Notes on demonstrating spinning at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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We were honored to be invited to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall in Washington DC.  We shipped a loom out for Irvin to weave on, but they borrowed a wheel for me that is just like the one I use at home.  I also brought a couple of scoured churro fleeces to spin during the weekend we were there.

Most folks don’t seem to know what spinning is,  what weaving is,  or what a spinning wheel or loom is.  People thought I was making thread, or maybe rope, working silk, weaving, knitting, or sewing.   For some reason, a number of people thought the churro wool looked like alpaca fiber.  Since these processes and tools are so removed from day-to-day life,  I guess this is all understandable.  Irvin was right by me, weaving, so at least I could point out the loom and ask them to observe the weaving process. All of this makes me think that fiber folks should be out in front of people more often.

There were, however,  people whose nostalgia about wool and spinning and looms very much affected them.  People with family or friends, or long-ago-and-far-away histories, that involve these things.   The mother and daughter from Thailand, the lady from Ethiopia whose family wasn’t privy to weaving or spinning skills, but who maybe she wished they had been.  The lady from India who was learning all about sprang.  People who really wanted to learn to spin.  Knitters and weavers who think maybe they’ll spin one day.   And some people who were just enthralled by the wheel and the seemingly magical process.

But the kids were the most fun.  The little ones were down at my level.  Some kids are too shy to speak to a stranger about that mysterious thing I was doing.   Lots of kids just stared.   There was a lot of confused information given to them by parents who wanted to explain things but didn’t really know themselves.

Some wanted to try it out.  (Uhh, might be frustrating for both of us.)  Some tried to touch the wheel while I was spinning.  (No way! That’s just dangerous.)  I let them feel the fleece, which looked a lot softer than it felt. That was when parents would touch too,  which was great.

My favorite kid encounter was with a boy who was maybe four or so, whose jaw dropped and   eyes shone.  He loved what he was seeing.  I like to think that somehow spinning is kinda magical and that’s what he was thinking too. He came back a couple of times, and made me very happy.  There’s always hope when that kind joy exists in the world.

On Planning Things Out

sketch and finished piece

The topic of sketching and planning our pieces comes up on a regular basis as I weave under the watchful eyes of our customers.  The philosophy that Jake Trujillo passed on to us regarding this was pretty clear.  Design at the loom and make each piece a unique work of art.

So I don’t often sketch things out before I weave. This comes from a long history of not liking pieces that I have thought through too much in advance. I find that basing my work on something I have drawn out on paper as opposed to basing it on what transpires at the loom tends to produce pieces that are awkward and stiff. Perhaps that is just my perception, or maybe it’s that I drew more pieces out when I was a less experienced weaver and not able to execute designs as well. But the philosophy that was passed to my by my husband and his father says that Chimayo designs are done at the loom, that designing is part of the weaving process.
When I am weaving in any of the traditional styles, I have some design decisions already made for me. Tradition will tell me a great deal about design placement and proportions. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have lots and lots of creative design decisions to be made. The question to consider here is when and how I will make those decisions.
I have to have an idea of what the proportions are going to be. This is one thing I often plan out on paper. If I’m weaving a Chimayo, I decide how much background I will start with, how big the stripes will be, what size designs I will be putting in and where they will go. The more I weave, the less I find myself spending time on this step. I can rely on weavings I have done in the past, and, to some degree, I remember the measurements I was happy with. Or I can draw a rough sketch indicating where to begin and end the different elements I will be weaving.
For a Chimayo-style piece I will not draw designs. I will be conscious of what I might want a base to be like before I start the design. I will probably be conscious of what colors will be predominant and what will be secondary or just highlights. I might have an idea of what kind of center design shape will predominate. I might consciously be aware of a new idea or concept I want to explore. But I might have pretty much no preconcieved notion of what a design will end up looking like. Chimayo absolutely has that kind of potential for spontaneity. And one more thing before I start weaving: I have to have an idea of what the proportions are going to be. This is one thing I often plan out on paper. I decide how much background, how big the stripes will be, what size designs I will be putting in and where they will go. The more I weave, the less I find myself spending time on this step.
The one motivation I have for sketching things out is that it might actually help me think about how I will actually weave something. Let’s say I want to have lines that interact in some way, as in, one line passing under another line. It will help me to have that drawn out. I may or may not actually follow the sketch when I get around to weaving it, but it will probably help me to have drawn it out.


The Old Warping Mill


This is a picture of Jake O. Trujillo finishing up a warp on his warping mill which was kept in the attic of Irvin’s grandmother’s house.  This picture was taken in the early 1980’s, but he had built the mill soon after he built his loom in 1927.  He’s removing the warp from the mill, “chaining” it up to bring it to his loom across the road.


