Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Thoughts...

Post it

Yes, it's that time again to look back on the year just gone. 2012 was a pretty crazy year for a lot of people.  I think that it was a year of change, both good and bad but looking back at it, there was so much that happened!

More 2012
(TOP LEFT: Marimekko invite, TOP RIGHT: Mark and I on his 40th Birthday.  BOTTOM LEFT:  At the Belvedere Bloody  Mary Launch.  BOTTOM RIGHT:  Mark goofing at Yosemite.)

WORK:  My gallery was closed so I was back to essentially a desk job and I really started to feel the isolation from dealing with my amazing artists.  Work seemed to be quite the downer but on the upside, working a 9 to 5 job meant that I could get much more time in the studio!  As the new gallery spaces near completion, I'm very excited to work in the new spaces at the end of 2013 and to see it all happen!

MAKING ART:  I did concentrate on making loads of new work, working on new themes and ideas and looking back at old stuff too.  Although I only exhibited once during 2012, I was able to focus on creating a new body of work for a solo exhibition coming up in early 2013 and also to put together different proposals (some which I wasn't successful!) and think about future works.  2012 was about planting seeds for new bodies of work which I'm sure will come to fruition later on.

TRAVEL:  My list of travel destinations was long this year!  It was for both work and pleasure but I definitely gained appreciation for places that I thought were a bit blah too!  I visited San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, New York, Boston, Sydney, Bendigo and Hobart!  Actually, some of these places I went to a couple of times!

Visiting Yosemite National Park and hiking to the top of a waterfall was definitely a highlight.  I had such a sense of achievement and a taste for this type of adventure now!  It was also lovely to take some 'real vacations' where I didn't have to think about work and I could relax and explore places.  I probably should do more of this!

(TOP LEFT: My first attempt at hand dying yarn.  TOP RIGHT: I grew my hair and wore lots of Marimekko.  BOTTOM LEFT:  Mad Men party with gorgeous Sim.  BOTTOM RIGHT: weaving, lots of weaving.)

FINISHING STUFF:  I created my own month of attempting to finish those pesky unfinished projects and it really did focus me to do it!  I can see that I will bring this back in 2013 too.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY:  Well old friends came and went and lovely new friends entered my life!  I am amazed the avenues that I have met people, as well as their generosity and sincerity too!  I've made new friends all over the world and it's lovely to have pen pals where we send each other interesting things.

I am super lucky to have a best friend, goofball and big supporter in my husband who always keeps my head clear in times of craziness.  Also family and long time close friends who will always laugh with you are keepers!

TIME AND WELLBEING:  I know that we all say it but time does seem to go so fast!  I think 2012 has been me attempting to not feel guilty about not being able to do everything and be everything to everyone!  You've got to keep your sanity!  I am glad that my lovely personal trainer Jen is back and that I can look forward to 2013 being a healthy year.

Here's to 2013!!! Have a fun and safe New Year's Eve!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dying Yarn...

Here's my hand dyed skeins from yesterday! So much fun and I can't believe the colours are so vibrant!
My first attempt at dying yarn!!!

I have been working with yarn for such a long time, from knitting and embroidery to now working primarily in woven tapestry as an artist.  I have never attempted to dye my own yarn before but after reading a few forums on Ravelry and having a bit of a stash of light coloured yarn floating around, I thought I'd give it a go.

Now I am totally addicted to it!!!  It is quite exhilarating to see how it turns out.  As a starting point, I have been using food colouring dye as it much safer to use in terms of toxicity but also it is quite affordable.

And another batch!
another colour way.

I think that I will make the move to move 'professional' dyes later this year and look at handpainting and dying some yarn for a sweater.  I love the fact that it has a happy accident element to it but also that you end up with something purely original.  So far I'm only dying yarn that I would knit with but I can also see the possibilities of dying yarn to weave with for my tapestries.

I can also see that lots of my yarny friends will be getting these as gifts in the near future as well!  For those interested, I will be posting a how to in the upcoming weeks.

So, if you see me with weird coloured hands, you will know that I've definitely got the dying bug!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sampler exhibition... coming up early 2013!

