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Tapestry weaving is a long-practiced art form which is often thought of in terms of mural-sized works made for castles and kings in medieval times. Today the tradition of workshops continues in a few places in the world where groups of weavers and artists are working together to create stunning examples of modern tapestry. Ateliers such as Dovecot Studios, The Australian Tapestry Workshop, and West Dean Tapestry Studio continue to produce tapestries in this way. At its most basic, tapestry is simply a word that describes a type of fiber interlacement. It is often defined as a discontinuous weft-faced weaving technique that creates some sort of image. But as practitioners and appreciators of this art form, we are likely to attach all sorts of expectations to the word.

Over the years I have studied, practiced, and taught this art form, I have at times felt that there are deep opinions about what tapestry should be in our community. As someone who did not get a university degree in fibers but learned the art largely through an apprenticeship with a master weaver, I find that my knowledge is not given the same weight as someone who received an MFA from any university or even an online or correspondence program. The apprenticeship model is not generally seen, at least in the USA, as a “valid” path to education by some practitioners, most of whom do have that MFA. It is human nature to look for validation and certificates and completed courses of study fill that wish even though they don’t guarantee success to the receiver. And people who receive their training in any field in other ways may not have their skills recognized. There may be further prejudices among tapestry weavers about ways of practicing and styles of art creation among fiber art that is loosely classified as “tapestry”. 

I just published a tapestry techniques book (The Art of Tapestry Weaving) that contains all the ways I teach tapestry to beginners. There are weaving traditions all over the world that use these techniques and some people who are European or particularly French-trained may find issue with some of the things in my book. I learned tapestry weaving from a master in New Mexico, USA who was also trained by people who were influenced by a variety of traditions including Rio Grande and Navajo. My book is somewhat eclectic and isn’t meant to follow strictly any tapestry tradition except the one I’ve created for myself. I have attempted to bring in other traditions as I can, but it remains an incomplete summary of tapestry weaving. It is, however, a good starting place for beginners.

I realize given the above that the question posed below seems a little personal to me, but there are other teachers out there teaching online and writing, so I hope this isn’t seen as a personal issue. I genuinely want to know how tapestry weavers around the world think about the wide variety of practice in an art form labeled “tapestry.” Is there a perception among tapestry weavers that tapestry is somehow sacred or only for people who study for many years to master it? Are there certain ways it should be learned and if so, do more casual approaches like my online course and techniques book undermine the production of tapestry in the way the Dovecot, The Manufacture des Gobelins, and the Australian Tapestry Workshop teach and produce tapestries?

Does easier access to knowledge about this art form, which is in part intended to support the ‘hobbyist’, somehow undermine the “seriousness” or value we put on the art form of tapestry? Does it somehow undervalue the work of artists making a living weaving tapestry? The question seems ludicrous to me as I type it, but I have felt in the past that there is some sort of disdain for the hobbyist tapestry weaver. This doesn’t seem to be the case for people weaving multi-shaft weaves especially for functional fabrics. Tapestry has a fairly narrow definition and perhaps the insistence on using that definition for shows and when we talk about what tapestry IS, is part of what makes it feel like there is a pedestal some weavers are supposed to ascend through prescribed and rigorous means.

At the end of the day, are we somehow losing tapestry as a fine art form if we expand our definition of what it is? Or can we just embrace all artwork using fiber as fiber art and leave it at that? What is the value of so closely defining our work versus throwing open the doors to creativity and saying that anything goes?