This is a picture taken a few years later of Irvin and Hosana Eilert putting a chained warp on a loom.  The challenge is to have every thread across the warp to be the same length and the same tension.  This is critical to the integrity of every weaving produced from the warp.  Warping a loom this way isn’t easy.  When warping wide looms this way in years gone by, Jake would ask for help, and the three of us warped as a team of three.  I don’t remember us being a happy team, but we worked together and we got the work done.

Our weavers are accustomed to having warps made for them.  They bring us their warp beams and we fill them with warp.  This is the way the weaving dealers in Chimayo have been working for many years.  We need those warps to be long, and to be perfectly even in tension.  Any errors in warping will mean that we have weavings that won’t lay flat and aren’t very useful.  The tie industry of the late 1930’s introduced industrial-type warping techniques that were adopted by the early Chimayo weaving dealers.  The technique used was to make a sectional warp on a horizontal mill and transfer that warp directly to a warp beam.  The weaver can then take that warp beam to the loom for weaving.

Between the times when these first two pictures were taken, we moved the mill from the attic across the street to the yarn storage room of the shop.  Irvin modified the mill by adding spokes and crosspieces.  He also built in a braking system, and mounts for a tension box and a wide variety of warp beams.

placing-the-beginning-of-section-on-nail-in-warping-millThe steps to the process are as follows.

Sixteen cones (called a buñuelo) of warp are set up on a cone rack and threaded through the tension box.  We weave at eight ends per inch, so sixteen threads will make two inches of warp.

We create a cross at the beginning of each of our two inch bouts.  If you are familiar with making a “chained” warp, you are creating that cross with the figure 8 at each end of the warp.  This is done here by pulling the bout against a small section of rigid heddle reed mounted in the tension box to separate every other thread.  The cross is held in place by two lease strings (purple threads in the picture) that pass from one side of the mill to the other.  The cross will be our essential guide to the sequence of threads in the warp when we go to tie the warp to the old warp on the loom, or thread the warp through heddles and reed.  The end of the warp that we start with will be buried by the length of warp, but will come out as the accessible end of the warp once it has been wound on to the beam.

The bout is as long as the warp needs to be.  So a warp is ten turns long, or 15, or 20 turns.  It’s critical that the count is right, that each bout is the same number of turns, so that we don’t reach the end of the warp and find some sections longer or shorter than others.

The end of each bout is tied onto a nail that is inserted into the mill’s crosspiece.  As you can see in the left this picture, it’s the same crosspiece where we started the bout.




Each 2″ bout is wound on the mill all the way across the warp.  The tension box must be moved for each bout, so that it is aligned with the right section on the mill. The warp on the mill in this picture has 20 bouts for a 40″ warp.






beaming-warpNow we bring the warp beam to the mill.  Because we warp a lot of different beams with a lot of different widths and different axles, Irvin has designed a very flexible system to accommodate them all.   What matters is that the warp beam is perfectly aligned with where the warp is wound on the mill.  We use flanges on our warp beams that keep the warp at a specific width.  As long as the beam is aligned correctly with the warp, it will distribute itself evenly across that width as it winds onto the beam.  If it is incorrectly aligned it will catch on the flanges, potentially breaking threads.

Before we start winding the warp onto the beam we apply a brake to the mill.  What we designed as a brake is essentially a wide rubber band with weights tied to the end that limits the rotation of the mill.  Winding onto the beam requires a great deal of effort and some patience.  But if it all has gone right in making the warp it will provide weeks or even years of perfectly-tensioned warp for creating beautiful things with.

Negotiate, Navigate, Innovate: Strategies Folk Artists Use in Today’s Global Market Place

We were honored to be a part of the Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art.  It was a large investment of time spent with a cadre of New Mexican and international artists, over  the space of several months.  It has been difficult to communicate what we were doing during that time, but the Museum’s website explains.  “The Gallery of Conscience is an experimental gallery in the Museum of International Folk Art where the public is invited to help shape the content and form of the exhibition in real time.

Visitors notice the Gallery of Conscience looks different than the rest of the museum.  In this gallery, visitors are invited behind the scenes to participate directly in the creation of an exhibition.  That is why the space looks informal and unpolished- it’s on purpose.  The Gallery of Conscience team seeks to make visitors feel welcome to write comments, leave thoughts and participate in the exhibition’s creation.


Negotiate, Navigate, Innovate is about contemporary folk artists and their relationship with their patrons, buyers and collectors. We are especially interested in understanding the pressures they might feel to keep their traditions alive in the face of modern technological advances and new consumer demands. Visitors will see a kind of “mock up” or series of idea sketches. The artworks will come at a later point in the process- after we have heard from visitors, artists and local community members.  Even the exhibition title itself is up for grabs- so be sure to vote on which title you like best, or suggest your own. Come back often and see how the exhibition has changed in response to your ideas.”

