“Tapestry Weaver” No More, Say: “Textile Artist”

By Hélène Crié-Wiesner

When they go on vacation to France, or on a business trip, most people are interested in museums, culinary arts, history or landscapes. When I am in France, I look for tapestry workshops, textile artists, and wool factories. And I am very disappointed each time: apart from the city of Aubusson and the Parisian Manufacture des Gobelins, I find nothing, or almost nothing. Weaving, yes, but no tapestry.

Fifteen years ago, when I arrived in North Carolina, I wanted to reconnect with the hobby that I had practiced diligently in France in the 90s: tapestry. In France, I had learned this technique in a specialized school, which no longer exists today. Already at that time, it was very difficult to find a place to learn tapestry, at least when you just wanted to practice for the pleasure of creating, and not to become a professional in a studio or factory.

When I moved to the United States, I did not know where or how to find a teacher or a workshop capable of updating my knowledge. I thought tapestry weaving was neither popular nor taught in the United States. Obviously, I was wrong. Thanks to the possibilities of the internet, I was introduced to the vast community of weavers in my new country.

Over the years, by searching the French cities where I travel, by monitoring social networks to see who practices tapestry weaving, and by talking with French weaver friends, I understood the main differences between France and the United States in this specific field. In France, the word “tapestry” evokes for most people large and heavy hangings hung in castles and official buildings. Over the years, this creative art has slowly died, crushed under the weight of its high cost. The workshops’ production is only bought by government entities, big firms or very rich collectors.

So I discovered that there are more domestic tapestry weavers in the US than there are in France, where possible beginners are way too intimidated by the weight of tradition to even think of learning the technique, when they only just heard about it. Most of the American weavers I know work indeed on relatively small looms, even table looms, which allow for only small tapestry formats. I discovered the small format tapestry when arriving in the US, because strangely, in France, I know no one who is weaving that small.

There is another reason for more practitioners in America: It is easier to find someone to teach tapestry in the US. First, tapestry is sometimes taught in art departments in American universities. Second, there are the Navajo and Mexican traditions that have made rug-weaving more visible, while not being too intimidating.

Finally today, thanks to the internet, one can search “tapestry class” and easily find a place, a teacher, a class for a weekend or a week, making it possible to be introduced to the technique with minimal fuss. While doing the same research on French Google, you find mainly upholstery classes (“upholstery” is translated in French by “tapestry”.) Or you are directed to the famous Gobelins studio who teach only professionals. However, there are now some possibilities up opening at the Aubusson studio through the new Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie, where you can get
some wise advice.

Sylvie Wujek in her studio, website: https://lelientisse.fr/
Sylvie Wujek in her studio, website: https://lelientisse.fr/

Last year, in my city of Rennes in French Britanny where I spend a lot of time, I was very happy to discover a lady who teaches weaving and tapestry weaving to beginners, in her studio, on small looms. Sylvie Wujek offers three hour or one week-end introductory courses. She says: “Weaving is linear. When the students discover that tapestry can be worked in blocks, it opens up new perspectives. They then want to create a small picture.”

Sylvie confirms what my tapestry weaver friends are all telling me about what is happening in France today: textile art has been back in fashion for a few years. As in the US, many young persons now embark on embroidery, knitting, crochet, macramé, and some timidly approach weaving. Most don’t know anything about tapestry, or confuse it with cross-stitch embroidery. Tufting is also making a big breakthrough in the field of textile hobbies.

The big trend today, among people (largely women) in their thirties, is wall weaving, a mixture of non-figurative weaving and tapestry, including all kinds of fibers, most of the time fluffy and hairy. One type of event works very well with this new public interested in this “mural art”: happenings/workshops for Instagrammers. They are often organized by magazines or trade salons specializing in decoration. The instructors offer kits to make a tiny wall work, including a small frame with zen and soft fibers. Everyone leaves with their work, whose photos are immediately posted on Instagram surrounded by hearts and kisses. One thing is sure: no one dares today uses the terms “weaver” or “tapestry weaver”; we must instead say “thread artist”, or “textile designer” to be taken seriously. It is thus in France and perhaps also in the United States? Tell me…

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