West Dean Tapestry Studio

This week I went on a day trip to visit the West Dean Tapestry Studio near Chichester. They open for half an hour a week for a short tour and Q&A session on weaving in general and their current work. The studio opened in the 1970’s to work on a commission from Mary Moore to create a tapestry from a drawing by  her father, Henry Moore. They have been working on their current commission from Historic Scotland for Stirling Castle since 2008.

The tapestry I saw being woven is on a large low frame loom, and the cartoon has been printed on a large scale from A4 transparencies. The cartoon lies behind the warp, and the lines transferred onto the warp thread with pen as they go. Sections of the cartoon are printed on a slightly smaller scale in sections and a plan for colour matching marked out every month. They try to use a restricted palette (100 colours across this one tapestry and 250 across the four) and sections may be pulled out and rewoven as they go if it doesn’t quite work in life.

Gold thread has been used in small areas, and they use a rather costly 2% gold thread as the modern metallic machine threads have a tendency to fade. The warp is of mercerised cotton rather than traditional silk as modern silk does not have the same longevity as in the past. Wooster wool is used for the weft. These large scale tapestries are traditionally woven from the back, but in the 1980’s the decision was made by the studio to work from the front. Part of the reason is that modern tapestries use more blended wefts to create a more painterly effects. Different tones are blended within the same weft, and in one particular example up to 13 ply were used in a single weft on a wide setting to create a gradual movement of colour. One such contemporary artist collaboration was with Tracey Emin, which are currently on display at the Turner Gallery in Margate.

‘The Black Cat’ Copyright Tracey Emin, image from West Dean website

We saw some samples being woven for artist Michael Brennand-Wood, cartoons for which I recognised immediately from a tapestry I saw at COLLECT 2012. They were working on trying to convey the feeling of smaller machine embroidery samples he had done. One problem was how to get the effect of the bobbin thread showing through slightly on a black and white sample. The solution was to alternate double picks between a fine black yarn and a much thicker white yarn. Skulls were being woven with a raised black outline, achieved by couching with weaving over thick rope lying on top of the warp. Another trick I picked up was to use a heavy card template in the warp at the bottom to outline the lower edge of the work. Ends were dealt with by tying together and sewing back under an appliqued backing calico. We also talked about ornamentation of tapestries with badges an other ways to enhance the surface qualities of work.

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