There were a number of opportunities for us to interact with the other artists involved.  We also were encouraged to take on an apprentice and create a video documentation of the experience.  That is what you see above.  These experiences have given me a lot to think about over the last several months, and I’ve been anxious to record my thoughts.

About selling traditional arts in a big, well-connected world.

Obviously there are countless approaches.  We were all involved in one of the big summer markets in Santa Fe: the International Folk Art Market, the Spanish Market, and Indian Market.  So we all were aware that there were people who decided who was in, and who was out, of these venues.  It’s not easy to be allowed to show in any of these, there are rules involved, and policies to navigate.  We talked a lot about interacting with the buyers of the products we made, and how those interactions affected our work, and how it affected us on a personal level.

Most interesting to me was how our selling of our work influenced how we understood our traditions.   A list of questions I’d like to explore further in the future, emerges.

  • What do our traditions mean to our community?

Some traditional arts are essential threads of connection in communities.  Others are more pragmatic expressions of comfort, communication, or personal expression.

  • What is the economic role they play? Is it serving to empower community members by providing employment, a creative outlet for self expression, or a role in a community’s sacred interactions?

This is, of course, a question of survival for these art forms.  We met women from countries where creating these goods for sale served as a vital connection to others beyond the walls of their homes.  And their cooperatives created leaders who played essential political roles as voices of the women involved.  For many artists, these forms connected them to their personal and community histories.  Others created objects that were important to a spiritual community beyond themselves.  Some traditions, like ours, have always been primarily in a commercial realm, created for trade beyond the local community.

  • Does it inform and express culture to those within the culture,  or to outsiders?

What I think I heard in our discussions is that this was a very personal question, and how we communicated with those who were interested in our work was at the heart of this.  Who we sold to could be only people who were sincerely committed to the art form or the community, or it could be anybody willing to pay for the product.

  • What about the traditions are sacrosanct and what is changeable?  Are we comfortable with new techniques or different materials, and why?

Again, this is a very personal issue.  But some folks dealt with rules imposed by others regarding what is defined as traditional and what is not.  And others were faced with choices as to how to respond to pressure to make change.  Sometimes change meant making a markedly improved product, like drum heads not damaged by changes in humidity.  Other times market changes might mean using color to appeal in a new market in a way that might go against the community of origin’s intentional use of color.  There were new approaches that helped speed up the process and make it less work intensive, and there was clearly some conflict over the appropriateness of that kind of change too.

  • Do we make changes because of the pressures of outside economic forces?

These forces seem likely to continue to affect these traditional forms, but individuals may choose where they will bend and where they will not.

  • How do we respond to “cultural appropriation”?  And what is our appropriate role in guarding traditions?  Who “owns” these traditions?

As a person who grew up outside of the culture whose weaving tradition I am devoted to preserving, this is a very personal question.  I don’t have any answers to this one.  But I confront it regularly.

In the end, each one of us has to draw boundaries for ourselves, and these questions can help guide our choices.  These are issues that we are often deeply emerged in, and the answers for us have probably grown more nuanced as we have been at this for some time now.  But it was the work we did with our apprentices, and the videos that were made to document that work, that brought me to one conclusion.  Traditions will, and must, change over time.  They are in flux because new people must take them up in every generation. 

There is still an underlying question too, about who supports these traditions, and why, and how.  We have always had moral, if not a lot of financial, support from institutions of various kinds, some governmental and some private.  We are always grateful when these kinds of acknowledgements of the value of tradition are made.  It would be impossible to measure what these things have meant to our ability to keep up our efforts.

Another thing I will always be grateful for about getting to engage with all these artists in this program is that it engenders a sense of common ground and unity of purpose. Each of our opportunities to share with one another were seriously uplifting.  I don’t think I am alone in feeling that way.  For me that is a powerful spiritual thing.



This was the group of artists and staff who stuck around after the videos were premiered at the end of our project.


This was a group of us deeply involved in learning how to make videos.  I am grateful for the immersion in a whole new creative process, and hope to apply what I have learned to future projects.



Always Greener

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Always Greener came out of my developing awareness of how the two sides of tapestry weaving, pictorial and geometric, relate to each other.  It always seems like there’s just a shade of jealousy about “the other side” having it easier, either making or selling their work, or just getting respect for it.  And I really am uncomfortable with any kind of “us versus them” mentality.

This piece was about taking naturalistic shapes and making them geometric.  It’s about how they relate to each other.  So I revisited this body shape that I’d done in a handful of pieces before.  And I let the bodies do things.  They float, they play with the lines that encompass them, and they turn into geometric shapes.  I was told that the upper right body is doing something akin to “downward dog.” I even divided bodies up for their geometric components.

It was woven in 2000.  It uses all natural dyes,  and it’s here in the shop at the moment on consignment from the owner.