You Know Me Better, woven tapestry by Mardi Nowak
"You Know Me Better", woven tapestry, 28 x  30 cm, wool, tapestry, cotton, linen and silk, 2012.

I have a little solo show called Sampler coming up at Hand Held Gallery, Suite 18 (upstairs), Paramount Arcade, 108 Bourke Street, Melbourne.  The show runs from 24 January until 16 February 2013.  It is a great little space, very much a shopfront which I always love and I am exhibiting all new and unshown small tapestries!  So this is a great chance to see not only tapestries but also works that are a little out of my comfort zone also!

The series of works produced for Sampler have predominately started their life in the moving image; mostly that of music film clips. These short, often narrative films have changed the way people think of music, lifting pop stars into the realms of fashionistas, celebrity and entrepreneurs.

Sampler translates images of women pop stars in fleeting and sometimes candid moments into the traditional and centuries unchanged medium of woven tapestry. Using a variety of very low tech methods to obtain source material, pixilated images are transformed into the corresponding beads and pixels of tapestry, creating an interrogation between the plastic pop world and artisan techniques.

"I've been interested in images of women, particularly in contemporary life for quite some time. As a child I was a bit obsessed with watching music film clips, studying what they were wearing and emulating their choreographed moves in my own amateur dance classes. (Hello, grade 5 Vogue Dance Champion!)

The pop world as a child was an imaginary one. Nothing seemed real. Colours were muted or super saturated. The lyrics were predictable but also mirrored scenarios in our lives. Love lost, happiness, melancholy; you could lose yourself in this world.

All of this contradicts the tapestry and art world. To me, tapestry is serious, time consuming, and situated in a long history. But I want my tapestries to be like a pop song; fun, playful, addictive and something that gets stuck in your head."

I'd love to see you there if you are in Melbourne!

Monday, December 10, 2012


I decided to make some cute and useful pouches for my Christmas wrapping this year! #handmade

I've been making all sorts of things lately. I've been making these zipper pouches as my Christmas Gift Wrapping. I figure that they are much more useful than paper gift wrap and it is like 2 gifts in one!

These have been fun to make! #knitgeek

I've been making mittens as Christmas gifts for Kris Kringle and also for friends. They are made with love and hopefully their recipients love them as much as I did making them.

I love the back of knitted colour work.  It looks just as interesting as the front! #knitgeek

My colour work in knitting as certainly been getting a work out and this is great practice for larger colour work pieces... sweater anyone?

Crazy weavey mouth... #tapestrygeek

And I've also been making tapestries! Did I mention that I have an exhibition coming up?! Well I do, and it all happens from the 24th January 2013 at Handheld Gallery.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Weaving Chair!

My new amazing chair.

I have been using the same old drafting chair while I weave for close to 10 years now, well actually it maybe a little longer.  I decided after all the creaks and soreness that I was getting from it that it was time to invest in a new, super ergonomic chair to save my back!

I visited the lovely folk at Bad Backs in Hawthorn to give a few chairs a try.  Who knew that there was such an array of office/work chairs available?!!!  I totally felt like Goldilocks sitting on all these different chairs and saying "no, this one is too soft" and all of that.  The great thing about the Bad Backs folk, is that once I found my 'preferred chair' I could take it to the studio for a few days to try it out in the environment that I will be using to see if it was going to work for me!

You can even sit backwards!

I've gone with an amazing Norwegian Chair, the Hag Capisco.  I won't rave too much about it but it feels super sturdy and also allows me to sit in a variety of ways.  Always a plus in the studio.

I think that I won't know myself in the studio with this chair.  Who knows, it may even speed up my weaving, which is a must with an exhibition deadline looming!!! ARGH!!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Crane and Deer Paper Cuts!

OMG!!!! These gorgeous, gorgeous papercut treats came in the mail today courtesy of @sanitiser !!! You totally made my day. I'm going to frame the and add to the studio!
My cute parcel contents!

