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Tapestry Weaving: Design and Technique

Tapestry Weaving: Design and Technique

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Tapestry Weaving: Design and Technique

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May 31, 2015


Tapestries were among the most prestigious of art forms, created for the mightiest in the land and valued for centuries. Despite its illustrious history, tapestry weaving is actually a simple technique that requires little equipment or expenditure, and can be done anywhere. Written by a prominent tapestry weaver, this lavishly illustrated book gently leads you through the whole process with detailed diagrams and exciting work by contemporary weavers. It will be useful to the absolute beginner, but experienced weavers will also find new ideas and techniques to tempt and inspire them. The book includes a step-by-step guide to setting up a small frame loom and starting to weave; basic and more advanced techniques, and how to create shapes and textures; advice on taking your work into the third dimension, whether bas relief or fully sculptural; information on the qualities of different materials and how they can be used to create the effects you want; and design ideas for tapestry and how to follow supplied designs. This will be an essential source book for experienced and novice weavers, and is beautifully illustrated with 190 colour illustrations and diagrams.
May 31, 2015

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  • From the 1930s he designed for workshops in Aubusson and later in his own studio at St Céré to produce huge tapestries, sometimes in series, in the same spirit as the medieval masterpieces, but not as imitations of them.

  • In this thirty-eighth scene from the Apocalypse tapestries, the seven-headed serpent tries to drown the woman in a flood, which pours from its mouth, but the earth opens to save her, as St John the Divine looks on.

  • His themes, like the tapestries, were on a grand scale – for example, The Song of the World series of 1957–66 includes a set of invented fabulous beasts with man at the centre of his universe.

  • They depict in gory detail the events recounted by St John in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, in about 105 scenes, of which only sixty-seven survive in whole or in part.

  • In 1515, Pope Leo X (1475–1521) commissioned the painter Raphael (1483–1520) to design a set of ten cartoons for tapestries on the theme of the Acts of the Apostles, to hang in the Sistine Chapel.

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Tapestry Weaving - Joanne Soroka


Design and Technique


Design and Technique



First published in 2011 by

The Crowood Press Ltd

Ramsbury, Marlborough

Wiltshire SN8 2HR

This e-book first published in 2015

© Joanne Soroka 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978 1 78500 065 2

Cover illustration: Joanne Soroka, Chaya’s Dream I

Cover photo: Robert George Young

Frontispiece: Joanne Soroka, Scratching the Surface

Back flap: Joanne Soroka in her studio

Graphic design and layout: Margaret Issenman


All photographs are copyright of the author, unless otherwise noted. Photographs by the author and Shannon Tofts, Michael Wolchover, Douglas Robertson, Roger Hyam, Sarah Dixon, Brian Fischbacher, Jed Gordon, John McGregor, Norman McBeath, Luke Watson, Mike Griffiths, Sami Yahya, Kim Müller, Jean-René Archambault, Yvan Binet, Michal Kluranek, Maureen Kinnear and Barry Winston.


For Sandra Brownlee and Maureen Hodge,

who taught me to weave,

and for Barry.

Joanne Soroka, Eight Canada Geese, 37 × 46in (94 × 117cm).




It is about forty years since I first learned tapestry weaving, but I still remember what a miraculous process it seemed. In this book, I hope to share my enduring enthusiasm for the medium.

Tapestry weaving has an illustrious history. Huge tapestries were owned by the most powerful, who used them to display their wealth and their taste. They were woven by teams of weavers who may have had to spend years working on one enormous piece. These beautiful works of art can now be seen in museums, art galleries and churches. Today, contemporary tapestries are nearly always made by individual weavers who use their own creativity to express themselves through this wonderful medium.

Joanne Soroka, Home, 68 × 56in (173 × 142cm), linen, cotton.

The book is for novices, who may be only vaguely aware of what tapestry weaving is, but also for more skilled weavers who want to expand their knowledge. It is intended as a compendium of information on the techniques, materials and processes, on coping with mistakes and also learning how to create successful designs and translate them into tapestry. Novices will want to work through the stages in an orderly way, but the more experienced can dip into the section that has the information they are seeking, or just be inspired by the range of production of the historical and contemporary weavers.

Diagrams of many of the techniques have been used in preference to photos, since they can be clearer in showing the detail, but in most cases they are supplemented by photos of what the technique looks like when executed. The idea has been to strike a balance between the instructional and the aesthetic.

A special word to those who think they can’t draw. You can. There is creativity in us all and this book provides ideas for ‘drawing without a pencil’. Tapestry weaving may be your path to unlocking the creative force inside yourself.

I came to tapestry weaving through an unorthodox route. I first took a week-long summer course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design run by Sandra Brownlee. In Edinburgh, I then went on to two years of evening classes, before enrolling full time with the Tapestry Department of Edinburgh College of Art under the supervision of Maureen Hodge.

Today, most art colleges in the UK are dispensing with skills-based courses, from woodworking to tapestry weaving, and the Edinburgh course is among the many which no longer exist. However, there are still numerous people who would love to learn how to make tapestries. This book is for all of you who may never have had the opportunity to study at an art college and, now that the degree-level courses are gone, it won’t be possible in the future. Tapestry Weaving will guide you gently through the steps so that you can join those who love and practise this ancient art.