Clearly we are solidly in the camp of geometric tapestry weavers.  Pictorials have been around in our tradition, but, other than things like thunderbirds and roadrunners, haven’t really been a big part of it.  It isn’t that our techniques aren’t amenable to imagery, but they really are very much designed around things like symmetry and pattern, and our techniques train our brains around logical thinking that just doesn’t much apply to naturalistic forms.  These thought process are certainly a big part of what I like so much about weaving.

Weaving imagery requires having something to say in imagery.  That “picture painting a thousand words” thing is something I have always found mildly intimidating.  And I’m sure I’d always have the nagging sense that maybe just painting it would be faster and more appropriate for whatever I would want to say with an image.

And once, a few years after I completed this weaving, I was told that what we do wasn’t actually tapestry weaving.  She had learned a different kind of methodology and apparently couldn’t mentally encompass what we do as being tapestry, despite the fact that it very much fits the definition of tapestry.

So, in my mind, getting respect for tapestry as an art form is challenging for all of us.  I’ve watched people talk about it as an issue, a challenge, for tapestry artists, but I don’t have any answers as to how such a thing is ever going to come about.  I know that there are tapestry weavers that promote their work really well, so I guess it could happen that someday a tapestry weaver, or a few really great ones, will push the envelope of artistic respect beyond where it sits today.  I don’t know that there’s any reason to think that geometric forms or traditional design should be any more or less likely to garner respect for tapestry than imagery or boundary pushing new tapestry forms.

I’ve heard from pictorial weavers that those of us weaving in a tradition have it made, that we have an already developed market.  Which is, sort of, true.  But I’d argue that, as individual artists, we have to build a market for our work in precisely the same way that any other artist does.  Our work has some credibility as an authentic outcome of an old tradition.  I wouldn’t say that that was really a simple thing to achieve, but it is something that adds value to our work based on work done by those that have gone before.  So maybe they have a good point there.




Style by Style – Chimayo

PiedraLumbre 2Style by Style Weaving:  Chimayo

Weaving Chimayos is something I come back to time and time again, and after all these years I’m convinced that it’s because I really like what I call “Chimayo thinking”.  I’m convinced that it suits me best.  So let me explain.

First of all, there is a clear expectation of where I’m going to be putting designs.  It doesn’t mean that all Chimayos look the same, but they start and end with stripes, and they’ve got one, two, or three designs between the stripes.  Okay, there could be more than three, but the other designs would be sort of unimportant if it really looked like a Chimayo.  I know where stripes and designs are going to go, even if I have no idea what they are going to look like.  That means I don’t have any need to draw things out or plan much of anything.  A Chimayo design can be entirely spontaneous.  And that is a recipe for fun weaving!

There are other things that make it fun too.  I feel free to use different angles at the same time.  Like any other dramatic art form, I can set up things that will eventually conflict with one another, and have to, at some point, resolve those conflicts.  As I weave, color dominance can change, thus pushing me to continually make design changes to make a more pleasing balance.  Basically, as long as I don’t make it too detailed, the design can move along in such a way that I’m always watching and changing things to make it look interesting and pleasing.  It is just the right balance of needing to think about designing and the slow process of tapestry weaving itself.

Here is a step-by-step description of the process.

A. Before Weaving

1. Warp on the loom.

There are always warps on the looms I work on. In our shop we make very long warps of fifty to a hundred yards. And the fact that I am not a very productive weaver means that it is a safe assumption that I’ve got warp on my loom. So I don’t think of warping looms as a part of my designing/weaving process, even though it is probably the most critical stage for most weavers. Since warping is not my favorite thing to do, I tend to think of this as a really big plus to weaving in the Chimayo/Rio Grande tradition.

2. Yarn availablity

So the first step for me is to look over the available materials. I tend to have large amounts of yarn around me day after day after day. I am aware of what yarns need to get used up because no one else will, either because they are tangled, or deemed not a pretty color, or there are only small amounts of it, or maybe a differing dye lot will trip up a weaver, or there are spools that need to be freed up for use in other projects. The reasons I will decide on to use a particular bunch of yarn are pretty varied. Of course, the main thing that matters is that I am intrigued by the color combinations that I see as possible with the yarns that I have available. It is still amazing to me that my best pieces usually come out of times when my yarn choices were limited by these kinds of practical considerations. It is that old truism about necessity being the mother of invention. So generally speaking I am happy to be working within limited colors, whether self-imposed or not.

3. Size and Style

The proportion of colors in the yarns available will suggest to me what styles are options for me. If I have a lot of one color, and not much of the other colors, I can weave a Chimayo. If I have small amounts of a lot of colors, than I can weave Rio Grande, Saltillo or Vallero. Of course there are yarns that inspire me to do non-traditional types of pieces too. The yarns will also determine the size of the piece.