I was super excited to receive a lovely little package in the mail last week from an on-line pal from Hong Kong.  We both adore kitties, delicious food and cute things.  Catherine makes the most amazing papercut works and I am now lucky enough to own a few of them!

I can't wait to frame them and hang them in my studio.  They are so detailed and lovely.  If you are wanting to send a gorgeous papercut card by Catherine to someone special over the Festive Season, then check out her etsy shop!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting into the Mexican Spirit...

My 'mexicana"' outfit for #yelpelite event tonight!!

We had an evening to go to as part of the Yelp Elite events and the theme was Mexican Holiday. As I was notified of the theme pretty last minute, I had to rustle up an ensemble! Lucky that I made my Fiesta dress the other week! Teamed with some Frida Kahlo inspired flowers and my gorgeous handmade earrings that I bought in San Jose, I think that my costume turned out a treat!

A close up of my earrings for the Mexican dress evening... I bought these on my first trip to San Jose!

I do feel like Melbourne is going through some crazy Mexican love at the moment, everyone is all about tacos and tequila. Don't get me wrong, I love a good hot sauce but where did this taco love come from? Anyway, there are some interesting foodie and drinky places in Melbourne getting their Mexican love on, so enjoy it while you can!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Oh, Sydney Town...

We headed up to Sydney recently for a few days.  It is amazing how a little mini break from your day to day activities can really recharge the batteries.  Even though we were away for only 2 nights, we certainly fitted heaps in!

So what did we do?  Well...

We we went to the VIP Marimekko Sydney Flagship store launch... so much fun!  So much colour!

#marimekkosydney #marimekko bikes at the launch

Marimekko launch

We ate lots of tasty treats and drank loads of beer!

Big Cat @elgatogrande ,big beer...

We walked over the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Went for a stroll over the Sydney Harbour bridge today.

We enjoyed our hotel's pool and balcony with a view.

Hanging out by the pool while @elgatogrande takes a morning swim... It's WAY too early for me to expose flesh!!

We caught up with our friends Sin and Stef.

Sin and stef

We took a ferry to Manly to visit our lovely friends Brian and Linda.

We chilled out!  Everyone needs a break away every now and again.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sewing A Fiesta Dress...

I've been a bit slack on my sewing lately, other priorities! However with a special event coming up in a few days, I wanted to make something to wear.

I often make a 'wearable muslin' to try out how the design will go. I had bought this fabric for about $2 a metre a while ago and thought it was a good weight to try this pattern. I love how it's turned out!

I drafted this pattern this morning and whipped this baby up! I wanted a dress with a gathered skirt and I think it turned out super!

My sewing mojo is definitely back!!!!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Things Like This Make Me Happy...

My girl @mackenziegreer is hilarious & very crafty! I love her random handmade gifts! Hopefully we will meet up in mid February!

I love getting my Marimekko delivery from New York, especially when I get some special arts and craft goodness from the girls there.

The lovely Mackenzie created this collage wonder and after having a crazy day dealing with an injured magpie in my yard, this little card totally made my day.  I haven't even met Mack in person but I hope to change this soon by a visit to NYC and most likely some cocktails!

I want to give a shout out to the awesome folk at Wildlife Victoria who helped me so much in assisting our magpie.  They are mostly volunteers and always need our support, so if you feel like donating some money to help them, help our animals, please visit their website!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When Your Subject Digs the Work...

Tweety tweet

So, I have been working on a series of small works for an upcoming show recently.  I hadn't been posting too many 'final' work shots but in the last few days, I have been trying to get some of the finished works together, measured and all their details listed in preparation.

In a nutshell I have been using screen shots of some of my favourite women music/pop stars as the inspiration for the tapestries.  I am loving the interplay between the pixelated, low res source material and the translation into the beads of the woven tapestry.

Tweety tweet

I was super trilled to have some tweets going out by the most amazing CATCALL (aka. Catherine Kelleher) who features in two of my little tapestries.  Always lovely to get a response from the actual subject!

As the works come together a little more, I will be talking about this mini project.