Weaving a tapestry is a magical act of melding yarns to create a mural full of power or subtlety. Starting with only limp threads, you can interlace them using colour and texture to create an object that will delight both you and the viewer with the beauty of its surface and its strength or delicacy.

In this chapter, the structure of tapestry will be explained, along with the technical terms you will need to understand how to create your own tapestries. We will also look at the long tradition of tapestry, to show how weavers approached their work, their subject matter and the tools they used to create it.

Joanne Soroka, The Face of the Earth, 1991, 81 × 64in (206 × 163cm), wool, linen, cotton.

Tapestry weaving is a specialized and ancient form of weaving, which like all weaving necessitates a warp, a set of parallel yarns under tension.

Discontinuous wefts, rather than the more common continuous ones of nearly all industrial and other weaving production, are then added at right angles to the warp. Rather than travelling edge to edge, the shorter wefts mean that the tapestry weaver is free to change colour at will and to work on each small section at a time. Tapestry is thus the most versatile, but possibly also the most challenging, of the myriad types of weaving. As the weaving progresses, the warp is completely concealed, hence the term weft-faced fabric, and so the weft creates the imagery as the panel is slowly woven.

The vertical warp is intersected by the discontinuous wefts, which completely cover the warps.

Four examples of different warp settings, from chunky to delicate.

A variety of bobbins.

One of many ways that wefts can be interlocked to avoid slits in the tapestry.

Weaving is based on a grid, with the weft running at right angles to the warp. The warp can be widely or closely spaced, coarse or fine, depending on what you want to achieve. A widely spaced warping will necessitate thicker warp yarns, while closely spaced warps mean thinner ones. The scale of warping also determines the thickness of the weft. A coarse warping can mean a tapestry that includes bold imagery, strong texture and thick wefts and is correspondingly quicker to weave. A fine warping allows detail, delicacy and subtlety, built up more slowly. They each have their merits, with no one setting being superior.

Weaving at its most simple means that a weft thread passes over one warp and under the next, then on the return trip does the opposite. Tapestry weaving is that easy. The demanding part of the task is to make a piece that you enjoy weaving and that a viewer will find attractive, or even thought-provoking and moving.

There are several ways to pick up the warp yarns in order to pass the weft through them, depending on the type of loom and the weaver’s chosen technique. The warp can be manipulated by the weaver’s fingers, or by treadles (the pedals under the loom). Another method is a leashing bar attached to the loom. Leashes, or long loops, are attached to alternate warps. The weaver pulls on the leashes to create a shed, the space between the alternate warps through which the weft passes.

Some people say that tapestry weaving is like darning in its construction. The passing of the weft through the warps is made easier through the use of instruments to carry it and others to beat it into place. Some weavers use a combination of a butterfly, or finger skein (yarn wound around the fingers and secured at its ‘waist’), and a fork or a comb for beating.

Bobbins combine the two functions. These pointed wooden tools have a spindle around which the weft is wound, with the point used to push it into place.

To create each colour area, the weft is woven back and forth in that small area. A slit is created between any two-colour areas, so tapestry is sometimes referred to as slit tapestry. Slits can weaken a finished cloth by allowing sagging or opening up, so they need to be dealt with. Weavers often sew as they go, or else sew them up after the weaving is completed. In other cases, wefts are interlocked as the weaving progresses. There are many methods of interlocking, or dovetailing.

Interlocking is a slower process and can create a fuzzy edge between the two colours. It also means that all parts of the weaving right across the loom must progress up the tapestry at the same rate, while with sewing, the weaver can concentrate on a given area for a sustained period of time.

Tapestries must start at the bottom and build up. Unlike other media, areas have to be woven in a building-blocks order. Each area must support what comes next. If a weaver were to do otherwise, some warps, which have not yet been woven on, would be trapped beneath areas of weaving, making it difficult to access them to work on later.

Materials that have traditionally been used for tapestry weft are wool, silk and metallic threads. The warp was usually wool or linen. Silk might be used for important areas such as faces, and gold threads were used to enhance depictions of fabrics. Today, weavers have a much greater array of materials to use, with warp usually cotton twine or linen, and weft including all the traditional materials, with added ones such as cotton and synthetics. Even paper, strips of cloth, raffia or wire have been used by contemporary weavers.

What Is Not a Tapestry?

The term ‘tapestry’ is often used by commercial manufacturers of kits sold in needlecraft shops or for products such as cushions, but weaving and needlework involve different methods. Embroidery, needlework and needlepoint are sometimes incorrectly called tapestry. These latter techniques involve sewing into an existing fabric, decorating it with stitches of various types. Even more confusingly, one embroidery technique is called tapestry stitch. The Bayeux Tapestry is a famous example of an embroidery generally perceived as a tapestry.

A traditional embroidery from Central Asia known as a suzani, in which a needle has been used to stitch decorative motifs into an existing fabric.

A detail of a tapestry, Cromarty, showing how it looks completely different from embroidery.

