I began weaving tapestry with commercially dyed and spun yarn. In order to make the yarns ”sing” I combined various weights and types of yarns together using the method known to tapestry weavers as weft blending. Eventually, I learned how to dye these yarns, giving me even more control over the final product. Still, a certain inner glow was missing from my tapestries.
I wasn’t able to define what was absent until a student showed up to my class with a tapestry woven from her own color-blended, handspun yarns. I was astounded by the muted, watercolor-like glow that emanated from her first tapestry. I had always said I would never learn to spin. In that moment I knew the choice was not mine to make.
The next day I was the owner of a spinning wheel and a couple of pounds of Merino roving from a friend’s sheep. In the first week I learned two things: how to spin a yarn that was acceptable and why all fleeces are not the same. I knew I wasn’t spinning the right fleece for tapestry weaving but I had no idea what type of fleece was right. I asked a lot of questions before I understood which fleeces are appropriate for tapestry, how those fleeces should be prepared, and how to blend the dyed fibers for spinning. Since becoming a bonafied spinner I have discovered that the journey from fleece to yarn is as integral to the tapestries as the weaving itself.
I have decided that certain long wools work best for my tapestries. I prefer Cotswold, but also enjoy Wendslydale and Lincoln. I usually blend these wools with mohair and sometimes little bits of Angelina fiber, which is a totally synthetic fiber that comes in a variety of colors and reflects light in a great imitation of nature. I both comb and drum card my fiber, depending on how well I want to blend the colors since there is a minimum of two colors of fleece in every yarn I spin. I use combs when I want each fiber color to be equally blended throughout the yarn creating a more uniform color appearance and the illusion of a solid color. The drum carder is useful when one wants a more uneven distribution of color and a more variegated looking yarn.
The best method for becoming comfortable with color blending is to practice with small amounts of colored fleece just using hand combs or cards or even you fingers. Start with closely related colors and then throw in a color from the other side of the color wheel. Because the fiber colors do not bleed together like paint, your chances of coming out with mud are non-existent. Gradually add colors, being mindful simply of whether or not the results look good. You can often correct a bad color choice by adding a neutralizing color from the other side of the color wheel. Break out of your familiar color traps by combining three colors that you think will look hideous together. You will find that often the results are better than anything you could have planned. The goal is to experiment with tiny quantities of fiber until you have created a bunch of sample blends. Spin it all up and see what worked and what did not. The final test is weaving this yarn because even an apparently ugly yarn can work beautifully in small quantities in a tapestry. The gift is that as a spinner you can mix your own paints, exerting complete control over the colors in your weaving.
Tricks are great for becoming comfortable working with color, but learning how to see the colors that exist all around us is imperative. Nature is the single best source for this knowledge. Not only does nature provide a perfect assortment of color combinations, but she also showers these colors with an ever changing light show. Matisse used to paint the same scene again and again as the light changed. The colors in each of the paintings from a series are radically different from one another. The experiment is easy to do. Find a patch of nature that appeals to you and watch it for an extended period of time and at different times. Randomly choose to really look at color combinations in nature. Why does that bright red flower look great against the kelly green spring grass? I was always told that yellow greens and blue greens don’t go well together and yet nature is a riot of such green combinations.
I recently received feedback from a student during the last class of a tapestry and bead weaving workshop. She had just returned from a trip to the Bahamas. She was determined to look at the colors of nature while on this trip to inspire the final project for the class. She choose the moment of sunset to watch the colors change above and across the water. She watched it intently every day for a week. When she showed me her final weaving I was stunned. The little flecks of orange and red and yellow and green exploding in a literal sea of blue shading into a lighter blue brought me right to that beach at sunset. There was no sun in her piece. There was just the magic of color that the sun shakes off into the sky and water right before it leaves. It’s a magic all of us are capable of both seeing and recreating.