Public Art: Models of Possibility

Art note

I went along to the recent Melbourne Conversations lecture on Public Art:  Models of Possibility.  There were some amazing speakers including:

The program:
"As artists shift their concerns to engage with current social, political and environmental changes, can we see these shifts reflected in approaches to art in the public realm?  Or does the large-scale of many public artworks and/or desire for spectacle or comfort on the part of commissioning agents lead to an outcome that celebrates only wealth or the past?"

There was some interesting discussion about place and also the new directions artists are taking with public art.  Within my role as curator, I have been working on some public art projects and one of the most interesting things that I find is what people perceive public art to be.  I think that there is a big shift away from a big old sculpture that stays forever in one place.  Artists now are investigating ways to interpret a space or audience in much more ephemeral ways.

Check out the links above to the various artists/curators.  They are doing some interesting stuff!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Organization Nerd...

My colour coded yarn for weaving! It's making life easier!
Getting yarn organized!

I decided that I needed to get a little more organized in the studio with my millions of coloured yarns.  I was finding it a little challenging to work, especially seeing I have been working on a series of small works that need various colours.  Often when I work on a large piece, I gather all the colours I need at the start, like creating my palette and just leave them out to work on.  This method just wasn't working for me with these small works.

I went and purchased a whole bunch of small clear containers for my small cones of yarn.  Each container fits about 30 cones.  I then colour coded the yarns into groupings that I use often; dark grey tones, lighter grey tones, flesh tones and colour groups.

So far it's working well and means that I can find things quickly and also keep ahead of my yarn stock.  I did discover that I have a lot of yellow yarn currently!!!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stitching and Weaving...

I got myself a new seeing basket... My old one was looking pretty broken and old- this is cheery and fun!
New sewing basket!!!

Wow! I haven't posted for a little while, things have been quite hectic! I've been on some crazy deadlines lately, been away and then I got sick. Yeah, that is how it usually goes! But mostly I have been stitching and weaving. I invested in a new sewing basket to keep all my threads, needles and things. My last sewing basket I bought was when I moved out of home! This snazzy little number will at least keep me inspired to keep on stitching!

@toulou modeling one of my dresses...

I've also been working on a series of tapestries and dresses. My lovely friend Stef came to visit from interstate recently and I talked her into being my model for the day. She was such a good sport!  These works have been super fun to work on and I can't wait to see where they go!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reading: Overdressed...

I have just finished reading "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" by Elizabeth L. Cline.

It was an interesting read, yet it had some faults.  Bloomberg Business Week reviewed the book which you can read over here.

The book explores the changes in the way we shop and what we consume in ways of fashion.  Since I completed my Masters in 2003/4 which looked at shopping theory, I too can see the changes as well in less than 10 years.

People don't seem to care where the product is coming from, rather that they have it.  I have been shocked by the lines of people queuing to shop in new 'super stores' such as ZARA and TOPSHOP which have recently launched in Australia.  I keep wondering why?  Why are people waiting many hours to purchase a top that so many others all over the world own?  It's still a reasonably cheaply made product.

If you get a chance, this book is a fascinating read and may change how you think about your purchases.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What I've been working on...

And this one too! #tapestry
Question Mark collage by Mardi Nowak.

I've been working on some quick and small collages to weave for an upcoming project.  Here is a peek at what I've been working on.  They are super fun to do!

Bobbin perpetration #tapestry
Getting bobbins ready.

The pink and red combination remind me of my love of Marimekko's pink and red patterned combos!  I enjoyed playing with this in the little tapestry with half passing and all those tricky tapestry things!

Pocket tapestry
Tapestry by Mardi Nowak.

And here is the tiny tapestry completed!  All in one sitting!  I love when that happens!  Stay tuned for what these will become...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sometimes, things just work when you are weaving...

She's coming along this morning...
Tapestry in progress.

There are moments when you are working on a piece that you just feel like it all comes together. Yesterday was one of those days. The mixes were feeling right and everything was just snapping along really well.

Tapestry cartoon... This should be a fun one!
Inspiration for the cartoon.
I'm still working on my series of works inspired by music film clips and I am loving working on this particular image of Roisin Murphy. The grainy filter on the actual film clip has just lent itself to working in beautiful muted tones and I've been able to let the medium (the combination of cottons and wools etc) do the talking.

