A “real” grocery store is at least 16 miles away in any direction (we have a general store circa mid-1800 which we use too much because who wants to drive 16 miles for a gallon of milk . . . besides, the eggs there are all local grown and it is one of the few businesses in Francestown.) So the reality is that the foot of a mountain folks like to hike is going to be way busier than the hill I live on where you just don’t see folks very much and can easily escape people noises. We do have the insistent rumbling of house appliances and the slight buzz of electricity and, of course, the computer sounds and the ringing phones. But I can hole myself up in my studio and avoid strangers at all times. I can even avoid family members and friends if I want.
So there I am: Claudia, her beads and a bunch of strangers looking to climb a mountain or swim in New Foundland Lake (one of our more over-populated lakes but it does house a large State Park). I have two hours before Rick and I head off on our next canoe adventure. I am frantically bringing order to my universe by attaching those beads together, certain beads, in a certain manor that is mine. It is my universe and I am in control. I am not inside my body. My body only exists as a tool to make this thing in my mind happen. And I am happy, perfectly happy, perfectly content.
Have you ever noticed that when you are in the throes of creation you are actually in a state that can be considered, if not blissful or happy, content? Yes, there are those rushes of adrenalin when you solve a problem, but mostly it’s the repetition of moves that sooth. You make changes: what you are working on grows and mutates as your eyes observe the changes. Nothing outside of that tiny world exists. It is just you and your hands and the materials you are rearranging.
How simple. What a simple way to feel content. And yet, it’s not all that. What about the storms that rage when you are trying to solve an idea and find yourself failing again and again? What about those moments when nothing you are working on is working? When there is nothing to turn to with your hands that you can continue, change, develop? Not so good, those times. And then the moment comes when the idea you suddenly woke up with stuck inside your head begins to transform itself, begins to take shape, seems possible, seems entirely yours or at least somewhat yours because every little step we advance is based on a step someone else already took.
Anyway, there it is: you are shaping a little universe with your hands and it is all your are for the time you spend there.
I find eventually I do want to leave. Yes, I have spent many hours at a stretch working on one thing. But my usual level of attention on any one thing for any one stretch of time is two to three hours. Sometimes I am burnt out for the day. Sometimes I need to turn to some other medium or just some other project. It depends. And then of course there is the constant pull to run Mirrix!
I don’t know if I could exist without making art. It has become such a central theme for my life. I don’t know how to live differently. A few years ago I was visiting my parents in Corsica with my two children. I brought a lot of toys to play with. I dabbled very briefly with my toys. In the end, I made bead patterns on my computer and never so much as made an actual item out of anything. I was so proud of myself for essentially doing nothing for five weeks, for creating nothing physical for five weeks and just hanging out with my family. I needed to do that. They weren’t strangers at a campground from whom I needed to escape. I also needed to know I could live without my addiction for a period of time. When I returned home I was back to it instantly, but the break from my usual compulsive need to create was a good thing.
Where did it begin? Can you answer that question? What was the first hint that you were destined to make things? I can. But I’ll save it for another blog.

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