“Letter to the Editor”; International Tapestry Journal; Vol. 3, No 2, August, 2000
Something that I wrote that seems a million years ago. Before I could even show with large format tapestry. When people were still trying to decide if we were even tapestry or something else…! Back before small format tapestry weavers were allowed to show with the larger tapestries and before we were considered to be tapestry. Everyone wanted to know how the small format small scale tapestry weavers were going to be identified.
Times have really changed in someways!
I don’t weave miniatures. The word miniature is derived from minare to paint in minimum from the Latin miniatura. A miniature by definition in English has several meanings and none of those meanings cover tapestry. It means a small illumined painting or illumined letter as in a medieval manuscript or a small painting especially a portrait, done on ivory or vellum, etc.[i] Obviously small tapestries are not paintings. In the book Usage and Abusage Eric A. Partridge sites, “It (miniature) is not a synonym of small, little, or dainty.”[ii] Modern American slang has another meaning for miniature it is to copy a large-scale object and make it small. It usually involves a ratio and is written. (1: 4, etc.) Miniatures are considered to be no greater than 5 inches by 5 inches in the art exhibit world. Again, this is not what I weave. Nor, am I in favor of the term mini. It has a diminutive often negative connotation in American English and slang. It has come to mean the smaller often cutesy feminine version of something. In some segments of society, it is applied to anything one wishes to make less and often time is the butt of a joke.
Small format tapestries are not samples of larger pieces to come. Sometimes large format tapestry weavers will submit a portion of a larger design as small format, but this is not a small format tapestry. Most of the small scale/small format tapestry weavers I know usually design the tapestry for the size format it is being woven. Some even design the tapestry and then decide the scale and format.
Let’s define a few terms. Of course, I take the responsibility for these definitions. They are mine based on personal observation, bias, and that I weave small scale/ small format tapestry.
First, tapestry is a weft faced weave structure with a discontinuous weft. There are many notable exceptions–twill tapestry and tapestries with warps left purposely without weft. The word tapestry can be a confusing term in English. It can refer to anything mounted on a wall, or pictorial needlepoint. Tapestry is a technique, not a size, neither are they always wool, shaped in rectangles, nor always hung on walls. True tapestry does not exist in any one place, but by definition should be the sum of all weavings that fit the definition regardless of ethnocentric ideals.
Second, small format refers to the size of the tapestry. I like to think that for a tapestry to be considered small format should be less than 15 x 15 inches. I picked this size because HGA has for many years sponsored an international show called Small Expressions. In the rest of the world (?) and USA the size for small format work seems to be about 20 x 20x 20 cm. Next year’s small format shows It’s about Time! is 10 inches by 10 inches. Miniatures are usually classed as no bigger than 5 inches by 5 inches. Generally, shows are only interested in the size of the tapestry, or its design, or its experimental nature not the scale of the weaving.
Third, small scale tapestry weaving refers to the structure or the warp sett of the tapestry weaving. So, by this definition one could have a small format tapestry that is not necessarily small scale. Small scale to me is anything with a warp sett of 14 or better. I happen to weave at a warp sett of 20 ends per inch. It has been pointed out to me by both Archie Brennan and Nancy Hoskins that historically 20 ends per inch is quite coarse. There are many historic examples of Chinese and Coptic weavings that are woven at 65-75 ends per inch. I thumbed quickly through the catalog Five Centuries of Tapestry and discovered that the average warps per inch for the past 500 years was between 12-18 wpi.[iii] Of course, this a very limited sampling and based on the San Francisco Collection and not accessed by culture or usage of the work.