Tapestry cartoon preparation
detail of the cartoon with mark up lines.
I'm feeling so pleased with how this work is going along that I am tempted to try and work it up in a larger work as well. However that may come along much later seeing I feel like I'm on some tough deadlines to get these works completed!

Crazy close up weave
Up close and personal with the weaving!
 Yes, I do have a solo exhibition coming up in January 2013, which really isn't that far away! Eek!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Tapestry inspiration: Mathieu Mategot

I stumbled across some tapestries designed by Mathieu Mategot and wanted to find out a little bit more about him.  There was something about the work that just appealed to me, it has a particular aesthetic.  He was predominately a designer and created some beautiful objects including bar trolleys and tables. It makes me long for a return to the time when design included tapestry as well and was all included in very fashionable houses.

Artist: Mathieu Mategot
Title: : "Bali" tapestry
Manufacturer: Aubusson
Circa: designed circa 1962
Signature: Signed lower left with label verso
Measurements: 70" x 60"
Edition: #1 of 6

Designer (1910-2001) - Hungary

After his studies at the school of fine arts and architecture in Budapest, he began to create sets for the National Theater. He settled in France in 1931, where he took up various professions, creating sets for the Folies Bergères, window dresser for the Lafayette Galleries, fashion designer for dressmaking firms in Paris.

At the end of the 1930's, painting that he had continued doing, led him to a new world: tapestry work. The second world war interrupted his activity. A volunteer in french army, he was taken prisoner and he was free in 1944. After his return, he set up a workshop for handcrafted furniture in Paris. He used materials such as metal, rattan, glass, Formica, and perforated sheet metal in particular, to design chairs, armchairs, tables, serving tables, sideboards, desks and useful articles.

Mathieu Mategot in a fantastic thinking artist pose!

His activity as designer spanned a relativity short period, up to the beginning of the 1950's. During this period, he created the three-legged chair "nagasaki" (1954) and the "copacabana" armchair (1955/1956) that are today part of the design collection at the Museum of Decoratives Arts in Paris and the design collection at the Georges Pompidou Centre, National Museum of Modern Art, Industrial centre, Beaubourg, Paris. The Matégot's stand is present at all great events like "Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, SAD, Paris, or "Salon des Arts Ménagers", Paris. He was with Prouvé, Perriand, Royère, Adnet and the ceramist Georges Jouve in development of various projects, one of the most renowned french designer of this time.

In early 60's, he deliberately stopped this activity to devote himself to tapestry work. His first cartoons were woven in Aubusson, France, in 1945. He worked with Jean Lurçat, Marcel Grommaire, Mario Prassinos and many others to modernize contemporary french tapestry.

Mathieu Matégot died in february 2001 at Angers, France. (from the La Galerie Nationale Website)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Look at those Legs...

Today's legs, #marimekko bag & dress Legs today... Funny that they were matching @paintergirl legs! Heading to work... #marimekko It's a red tights kinda day! Graphic and patterns! #marimekko #knits It's a mustard tights kinda day... Where's my hot dog?!!!
Bit of a photo bomb of some of the photos of my tights and shoes that I've been taking. It would make a pretty amazing tapestry. Great colours! I also love my kitchen tiles too, they are super retro.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Buy Nothing...

Today's outfit: #marimekko striped cardigan & bag... Colour rules!
Grab your bag and get ready to shop?

I have been thinking about consumption for quite sometime, heck, I even spoke about it in my Masters thesis back in the day but a recent article in The Age about Buy Nothing New Month and it's founder Tamara DiMattina made me want to share some thoughts about buying stuff.