4. Spools

I’ll start by making up a batch of spools. Enough to get going, but, if I can’t guess as to how much yarn I’ll need of each color, I’ll leave some of the yarn aside for future spool- making.

5. Proportions.

And one more thing before I start weaving: I have to have an idea of what the proportions are going to be. This is one thing I often plan out on paper. I decide how much background, how big the stripes will be, what size designs I will be putting in and where they will go. The more I weave, the less I find myself spending time on this step.

B. Step by Step- The CHIMAYO BLANKET

1. Background

Then I’ll go to the loom and weave the first bit of background. I’ll try to center my signature mark in the middle of the right hand corner of this band of background color.

2. Stripe

Now I can weave the first stripe. This is where I fiddle with color combinations, laying spools next to each other, deciding on color proportions and predominance. I make decisions here about how colors will interact with each other that I will use through the whole piece.

3. Background

Now there is another bit of background color. This is usually a stressful part of the piece for me. I’m aware of the infinite possibilities of what could occur in this piece. But I’m also imagining some, based on what I learned about my color interactions while I was weaving the first stripe.

4. Secondary design

Ok, in our hypothetical Chimayo, let’s say I decide to weave a base, and lay in yarns to determine the edges of the design, where the two colors meet. These are carefully counted in. I am always conscious that most designs allow me to count only the top threads of the shed, but that I need to be aware of the bottom of the shed for vertical designs. Counts matter only if I want things to be symmetrical. Sometimes that won’t be necessary, but most of the time it is critical to get this first count just right. HOWEVER: this doesn’t mean I know where everything is going to go from this starting point. I am willing to leave as much open as I can, allowing the piece to suggest ideas to me. I know this might sound like artistic nonsense, a bit of a spiritual gobbledygook maybe. But I think that the piece will turn out best if I am constantly looking out for new design possibilities for it as I am moving forward through the piece. This is a design philosophy that is very suitable for Chimayo weaving, and maybe not for some other art forms. But I think that it allows me to be most true to the medium I am working in. It is important for me to be responsive to what already exists in the web I have woven, to imagine the best of what the design possibilities hold.

So this is how I move through the piece. After I lay in colors, determining the edges of color areas, I need to decide what direction any angle I create with that join is going to move in, and whether there will be stepping I’ll need to do to get the overall angle I want to make. I might make some simple algebraic kinds of computations considering how many steps of what size I’ll need to get from point A to point B. These kinds of computations require that I’m aware of how many rounds per inch this warp/weft combination is producing, and although I usually use the same materials, my handspun yarns have some inconsistency in this regard. So, even though I told you in the last paragraph not to plan things out to much, I do want to encourage you to think things through. There is a lot of logic in these pieces. Patterns with potential conflicts are the most interesting to look at, but you, as the weaver, will have to resolve those conflicts in eye-pleasing ways. In any case, it is this process that is where I derive great pleasure from in my weaving: determining possibilities, and creating and resolving conflicts. It takes imagination and intellect, and it is lots of fun, like doing puzzles.

So let’s say I’ve made it through the secondary design.

5. More Background, and maybe Jaspes

Now I can pick up the shuttle again and weave the background color again for a while. I may choose to put in some jaspes in here, especially if I need to cover a lot of ground before I can start a center design.

6. Center Design

A center design will be roughly based on ideas I explored in the secondary design. But I have room to elaborate on things this time, maybe there was an idea I really liked in the secondary design that I think would be so much more interesting if I got to continue it for a longer period. Or there are angles I’d like to have play off of each other that were just parallel or repetitive in the secondary design. The center design gives me time to resolve ideas that were left unsatisfied in the secondary design.

7. At the Center And Coming Back

I want to make sure that every design I’m carrying reverses at the same time at the center of the piece. It is not always aesthetically ideal to turn them around together, so some elements might require some “fudging”, some extra rounds woven while other areas are not actively weaving, so that everything turns around at the center. It is important to take note of these inequalities, and make them up as quickly as possible, in the first few rounds of the second half of the piece. Because the “extra” rounds of design will be doubled right at the center, it will be a judgment call as to whether the “fudging” rounds are aesthetically necessary or not worth the extra bulk they will generate.

Once I reach the center of the piece, I have to stop designing and reverse the design, You are now “The Weaver”. Angles and steps that were working their way out from the center must turn around and move back in. And I must count to make sure I duplicate things I did in the first half. Remembering and anticipating changes that are approaching is what is critical throughout this second half. Even with the mistakes I have to correct in this “coming back” stage, it is still much faster for me to weave the second half of a piece, mainly because I’m not stopping so much to make decisions.