Rebecca Mezoff, 18th Mar 2021
I wanted to respond to Lee's question because it resonates for me as an educator. I do perhaps think this is some of it for me. There are also economic issues that people maybe are not willing to talk about. I have to teach because I have to support myself and my family and that leaves little time for making art most of the time. Making a living selling art tapestries is something that almost no one I know (maybe no one) has ever pulled off without assistance from another job or family. Fortunately I love teaching and though I long for more time to work through my artistic ideas, this career which is primarily as an educator is very fulfilling. And I think that being a teacher is seen as a less prestigious profession in the USA. Just look at how we treat our schools and teachers in terms of funding, support, education, and pay levels. So yes, you're onto something there Lee. I do actually have a masters-level research graduate degree but it is in occupational therapy (see how my impulse is to mention that I am a valid teacher? So interesting to see how we need to prop ourselves up instead of believing in what we do without explanation). I could have followed that road and gotten a doctorate in education and become a professor of OT, but after some years working in the field, the US's healthcare system was not one I wanted to spend my life fighting. So I use that knowledge to teach tapestry instead. One other thing that came up in discussions on Facebook was that there are precious few art instructors in universities teaching tapestry at all. If you go to get an MFA in fibers in the USA, you will most likely not have an instructor that can teach you much about tapestry specifically. That isn't really the point of getting the degree perhaps, but it does mean that the focus of that degree will not be in this particular medium unless you do the legwork to make it so (meaning to learn how tapestry actually works). And lastly, I have heard from people who have gotten BFAs and MFAs and other art degrees in other countries who widely say that for them, the degree was about focus, being made uncomfortable, being forced to learn by pushing through resistance. I love hearing it because I think that has to be the real utility of getting a studio degree. And one day if I have the financial ability to do so and decide to get a studio degree myself, remind me of all of this and we'll celebrate the paths we each walk to get to making the art we want to make. If we can somehow divorce economics from the question, it is mostly about expression and doing the work, isn't it?

Lee Jenner, 11th Mar 2021
I wonder if some of the difference in prestige is related to teaching? Either being good at it or enjoying it? I work at a university in the UK, where it is well recognised that research is how you gain respect from your peers. Teaching, although everyone has to do it, is very much less important to your career, to the extent that if someone is very good at teaching, especially to the undergraduates, it's assumed they can't really be serious about their work and moving the field forward. I wonder if that resonates here and in the art world more widely?

Rebecca Mezoff, 10th Mar 2021
It is great to read these responses to my prompt. Thank you all so far for your thoughts about education, tradition, and the process of making art. In the USA especially, our university system has created this whole system which grants prestige (and jobs/livelihood) through the letters you’ve “earned” after your name. And we teach our kids to believe that those letters mean you’ll be successful if you earn them. My wife is working on a PhD and I have a first-hand view of the education system at this level in the USA and also compared to some examples in Europe. In the USA it has a lot to do with money and not always a lot to do with what the candidate knows. That isn’t to say the degree doesn’t come with knowledge as Molly said, but for artists, there are many paths to our individual goals. I’m reading a history of the Lausanne Tapestry Biennials and am reminded that this “struggle” has gone on in fiber art for at least 70 years. Tapestry is such an interesting case because of its history in medieval times and the narrow way we tend to define it.

Harlan Higgins, 5th Mar 2021
Is it necessarily either or? Perhaps to provide a bigger umbrella ity needs to run the gamut from welcome to tapestry weaving for all to providing ample opportunities for the Weaver's at the other end of the proficiency scale to share their weavings and their experiences. We all stand to gain and grow under a big umbrella with lots of light and colors.

Molly Elkind, 1st Mar 2021
Rebecca, I too am sorry to hear that you feel your deep experience and knowledge of tapestry is somehow inferior to that of someone with an art degree. I agree totally with what Barbara Armstrong says--artists are judged most of all on their work. Teaching artists are evaluated on their teaching. Once you're out of school the degree means little, unless you choose to be an academic. On both scores, as an artist and a teacher, I don't think you have anything to worry about! I did get an MA in fiber arts. Did I learn some useful stuff in school? Absolutely--I learned ways of talking about and understanding how art is put together and what some of the critical issues are today. I learned that concept is more important than technique. I learned most of all a process that suits me well. I did not, alas, learn a foolproof method for turning out one successful work after another! There are no shortcuts--we all have to put in the hours. You do raise some excellent points about what the field of tapestry today encompasses. I'm learning that it's a fight that goes back to the 1950s or so and is far from resolved. Personally I'm in favor of a broadly defined "big tent" approach to tapestry that welcomes a wide range of approaches and materials as long as some weaving of some kind is involved. Judge each piece on its merits, not its pedigree (or that of its maker).