In the article Conscientious Consumption, Tamara spoke about the Buy Nothing New Month concept:

''It's taking the month of October to reassess how much we buy, what we buy and why. It's saying every time you're going to buy something, think to yourself 'Do I really need it?' If you do - bingo, proceed to the cash register. It's really trying to get people to think: 'Do I need it? Are there alternatives? Can I reuse something at home? Can I get it second hand? Can I borrow it or can I swap something for it? How can we really maximise the stuff that we already have instead of constantly acquiring new stuff?' ''

It's a great idea really but something that I think that needs to be continued throughout the year.  Don't get me wrong, I adore shopping. I love window shopping even.  I even enjoy going to the airport early to peruse the duty free shops.  However over the last few years I have become much more selective in my purchases and it all started when I thought about how much landfill cheap and poorly manufactured clothing was contributing to.

As a home sewer and knitter, I get so much enjoyment out of spending time to create something special and 'well made'.  It is the thought of achieving something at the end but also having an item that fits me perfectly, is original and will last that keeps me making. 

ikea dress 002
In one of my favourite creations!

A few years ago, I went on a super spree of making my own clothes.  As a New Year's resolution, I committed to not buy the expensive dresses I had been (albeit of high quality) and instead to sew dresses that met my needs - what can I say, I love pockets in my dresses!  So I sewed and sewed and only purchased items I needed like underwear and shoes for work.  I got so many comments on my hand made dresses and I realized that they were being worn over and over and not falling apart! I started to add up in my head the 'real cost' of 'affordable' t-shirts and tops and decided that I had to stop.

I have to admit that my 'sewing a wardrobe' comes in spurts.  I'm ok with that  and really you need to work when you have the inspiration.  The same with my knitting, and I have recently discovered the joys of hand made socks and also making socks out of the left over bits of yarn from other projects!  How's that for using up stuff!

So I have a bit of a mantra now about my consumption.  It works for me, it may not work for everyone but I know that I sleep better at night and also I feel that my life isn't so crazy either!  So here are some of my changes in the attempt to be a conscientious consumer.

The Bargain Bin (image courtesy of here.)

  • I've stopped being persuaded by sales.  Yes, I still buy items on sale but only if they are from good quality and reputable designers.  You won't find me at the bargain bins of Sportsgirl, Forever 21 etc.
  • I only buy clothing that fits me and that I find comfortable.  I figure that if I love it and it's super comfortable then it's going to get worn alot! It's like shoes, I prefer to support artisans who can hand make me some super shoes that will last me for many years.  Spending a few hundred dollars on shoes that I wear several times a week over 5 to 6 years is better than spending $80 only to throw them out after 6 months.
  • I don't frequent op-shops as much.  I know this sounds crazy but the amount of times I've bought items that didn't fit well or I didn't love 100% because they were $5 only to return them to the op shop in a years time.
  • I check the fabric and look at how it is made.  If it looks like it isn't going to last for more than a year, I don't buy it.  My winter coat is something I bought in 2009 and I'm still wearing it around well!  Having a good knowledge of how fabrics react means that you can make more informed decisions on quality and wash and wear.  I rarely send items to the dry-cleaner as they are harsh on fabrics, instead I gently wash items and hang them.
  • I polish my leather shoes regularly and have them re-soled by a cobbler.  Having a father who was a bootmaker, it was drilled into me about looking after your good quality shoes.
  • I shop from designers who I admire, have great quality and styles that suit my body type.  If you have something that looks great on, you are going to wear it and look after it, therefore it lasts longer.  I don't necessarily buy timeless pieces but I buy pieces that fit 'my look' and wardrobe. I don't need the latest trends.
  • I don't shop as leisure time.  I do shop when I'm on vacation but still follow my mantra!  Instead my leisure time is knitting or sewing with friends, gardening, reading etc.
I understand that it is hard to make changes and these are just changes that I'm making.  There are people out there who can't afford to buy 'high quality' clothes and I have the luxury of doing this but if everyone thinks about what they are buying and if they really need something, we will all be making a change for the better.

On a side note, the items that I have bought this year have been worn heaps!  I'm not afraid to wear my dresses more than once and I have dresses that I wear all year around, with a sweater and tights.  Last year I cleared out loads of clothing items that didn't fit me well or I didn't like that much.  They went to good homes, sold on eBay or at at Take 2 Market or to charity.  My wardrobe is much more organized and I'm wearing things that I bought 4 years ago and I still love them!  Keeping a list of our consumption really makes you think about what you need.  We don't have to be saints but it's a great conversation to keep having.

