I’m on holiday, I’ve decided. I don’t want to think about books. That means I don’t want to think about writing them, researching for them, publishing them, most definitely not marketing them and not even reading them [because the minute I start reading, I want to write]. I don’t want to think about the grand e-books versus dead-tree book debate. I don’t want to analyse my reader statistics. I don’t want to work the social networks, certainly not after the bout of cyber-bullying I’ve just been through [if you want to know more about this, go to my August 21st post on Authors Electric].
I’ve had it with all that. It’s August. I want fun.
But what do authors do when they want fun [answers please on a postcard, or the comments section below this post will do]? Well, this author weaves. It’s something I used to do when I was young, but my loom was stolen when our house was burgled and until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t afford to replace it. Now, however, I have two looms – one for cloth, the other for woven tapestries. And for the last two years, I’ve been weaving for an exhibition that [panic] is coming up next month.
Tapestry weaving is very slow. You sit at a loom all day, as I did yesterday, and weave no more than a foot square at most. In this respect, it’s not much different to writing a novel. In order to do it, you have to be comfortable with delayed gratification. A tapestry can take months before it’s ready to cut off the loom. But, slow or not, it’s the perfect antidote to writing because it has no words. It’s the perfect escape. It’s better than the gym - which is where I used to go when I wanted to escape the novels writing themselves in my head, refusing to stop when the computer was switched off.
It’s another world entirely. One beyond words, where colour tells the stories and shape and texture all have interesting things to say. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working with the Burleigh Map of Tudor Shrewsbury, a small illustrated map of the town within the river loop, all its main streets and alleys still clearly identifiable today, breaking it into sections, blowing these up and turning them into a series tapestries.
It’s extraordinary to think that this ancient map - commissioned by William Cecil as a gift for Elizabeth I - outlines a town that still is recognisable. It’s not just the castle that I’ve woven, the churches and the ancient bridges [not to say anything of a few enormous swans], but shutts and passages that can still be found today and houses that I’ve been into myself and know well.
Now I’m busy framing, ready for my exhibition, and the walls are filling up with the labours of my last two years. They’re not abstract tapestries. They all tell stories which are plain to see. I might be able to shake off words, but not my sense of narrative. Even as a weaver, I’m an author too.
I first fell in love with tapestry when, as a young weaver, I came across the weavers of Harania in Egypt. Their vibrant tapestries, I discovered to my astonishment, had been produced by children. Not child slave-workers, I hasten to add, but free children, working freely and creatively. Extraordinarily, these children’s weavings weren’t part of a local tradition. The village of Harania had no such tradition - which was why it had been selected for a great experiment.
In mid-twentieth century Egypt, Wissa Wassa Wassef was a figure of William Morris stature. Wanting to prove that innate creative ability lies within all of us, he taught the principles of weaving to any of Harania’s children who were interested, provided them with materials and undertook to buy everything they made. His only provisos were that the children should not look at works of art to find their inspiration, and that they shouldn’t make designs in advance but make design part of the weaving process, working directly on the loom.
The results of this experiment are quite literally stunning. Do click the link above, to the Wissa Wassef Art Centre just outside Cairo for a real feast. You’ll be missing out if you don’t. As an untutored artist, I found myself overwhelmed with inspiration and determined to weave in the same way. And when Harania came to London, I went down to the Barbican, met the weavers – all adults now and since then a second generation of child weavers have become adults too - watched them at their looms, their fingers flying, and came away with everything I could buy – postcards, posters, even one of the tapestries [which cost a lot at the time but, believe me, is worth a lot more now].
Weaving has been good to the people of Harania. And they’ve been good to the world of contemporary tapestry. Tapestry is an ancient art form. The Greeks considered it a vital element of interior decoration, the Romans valued tapestries so highly that they imported them from across the known world and back through the centuries, palaces and stately homes across Europe have all been decorated with tapestries.
Into the twentieth century, weavers like the great Frenchman, Jean Lurcat and the Polish weaver, Tadek Beutlich, have inspired a whole army of modern-day tapestry weavers. I know this for a fact, because I’ve recently become a member of the British Tapestry Group, and the range of work to be found in the UK today - not to say anything of the work coming out of the American Tapestry Alliance and other groups world wide - is absolutely breathtaking.
If you’re lucky enough to live within reach of Edinburgh, do visit the Dovecot’s ‘Weaving the Century’ Exhibition, which is on until the end of the month. The Dovecot was set up by Archie Brennan. Do Google it or him. And whilst you’re at it, google Jean Lurcat too [here's an interesting link to a YouTube tour of his most famous 'Song of the World' tapestries], and the mighty French town of Angiers along with the word ‘tapestry’ and astonish yourself with the range of weavings – both medieval and twentieth century, that come up. There’s a place I’ve got to visit. What a feast!
And, on a more mundane level, if you want to see what I’ve been up to, HERE is the link. The exhibition ‘Shropshire Yarns is a collaborative venture between myself and two other tapestry weavers, both members of the British Tapestry Group. It’s our homage to a grand tradition and a celebration of Shropshire’s ancient history in the woollen and flax trade. Our exhibition will be on from 10th September to 13th October. The others have exhibited before, nationally and internationally, but this is a new departure for me. I may have been weaving on and off for years, but this is my first proper exhibition – and I feel terrified and vulnerable, but very excited too.
Our Private View will be on Friday 7th September, between 6.00 and 8.00pm. If you live close enough, do come along. And if you don’t – well, wish me luck.
For my new weaving website: http://paulinefisk.moonfruit.com
For more about my books and my writing life: http://paulinefisk.co.uk