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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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