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Tapestry Weaving: An Interview with NYGH Member Vicki Aspenberg

Tapestry weaving is often referred to as painting with yarn - do you see your work in this way?  

Many people do refer to tapestry weaving as painting with yarn, but I see it differently because the techniques of weaving a tapestry are different from painting and the result for the most part produces a very different effect than painting and is unique to tapestry.  As in all weaving, tapestry weaving is a structured process that takes place on the grid of a warp and weft. It begins at the bottom and slowly moves to the top making changes and adjustments impossible, and the yarns or other materials used in weaving a tapestry are mixed together to create hues, gradations, textures and design unique to tapestry.

Are there any artists who are especially inspirational to you?

Tapestry has had a revival in the past 30 years and there are many, many wonderful tapestry weavers in this country and around the world. But to name a few, I have been particularly inspired by Rebecca Mezoff, Sarah Swett, Ellen Ramsey, Tommye Scanlon, Elizabeth Buckley, Joan Baxter, Molly Elkind, and Barbara Heller.   

How did you get started in tapestry weaving?

I started taking weaving classes back in the early1970’s when I first came to NYC.  There was a weaving school in an old brownstone on East 7th Street. One floor was filled with big floor looms and students had unlimited access to the looms between classes. I was learning mostly about four harness cloth weaving then. A bit later I did a three week course at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts where I was introduced to tapestry techniques along with other techniques being used in wall hangings at the time such as double weave, knotting and wrapping. In fact, I think at this time tapestry, in the strict sense of the definition as a warp faced fabric with discontinuous weft, was done by a small group in the US and primarily still woven in the European tapestry workshops where the weavers were usually following a cartoon made by an artist. It was the wall hangings of people like Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney who were the face of fiber arts in the 70’s. 

By the 80’s I was involved in raising a family in a small apartment and a career in early childhood education and I let go of all of my equipment except for the tapestry tools. When I retired in 2012, I wanted to learn more about tapestry and I found Rebecca Mezoff’s online tapestry school and I started taking classes with her. Having only taken a short course in tapestry previously, still I was shocked to learn how complicated tapestry weaving actually is. It was a case of “not knowing enough to know what I didn’t know” but it has been an exciting, if sometimes overwhelming, learning experience.  In 2019, I took a class with Molly Elkind at the MAFA conference and during the winter last year I connected with Ellen Ramsey when she was in NYC for six months. Ellen mentored Fannie Lee from our guild and me in wonderful sessions until our meetings were interrupted by Covid.  I also discovered the American Tapestry Alliance which is made up of a large, vibrant, extremely skilled group of tapestry weavers in this country as well as around the world which is a great source of support and inspiration

Has your work evolved over time?

It is evolving slowly. There is so much to learn about techniques, as well as color and design. So far I have made many samples and a few small (4 and 5 inch square) weavings.  I have a larger piece on my loom now that will be about 10”/10”.  I realize there will always be more to learn, which makes this study of tapestry exciting.

Above, top two: Samples doing color gradations. Each is about 4”/3”.

Above, bottom: The Greek Key was fun to do. 6”/10”

What equipment do you use?

I weave mostly on pipe looms that I make from galvanized pipe, and a copper pipe loom that I purchased.  I also have a small floor loom that I bought when I studied at Arrowmont from a family who were weaving small towels for the gift shops in Gatlinburg, TN. I have held onto it for sentimental reasons because it is a handmade loom but it has some structural issues and I will probably let it go soon. 

I was involved in doing a community weave for the centennial celebration for the nursery school where I worked for many years.  I made this large standing pipe loom for the weave.  Unfortunately, just as the project got started Covid hit and the project has pretty much been scrapped. I plan to do a celebratory weaving for the school.  The loom is 36”/60”.  

Handmade pipe loom for a community weave

What are your favorite materials/fibers to work with?

I use cotton seine twine for warp and mostly wool for weft. Tapestry yarn needs to be firm so it doesn’t pack down too much.  My two favorite wool yarns are Faro and Weavers Bazaar.

For someone starting out in tapestry weaving, what advice would you give them _ any specific loom, materials or techniques?

There are many good books on tapestry weaving. I think Rebecca Mezoff’s book that is coming out October 2020 will be a wonderful book for beginners.  Her teaching methods are excellent, she utilizes clear, easy to understand diagrams and she gives helpful feedback.  I also recommend her Warp and Weft course if one can afford it. Tapestry can be woven on any frame but as you progress you learn that a loom that will maintain good tensioning is essential. Rigid Heddle looms are not recommended for tapestry because it’s hard to get very tight tension on them. Mixix looms are a popular table top tapestry loom that come in various sizes and Schacht just came out with a table top loom called the Arras. Both have good adjustable tension and a shedding device.  The pipe looms are simpler and much less expensive. The pipe looms have adjustable tension, one open shed but the second shed must be picked by the weaver.  I enjoy that process but it is slower.

What is your current project?

I’m finishing a tapestry at the moment that I started a while ago. I’m working on two new ideas for possibly pieces and I signed up to do a weaving for the Violet Project. 

Thank you, Vicki, for sharing your weaving story and wisdom with us!


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