This second half is much like looking at someone else’s weaving. A weaver can “read” another person’s piece, seeing the sequence that the weaver went through to create a piece. This is a valuable skill to have, both for understanding other weavers ideas, and for speeding up that return trip on your own designs. Vertical distances can be measured, especially those expanses of background colors. Everything else involves counting threads, either warp threads for horizontal distances, or rounds ore even pics for verticals. Whereas accuracy really matters, and I always strive to get an accurate reproduction from the first half to the second half, it’s important to be realistic about what kinds of copying errors will be visible and what won’t. It isn’t worth unweaving a lot to correct an error that will be totally unnoticeable to the viewer of the piece. There will have to be a level of error that you can live with, because you will make mistakes doing this. You’ll have to figure out what you can live with on a case-by-case basis. And I’ve always figured that weaving accurately wasn’t due to my not making mistakes, but because of quickly catching my mistakes. It’s all about being aware of what your design is doing and anticipating the changes coming up. This requires tremendous focus. (This must be more difficult when some instructor is looking over your shoulder all the time like in these workshops. Maybe you’d like to go home and practice.)

The Art is the Cloth



We are honored to be participants in an exhibit called “The Art is the Cloth”.  The opening at the New Hampshire Institute of Art was attended by 20 of the artists in the exhibit, whose smiling faces you can see in the above picture. It is a tapestry show meant to explore that central reality of tapestry, that we aren’t manipulating a piece of cloth to create our art, we are creating the cloth as we create our art form.    There are a few other components of the art form that are pretty much a given, i.e. warp and discontinuous weft threads.  But beyond that, we are clearly thinking differently about how we approach this art form.  We saw tapestries made from all kinds of different fibers, variations on thicknesses of yarn, and every color imaginable.  The exhibit was divided in an appealingly logical way.  But I’ve been thinking about it differently, about how these tapestries diverged from my comfort zone, or didn’t.  Which is to say, why would or wouldn’t I have woven a piece like that?  So I thought I’d share my thoughts and see if I can learn anything about my own thinking/philosopy on tapestry weaving.

Rectangles and the Perpendicularity of warp and weft-.  The two groups of weavings that have “eccentric” weft are the wedge-weave pieces and the 3d onesAnd when you do these things you leave behind the familiar rectangle that most of us weave.  The rectangle is the natural way things come off of a loom.  But some of these pieces had edges that followed angles and curves, and a couple were particularly three-dimensional.  Although Irvin has a piece here in the shop that has a stepped bottom side, neither of us has purposely done anything much that isn’t a flat rectangle.  There is a logical reason for that, because the equipment we use constrains the side-to-side movement of warp yarns.  We’d have to abandon the use of the reed/beater to do most of the not-flat, non-rectangular possibilities.  There’s infinite possibilities in the non-rectangular world, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly curious about what lies out there.

Weft-faced-Almost all tapestries are weft-faced.  There weren’t many exceptions to that in the show, but Irvin and I have both tried out tapestry in the context of twills, but haven’t pursued that idea much.  A balance weave could also easily accommodate tapestry, and there was a gorgeous example of that in the show.  Still, having warp visible means all weft yarns have to blend with the warp color/s and that will actually limit color use pretty significantly.

Story-telling-Story telling is definitely a long-standing part of tapestry tradition.  Maybe it’s even an inevitable part of tapestry weaving.  After all, tapestry weavers are artists and have lots to say about things, and they have plenty of time to think about what to say while they are executing this slow process.  All of the 20 weavers present at the opening spoke briefly about their piece.  Some of them actually weren’t so brief in their presentations.  Some of the pieces had a lot of images and clearly were meant to show a passing of time, others depended on symbols and other elements to communicate more than just a pretty image or simple idea.  I suspect that none of the pieces there were devoid of meaning to the weaver, although a passing observer might not recognize the content.  A tapestry’s ability to communicate what the weaver intended is dependent a lot of things the weaver can control, and a lot that they cannot.  In this way, tapestry is like other art media.  Observers need to put some effort to see a story, or they may just see something visually appealing.  Or not.

Design medium-This is, I think, where I have some strong feelings.  People ask us all the time about how we come up with designs for our pieces.  Actually, what they ask is “where is your pattern”.  I’m not entirely sure what the underlying assumptions are for the people that ask that question, but they tend to be surprised when we tell them that we don’t have a “pattern” to work from.  And most tapestry weavers certainly don’t work from a “pattern”.  What they might use is a “cartoon”.  A cartoon is a plan for the tapestry weaver to execute to create a specific image.  Conceptually they are like a “paint by number” thing, with outlines of color areas being specified in a drawing.  That reference, the “cartoon” is kept at hand in a variety of different ways, depending on looms and personal preferences.  Executing the cartoon’s design takes a great deal of  skill, and designing the cartoon can be separated from the weaving process.  In fact, historically, these things were entirely separated.  Modern tapestry weavers tend to do both design and execution of the piece.  The design medium can be paper and pencil, paints, charcoals, collage, Photoshop…whatever.  And sometimes it’s kind of obvious that the design came from a different medium.