Barbara Armstrong, 26th Feb 2021
Rebecca, I was quite distressed to read that you are at times made to feel that your knowledge of tapestry is somehow less serious than that of someone with an MFA. Once one is out in the real world, beyond school years or apprenticeships, and working as an artist, it is what one produces that matters. A "degree" can indicate what form of training or instruction one undertook, but means nothing to the evaluation of an artist and that artist's work. Do we care what form of instruction accomplished pianists or visual artists have had? No. We evaluate what they do, what they produce, their art. It strikes me that an academic degree is obtained by doing work for the approval of others, the supervising faculty. It also seems to me that an artist should essentially be working to please self rather than others, that that is the real source of creativity and expression. Degree snobs are missing the point entirely.

Jane Kirby, 26th Feb 2021
The tradition of learning tapestry weaving via an apprenticeship must be literally hundreds of years old, so I would have no truck with people who think that a degree is a superior qualification. I am still very much a hobby weaver, and I have learned through books and courses, both in-person and online. I have read voraciously and I find very little difference in most techniques as taught by all the books, by Rebecca online, or at West Dean - yes, there are variations, but I really don't think they're significant. The only more prescriptive approach I've seen was in the Larochettes' book, which draws very clearly on French techniques. I'm all for encouraging as many people as possible to learn the basics of tapestry-weaving, if only to allow them properly to appreciate the work of people trying to make a living from it - the time it takes, and the best use of all sorts of techniques to achieve different effects.

Ginny Wallace, 25th Feb 2021
I agree with Anna Whetherell. In any endeavor - poetry, fiction writing, painting, music, etc. - there are many levels of proficiency, from masters to novice. And there are many paths to both greatness and mediocracy. I am reminded of discussions between classically "paper trained" musicians and traditional artists who learn by ear. Having said that, I am a tapestry weaver with no background or training in art, and I admit to feeling at a disadvantage, and taken less seriously. But is that coming from within myself? In the end, a given piece should be judged on its merit alone, not the background of the artist who created it.

Anna Wetherell, 6th Feb 2021
An interesting challenge, Rebecca! You mention other weavers and the way in which a range of skill levels is accepted. What also springs to my mind is the wider art world, and the way in which we are all encouraged to draw and maybe even paint, as a means of creativity, and something which supports mental health and even mindfulness. There is an increasing awareness that being creative, being hands on, is good for our psyche, which has come increasingly to the fore in the last few years (especially the last one!). So, the 'great' tapestry weavers are at one end of our spectrum, having mastered the skills, put in all those thousands of hours of practice, and are recognised for it. Towards the other end are those who simply enjoy tapestry weaving, enjoy the hands on, having a go, exploring the techniques and developing their skills and their creativity - benefiting from all of this in so many ways. There is surely nothing wrong in supporting this spectrum, and all tapestry weavers have had to start somewhere. Books like yours encourage others to have a go, learn the skills, see where it takes them. So many of our 'great' weavers are also willing to share their knowledge and skills, which keeps the medium alive and progressing from generation to generation. Who knows where those in the early stages of learning the skills will end up? We are all on this journey, just at different points along it and with plenty to learn and explore, in whatever way works for us.

Donna Millen, 30th Jan 2021
I am so glad Rebecca has brought this subject up. I have a lot to say about it, more than there is space for here. I have not had a "classical" education in tapestry which leaves me, on studying the work of present day masters, like Archie Brennan and Joan Baxter, with an enormous sense of insecurity and lack of confidence. I know I am not alone in this. To answer Rebecca's question I can only say, yes, Tapestry Weaving must be inclusive not exclusive. I hope some of my tapestries will say something to someone else but all of them mean a great deal to me.

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