I have been seriously weaving small scale/small format since 1990 and large format since 1979. When I began to weave small format tapestries, there were very few venues in the United States. It seemed as every lecture or conference that I attended someone was “bad mouthing” small tapestries. I am not unaware that there were a few notable tapestry weavers and designers who occasionally wove small format and small scale. Also, about this time a British small format show was traveling the USA. It was a great show, but an exception. It included tapestries by Liliana Anastasescu, Erika Betty, Archie Brennan, Johanna Clark, Lynn Curran, Madelaine Deny, Dominic DiMare, Hey Frey, Linda Green, Maureen Hodge, Fiona Mathison, Stefan Poplawski, and Ingun Skogholt. We were told they were not true tapestries. Small format tapestries were parlor work. They could never be more than samples. They were only pretty wool pictures. Times have and are radically changing. Small scale/small format work is now considered adventuresome, experimental and an economically sound decision to weave. So, why is there the implication that unless one weaves large format one is not a serious tapestry weaver? Why is there often a size limitation on shows? Why is it often a restriction for tapestry shows that the tapestry must be over a square yard or square meter? One rarely sees these limitations in other art forms (with the exception that something is to large and impossible to hang). Should not choices for tapestry shows and exhibits be decided by whether the tapestry stylistically fits the theme of the show, or by the quality of the weaving and its design? Is there an inherent bias in the Arts and Crafts against small format tapestries? Does large connote great and serious art and small less serious and cute? Could working large size be a gender thing as is often inferred in graduate school? Women do smaller, more feminine, more hand-crafted types of work, less artistic work? Is the requirement for large based on the ideals of Lurçat? In America he is often quoted to the student tapestry weaver and quoted ad nauseum in lectures by many great tapestry designers. If this were or is the case, many of the most beautiful tapestries in the world would be excluded. If the size restriction is based on visual or actual space or the continuity of the show, isn’t that a problem for the people hanging the show, not the juror or the weaver? Why does weaving small format infer that one is a less serious weaver? Perhaps even an amateur? Is it based on the time it takes to weave a tapestry? It takes the same amount of time to weave a design- large or small scale. The format and materials are just bigger or smaller. Why are the large format shows more often documented with catalogs, videos, and slides then small format shows? Without documentation it is difficult for small format tapestries to be taken seriously, be researched, or for other small format weavers to know what is happening in the rest of the world.
When I was a student training to be an artist, or a tapestry weaver, many of my fine art instructors were not sure that one could be both. One of my instructors told me repeatedly that I would only be a good artist/craftsperson when I could command paintings and tapestries the size of a wall to do my bidding and evoke my viewers’ emotions to feel mine. “Great art,” especially in the 40-90’s, often meant if the work of art did not command the total field of vision, it would be difficult for viewer and or artist to become personally and intimately involved in a work of art. Unless you could be overwhelmed by the painting and could only see that painting, you could not become part of a painting or its ideas. “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside the experience, to look upon an experience…with a reducing glass. However, when you paint and you paint the larger picture, you are in it.” (Rothco) These ideas (tapestries need to be monumental, limited colour range, coarse weave structure, etc.[iv] are mirrored by the Lurçat (when he writes about the first time he saw the Apocalypse of Angers), Marc Adams in a lecture given at the Fine Line Symposium, Portland, Oregon, WM. Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, their disciples and many modern tapestry weavers. Large scale/large format tapestry seems to be trying to compete with painters philosophically. Which really is not a new idea, it’s been going on in Europe since the 15th century. Is bigger better or can both co-exist in shows and tapestry literature together when the playing field is leveled. Perhaps, then, the best design, the best idea, best use of technique, etc., will be in tapestry shows.
Unless one stands very close to a small-scale tapestry, it does not occupy one’s whole field of vision. Intimacy is created in a different way. Small format work invites the viewer and the artist to step closer into a small imaginary world that has boundaries. The edges that one sees contain or become the positive edge of a small private universe. The viewer or artist, by stepping forward toward the piece, has committed themselves to the design, mystery and the intimacy of its small universe. It is not necessary to be in the design or to become part of the experience, but when you step forward to view the tapestry you have already made the choice to become part of that experience.
Spiritually, in many cultures those things that tell the story of a culture or that are a matter of spirit are not dictated by size. Many precious and private things are often more ethereal because of their small size and one to one relationship. To be spiritual it is not always necessary to have a cathedral; perhaps just a blade of grass is needed. Sometimes a small pebble is all that is needed for remembrance of major catastrophic events. Small format/ small scale tapestries are more than able to express precious, over-powering, personal images.
To be very crass precious things usually come in small packages and I still do not do miniatures.
[i] Unabridged Dictionary; listed under miniature
[ii] Partridge, Eric; page 188 Usage and Abusage
[iii] Bennett, Anna; Five Centuries of Tapestry;
[iv] The book of Tapestry