* This post has mostly focused on shopping for fashion or clothing otherwise it would of been too long and crazy but I will post about conscientious shopping for other things in the future.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

So Tapestry is the New Black...

Always happy to get an eye done... Inspired by @catcallmusic !
Image:  Mardi Nowak, tapestry in progress, 2012.

There's been a bunch of tapestry folk sharing this recent article from the Independent Newspaper in the UK and I wanted to add it for others to read here too.The original link to this article can be found here.

'Weave Got Style: From Marc Quinn to Tracey Emim, tapestry is the art world's latest love.'
by Charlotte Philby.

Forget dusty old wall-hangings – tapestry has become the coolest art form around.

Think tapestry: what springs to mind? Fusty wall-hangings in stately homes? Grim scenes of wounded animals caught up in battle? Probably not modern art. But it may be time to think again, as a new breed of weavers re-imagine the art world's most laborious form for the 21st century. Last year, Tracey Emin exhibited a series of pieces, created with the help of West Dean Tapestry Studio, at London's White Cube, while Penelope's Labour – a show of new tapestries from artists including Marc Quinn and Grayson Perry – wowed crowds at the Venice Biennale.

Right now, massive, mind-bogglingly graphic woven epics by the celebrated photographer Craigie Horsfield on the theme of the circus are causing jaws to drop at Art Basel. Decades after artists like the Icelandic Dieter Roth, and feminist icon Judy Chicago – whose needlework and textile series, Birth Project, caused a stir in the 1980s – led the charge, the number of contemporary artists having woolly ideas is growing at a rate of knots.

So what is the draw of the loom? Adam Lowe of Factum Arte, the Italy-based studio that makes digital tapestries for the Louvre and the British Museum, believes a surge in interest over the past 10 years was inevitable: "Artists across the disciplines are attracted by the materiality and complexity of tapestry, particularly in a new age where the generation of the image – and often the output, too – is digital."

Like Grayson Perry's enormous Walthamstow Tapestry from 2009, a subversive Bayeux Tapestry of our time featuring Chanel handbags, Superdrug and a woman giving birth to the Devil, which was woven from digital files on a Jacquard loom (an automated, rather than human-operated, machine) in Belgium. It returns to the public eye at the opening of William Morris's London home next month, just weeks after six of Perry's new pieces (also digitally-woven, using a mechanical loom to create his images in tapestry form), The Vanity of Small Differences, launched at the Victoria Miro gallery.

But the human touch is by no means obsolete. A hundred years after it was founded in 1912 by William Morris's weavers, Edinburgh's Dovecot Studios is holding the torch for cutting-edge hand-weaving. Having been saved from closure in 2000, Dovecot has for the past four years occupied a vast space on the site of the city's first public baths. Now in its centenary year, the studio has been transformed beyond recognition.
On the day I visit Dovecot, the excavated ladies' pool is in the process of being styled for a fashion show. The day before, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was playing one of a number of regular chamber concerts in among the looms, with guests looking on from the original gallery that circles what was once the main swimming pool; the walls are lined with abstract wall-hangings and colourful tufted rugs featuring geometric shapes and lighthouses, by artists including Alan Davie.

In August, as part of an ongoing series of centenary celebrations, this space will host a musical history of the studio, A Tapestry of Many Threads, co-written by creative polymath Alexander McCall Smith. It is all part of an attempt, explains Dovecot director David Weir, to break down the boundaries between artistic disciplines. "We've always occupied an unusual territory," he says. "Tapestry is a craft-based skill but the studio has always worked with contemporary designers," Weir, who used to work as a laywer, knows what he's talking about when he adds: "We don't live our lives in a single dimension."

Several feet below the original water-level in what was once a magnificent swimming pool, Naomi Robertson and colleague Jonathan Cleaver beaver away at their looms, producing pieces for Peter Blake and Peter Saville. Robertson replaced Douglas Grierson last year when the latter retired after 50 years as Dovecot's master-weaver and Robertson is making relatively fast progress on a series of woven versions of graphic images for Peter Blake, including a tapestry of his famous target symbol, beloved by Mods in the 1960s.