And my feelings about that are kind of mixed.  I want tapestry to be true to its own medium.  A part of me believes that tapestry shouldn’t look like watercolor or photography or collage, because the result of it being woven isn’t necessarily a step up from the original rendering.  After all, watercolors, photography or collage are lovely art forms in their own right.  But tapestry is time consuming.  And it conveys a depth of color and texture that other art forms don’t.  And it’s cloth, which we humans have a very special relationship to.  I’m sure that the weaver feels that the tapestry is well worth the effort they put into it or they wouldn’t do it.  But I think that what we produce from our looms ought to be true to the process of weaving first and foremost.  So I’m happy with my process, which rarely uses any medium beyond occasional sketching things on paper.  My process is very much about all kinds of variations of logic and math and color and energy.  And I’m happy with that.  It feels true to me, and to my loom and to the cloth.  I want to explore more about my own process in future posts, because I really want to clarify what it is we do.  I hope very much that what every weaver sent to that show is true to them and their process.  And we all grow and change and our design and weaving processes grow and change too.  Which is an apt analogy for tapestry weaving…it grows and changes as we lay our bits of colored weft into our warps.  And beautiful things come out of it.



Dyed in the Wool – New Mexico Magazine article

Finishing Pieces



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Spinning is really relaxing.  Weaving can be all kinds of things; exciting, tiring, frustrating, and, at its most fun, an intellectually challenging puzzle.  Because the weaving process is often incredibly long I rarely think about the finishing work that will be necessary when I get through weaving.  But the finishing work brings crucial qualities to the final piece, mainly what it looks like and how it feels to the human touch.  The finishing process is especially challenging with my handspun churro pieces.  Churro pieces, whether handspun or millspun, tend to be fuzzy looking things.  My personal take is that I don’t like a fuzzy looking piece, I want every detail of yarn texture and design to show through.  And fuzz can hide the results of a whole lot of my hard work.

Another aspect of my handspun pieces is that my yarns aren’t spotlessly clean.  They usually have some lanolin, vegetable matter, and even some dirt.  So I need to wash these handspun pieces.  The good thing about washing them is that they also become something more of a unified fabric by going through the process.  But washing the pieces means I have some extra, time-consuming processes to go through before I can have the kind of elegantly finished piece that I really need after all of my work.  I don’t have to do nearly so much work for weavings made from our millspun yarns, but I hope you’ll appreciate the documentation of the finishing work involved in my handspun pieces.


Before anything else happens I have to tie fringes.  But before I can even do that, I have to actually get to the end of the weaving.   First I have to pull the knots off that I used to tie the warp to the apron.  Then I have to remove the extra thick yarn I wove as “header” in preparation for weaving after tying the warp up to the apron. The “header” yarn is woven in only for the purpose of spreading the warp yarns apart, so that they will be distributed evenly, the way the reed distributes them, which is at eight threads per inch.  Once the knots and the header yarn are gone, I’m ready to tie the fringe.  Although there are countless options for tying fringe, most often I opt for a simple overhand knot with four threads in it.

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For all of the reasons mentioned above, I feel obligated to wash any of my handspun pieces as part of my finishing work.  I have been washing my pieces in the bathtub for years and can’t think of anyplace that would work any better for the task.  I alternate washes with soap with just rinsing until the piece rinses clear.  That can take a while.  It’s time spent on my knees, which means it’s not my favorite thing to do.  After the water in the bathtub is looking clear enough I can drain the tub and make a dash out the front door of our house to hang the piece on our ramp’s railing.  This railing is very useful for a lot of things we do in the shop.  It’s conveniently located and has an absolutely fabulous view to the west.

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I know very well that ironing is one of those things that many people do their best to avoid in these modern times.  And, I’m guessing people who have seen my day-to-day attire know that I am one of those people.  But ironing wool is a real skill.  Wool is amazingly manipulate-able, even after it has been woven into a very solid fabric.  Where you apply heat and steam can have a major impact on the finished fabric.   I am a persistent person, and will iron a piece until it is totally and completely flat.  I started the ironing process with both pieces together, hoping that by ironing the upper layer I would help start the lower piece along.  The pink piece turned out to be too big an ironing challenge, so I focused my efforts on the brown piece first.

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Soon it became clear that the pink piece was not going to just iron out to a flat fabric.  Although every yarn in the piece was of churro wool, the fleeces had widely varying characteristics and “pulled in” differently.  It has to do with variations in the “springiness” of the fibers that make up the yarn, and it isn’t the first time I have run into the problem.  The way to correct for the variations in the wool was to block it out, stretching it to it’s widest width.  Simply put, blocking a piece is nailing the thing down, pulling it wherever it needs to be stretched out.  I will iron it while it’s nailed down to get it utterly flat.