Jacquard weaving is also often incorrectly called tapestry. Generally, these are copies of famous historical pieces or sections of them. Upholstery can also be made with this method. The Jacquard loom, the forerunner of early computers, is based on punched cards, and is capable of weaving in great detail. Because it is time-consuming to set up the loom, a given design is made in large numbers. Such panels are sometimes advertised as handmade, presumably because they need a human to run the machine.

Other textile techniques that are similar to tapestry weaving include: looped techniques such as knitting, crochet or macramé; fabric techniques such as quilting or appliqué; dyeing techniques such as batik or tie-dye; and surface decoration techniques such as printing or painting on silk. Rugs can be made in tapestry technique, but are more commonly knotted. Basketry is also close to tapestry, since it is another weaving method, but it is generally made using hard materials. Felting is a process of creating a non-woven fabric, while lace is a group of techniques from knotting to cutting. There are numerous other ways yarns and textiles can be manipulated in an imaginative way. When practitioners use such methods to create works or art, words such as fibre art or wall hangings are sometimes used as all-encompassing for these methods. Off-loom weaving is another term used, although it is not quite accurate, since any weaving needs a loom, even if it is just a simple frame.

When Is a Tapestry Not a Tapestry?

Opinions vary on the topic of what is definitely a tapestry and what is not. For purists, a tapestry is a rectangle made of traditional materials such as wool and linen and is constructed using only tapestry technique. The purest of the pure would add that painterly techniques should not be employed, since that would be imitative of another medium. At the other end of the scale, a tapestry is any textile object that is made by interlacing. Yet others claim that if fibre of any type is included, even in tiny amounts, the piece is a tapestry. Even the definition of ‘fibre’ is at stake, since paper can be considered fibrous and, for example, safety pins can be put together in such a way as to make a cloth of sorts. Debates rage over the middle ground.

Current practice is made up of work by artists in the field, many of whom don’t care about the definitions. They may call themselves textile artists, tapestry artists or weavers, fibre artists or textile makers. While it is safe to say that practitioners will never agree on classifications, there is no real need to restrict one’s own practice based on the ideas of others. Tapestry weaving can be enhanced with the use of varying types of texture; it can be melded with other techniques; it can incorporate diverse and even strange materials; it can be made in sections or move into the third dimension. Experimentation is vital to creativity, and tapestry weavers have explored the gamut of possible techniques and plumbed the depths of their imagination to construct their work.


Historically, tapestries of varying sorts have been made in virtually every part of the world, with the strongest continuing tradition occurring in Europe and the Middle East. Weaving is thought to be about 15,000 years old. Then from small beginnings about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, people began to use weaving not just for blankets or sacks, but to make imagery in cloth. Over the centuries, individuals or teams of weavers produced tiny or huge tapestries, telling stories of battles and coronations, or just crafting decorative patterns.

The Meaning and Use of Tapestries in the Past

European tapestries were made for the aristocracy and were vast, usually narrative works, with the purpose of magnifying the greatness of the owner. They told of his ancestors’ great deeds, his impressive lineage, or his devotion to God. These tapestries warmed the dank walls of his castle and were portable enough to accompany him on progressions through his estates. Their labour-intensive nature and the cost of materials meant that only the richest in the land could afford them, and they were therefore the status symbols of their era, besides being vehicles of propaganda about the importance and power of their owners, or to educate the lower orders and inspire them to turn from sin. Most people would have had few other opportunities to see imagery, especially of this scale and grandeur, and we can assume that they were suitably impressed.

Tapestry Workshops

Since much of the European tapestry weaving tradition comes from France, French words are prominent in the descriptions and technical terms associated with tapestry. Tapestry itself may be called a Gobelin, or Gobelin weaving. The Gobelin family established a dye works in Paris, then added a tapestry workshop in the sixteenth century. The Gobelins manufactury (La Manufacture des Gobelins) has an illustrious history of serving the royal family of France. Today, it creates work primarily for government buildings. Workshops across France, Flanders and Germany supplied most of the production of European tapestry from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, whether subsidized by wealthy patrons, or commissioned by the richest merchants.

The Gobelins workshops today. The leashes and leashing bars of the high-warp looms, as well as the cartoons, can be seen above the weavers’ heads.

Tapestry Looms

Tapestry may be woven on a high-warp or low-warp loom (haute lisse or basse lisse, vertical or horizontal loom). High-warp looms can be just a wooden or metal frame, sometimes put together like scaffolding. They can be vastly different sizes, but in all cases the weaving is vertical. More elaborate ones have rollers and reeds. Reeds are metal or wooden devices with a comb-like structure for keeping the warps at a correct and even spacing. Each loom would have a range of reeds to accommodate different warp settings. Low-warp looms are similar to or the same as cloth-weaving looms. The weaver bends over the horizontal warp. The warp is unrolled from a roller, passes through a reed and sometimes sets of heddles, and the finished cloth is rolled onto another roller. Heddles are vertical wires with central eye holes, like needles with an eye in the middle, through which each warp thread passes. The treadles are connected to the heddles, allowing the weaver to create the shed by pedalling.

The low-warp loom workshop at the Gobelins. The weaver uses the treadles to change the shed.

Looms range from the simplest wooden

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