Metres away, Cleaver is working on another piece called After, After, After, Monarch of the Glen, a group collaboration by Peter Blake, Peter Saville, and the Dovecot weavers (of which there are five). The piece acquired so many 'After' prefixes because it was reinterpreted by a number of artists: Cleaver's woven work is based on a print by Peter Blake of a picture by Peter Saville, which was based on Landseer's original painting, Monarch of the Glen. It is, Cleaver says, a modern take on the tradition of the stag in wall-hangings.

Working eight hours a day, Cleaver has been given three months to complete the work: "Initially we made samples to give Peter and Peter an idea of what we were thinking of doing; there were discussions about layout and lettering; you could do it lots of ways," he says. Eventually, the piece will be reproduced several times as a limited edition, and every piece will vary as each weaver painstakingly blends their own colours as they work.

It is a long slog, but one Dovecot director David Weir says a computer cannot hope to match: "Handmade tapestry is a thought process, everything is slow and deliberate... A machine can't replicate the human touch, the happy accident or the editorial decision." Adam Lowe, whose Factum Arte studio have also made digital tapestries for Perry and Quinn, disagrees: "Traditionally, the arts have been defined by their medium: printmaking, metal-working, painting... We are now in an age where we can take one sense and transform it into another using computers. Just look at the transformation of sound into light in discos."

"As a craftsman and an artist, the point is to build bridges between processes and ideas, and the reason weaving caught on is exactly that, because it is something many artists can do," Lowe adds. Digital tapestry is certainly more cost-effective than handmade – a copy of Perry's Hold Your Belief Lightly, for example, will set you back a relatively affordable £950.

By contrast, Dovecot's prices range between £5 and £15,000 per square metre, depending on the size of the project and the level of detail. "Because of the skill involved and how labour-intensive it is," Weir admits, "tapestry's most prized asset is its biggest obstacle: few people can afford it." It was ever thus: on his deathbed, Henry VIII was considered the world's richest man, based not on his stash of gold or silver, but on his inventory of woven masterpieces. But this rather expensive sense of tradition remains part of the appeal, Weir says: "When the rest of the world becomes increasingly challenging, there is a retrenchment to what is true, respecting the values of craftsmanship and making."

Today, the bulk of commissions for Dovecot still come from corporate collectors such as PepsiCo, which commissioned a piece by Frank Stellar, now hanging in its HQ in New York, and Rolls Royce, IBM, and the London Stock Exchange. While public buildings are still key clients – a 7mx7m Ron Kitaj/Dovecot piece hangs in the central atrium of the British Library, while Castle of Mey, woven for the Queen Mother in the 1950s, takes pride of place in her Caithness home – the number of private collectors, Weir insists, are increasing, with "rich yachtsmen" among a new breed of collectors chasing after the prestige a magnificent tapestry still affords.

However, with the price of wool sky-rocketing (thanks to increased world-wide demand) and with misconceptions about the art form still rife, the life of the modern weaver is still not perfect. "The biggest problem," Weir says, "is getting recognition as an artist in your own right." One of Hockney's first observations on a collaboration with the Dovecot weavers in the 1970s was not well-received, he adds: "Hockney complained that one line had taken three weeks. After a number of conversations, he learnt that collaboration is about a dialogue, about creating something between the designer and the weaver's individual visions."

In order to prove that they are more than mere technicians, in 2008 Dovecot asked its employees to create their own pieces in response to their new site. The results are dazzling. At the front entrance, Naomi Robertson's portrait of a female bather hangs opposite a colourful, more impressionist, piece by Douglas Grierson, in which their former master-weaver depicts a number of artists, including Hockney and Monet – alongside Damien Hirst's formaldehyde shark – in a brightly-coloured work.

"Sometimes I wonder," Weir admits, standing next to a mannequin dressed in a neon-pink woven corset, "what would William Morris's weavers have made of this?" His instincts are that they would have approved.
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