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It helps to have the piece flat when you’re shaving it.  We use hair cutters to do this process.  In the second picture you can clearly see the difference that shaving the piece has.  The design is now much more clearly visible.

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We’ve been using the term “sanding” for shaving the piece again, this time with sweater shavers, to get it to be smooth to the touch, like really well finished wood.  We can spend hours and hours doing this.


This is something I’m doing during all of these finishing steps.  I am using tweezers to pull out every single piece of the vegetable matter that was spun into the yarn because it was just part of the fleece.  These things can be almost microscopic, but are important to remove because they will attract moths.  You can also feel the vegetable matter with sensitive fingertips even if you can’t actually see it.

Names, tags, pricing, database, etc.

Lastly, we have to give the piece a name and a price tag.  And all that information goes into our multipurpose database.  Often, naming a piece is a tremendous challenge for me, although sometimes a name can come to me early in the weaving process.  The brown piece was named “Camp Moki” and has already found a home in Santa Fe, and the pink one is named “Rosa Fresca” and is still hanging here in the shop.   You can see it here on our site.

I want to point out that the finishing process on these two pieces took about the same amount of time as weaving them did.  But both Irvin and I really believe that finishing our pieces well is crucial, and add a level of quality that many other weavers don’t strive for in their work.  So we do this stuff.  And we wanted to let you know.



The Perfection Spectrum

One of the most common questions I get asked in the shop it, “What happens if you make a mistake?”  My standard answer is, “Either I fix it or I don’t.  And the goal is to find mistakes quickly.”

I assume that people ask this because of the nature of tapestry.   They understand that the decoration is inherent to the structure of what we are making and not a surface decoration that could be easily altered.  So when we make a mistake that we want to correct, it means un-weaving the error.  Sometimes un-weaving the error requires un-weaving a lot of other stuff that was exactly what I wanted.  Which is the explanation for the second half of my response, the goal is to catch the mistakes soon after you’ve made it so you aren’t undoing a whole lot of hard work.


“Go with the Flow” <—————————————–>”Perfection”


But the first part of my response is much more of a personal thing.  I’ve taught people who want to have everything exactly right, the way they had it in their mind.  This kind of accuracy is really important to most of the fiber artists I know.  A shot in the wrong shed can really make a mess out of a multi-shaft weaving, and something as simple as a twisted stitch in knitting can destroy the beauty of the pattern.  But mistakes happen.  And they definitely happen to me.  Especially when I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, i.e. when I’m learning something new.  So I decided long ago that I was willing to sacrifice accuracy so that I could be less afraid of the learning curve ahead of me.  If I didn’t seek perfection, I could pursue novelty instead.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t really hate to have noticeable mistakes in my work.  I kinda cringe whenever anybody notices something I figured didn’t matter enough to correct when I was weaving it.  It doesn’t happen all the time, or really very often at all.  Apparently people aren’t really interested in looking for my boo-boos.   This is something I’ve been paying attention to since I started weaving.  What kinds of mistakes are gonna get noticed and what kind of inaccuracy can I “get away with”.  And in my classes I teach people what I learned.  Beginners come up with numerous ways to mess things up, too much or too little weft, changing angles in midstream and leaving warps uncovered and putting two pics in the same shed, etc’, etc.  Those are mistakes that one quits making with a little bit of experience.  Other types of errors have been life long challenges for me.  The goal is to line up the points, keep parallel lines parallel, and put the right colors in the right place.   When I’m working out the logic of some whole new way to carry a design,  there are a million ways I can mess up.  And I usually make some mistakes over and over in a piece.  But as long as I try to Line up points, keep parallel lines parallel, and put the right colors in the right place, I can get away with a lot of sloppy stuff.  I think that the older I get, the more I’m just fine with the sloppy stuff.

So there are a lot of mistakes in my pieces.  I’m thinking that the one I just finished has one of the most noticable mistakes imaginable in it.  And it’s in there three times out of eighteen repeats.  And I’m trying to be philosophical about it.  I get told about other traditions where weavers put purposeful “imperfections” into their work.  I’m not really swayed by that.  I’m sure I don’t have to try to put imperfections in my piece, as I’m confident that they are going to happen whether I got to any effort to put them in or not.  I don’t need purposeful imperfection as I am humble enough to realize that there will be natural and unavoidable imperfections.  But I like my pieces to have really subtle imperfections, not like my 3 out of eighteen problem.

So I’m going with the idea I heard from a young weaver, Isaiah Valdez,  a couple of days ago, that mistakes just make our weavings that much more unique.  And the old saw about being “perfectly imperfect”.  My weavings come out the way they do because they, through me and like me, go through endless change and challenge till I stop working on them.  So wherever I land on the “perfection spectrum” is just where I need to be.  Same with each and every one of my weavings.  We all need to be loved and appreciated however we come out of the process.