Color and Weaving in My Work

detail. Prairie Pillow, private commission 2009

I have been writing some articles about woven color for Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot Magazine (Handweavers’ Guild of America) over recent months, and yet sadly neglected this audience. So here is a copy of a recent article about how I use color when I weave.  This is from the Winter 2013 issue of SS&D.

Winter 2013/2014 Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot 31

When I first met a loom at Kansas City Art Institute in 1973, I was mesmerized. It was a frame loom, and I wove a free form seashell tapestry replete with wrapped coils and beads. Well, maybe that was the second tapestry I made on it; the first was probably a sampler. But the joy of making a beautiful woven picture will never be forgotten. We moved on through learning four-harness weaves, and I delighted in making all of the various samples, experimenting widely with materials. But my heart stayed with tapestry, as all of my previous artwork had been figurative drawing. So began a very long career in learning to combine what I love—color and drawing—with a specific gridded medium with many limitations in those two areas.

Early Influences
For a year or two I experimented with weft-faced tapestry and made quite a few which I still love. I had been working with a professor from the painting department, Warren Rosser, who had a great influence on me in terms of concept and creativity, and he would have me paint over sections with dye if the color wasn’t working, or pull the threads out and re-weave areas if necessary. This works well for painters who can dab at any area of a painting that needs altering, but it was a bad practice for me. I had to find a way of getting more in control of my process and my colors.

I was also wanting more translucency in my color—no doubt Rosser’s suggestion—as having woven so many other samples in various balanced weaves I had become impatient with the flat color of weft faced work. So I began to pursue what has become a lifelong study of woven color in a very narrow set of parameters.

Laura Foster, Rug, 1975. Weft faced tapestry, wool with cotton warp; 45 by 30 inches. 

Embracing the Woven Structure
What came first was to embrace my medium of woven cloth: accept what it can do and push against the perceived limitations to forming cloth with integrity. I had been reading William Morris and Owen Jones on
figuration in textiles, and was impressed by their commitment to the two-dimensional woven plane. Both insisted that it was folly to try to make representational imagery in the convention of painting (as, for example, in Renaissance tapestries designed by painters) because cloth inevitably ripples in space (in its applications) and thus the illusion becomes confused. For my own purposes, this view was perfect, and I have worked within that all these years since. (I acknowledge that many works in textile defy these conceptual limitations with great success!) Because my aim has always been to produce works based on image and drawing, I have stayed with very simple weave structures which support more refined shaping of curves, etc., and I work in a relatively fine weave of 30 ends per inch.  I first attempted simple tabby with inlay, coarsely sett at 15 epi, which resulted in translucent grounds and denser figures. I would paint the warp before commencing the weaving to vary the color and proceed with a discontinuous weft inlay. This was great as long as I wanted the translucent base fabric, but if I beat hard, of course, I soon had a mess on my hands as the inserted areas built up and the ground weft packed down. Still, the color and surface were intriguing to me.

Laura Foster, Beetles, details, 1976. Rayon with wool inlay, painted warp; 45 by 45 inches.

Theo Moorman weave was suggested to me, and I tried some samples.I loathed it (with apologies to all who love it) for its hard-edged angularity and the rigid looking gridded dark-and-light weave. I am sure I could
have carried on and found some brilliant ways to use it, but it did not feel right. In addition, the structure favored fairly low detail and more geometric, simpler forms, than the subjects, which interested me.

Samples woven by Cally Booker, United Kingdom, 2012. 
Photograph by Cally Booker.

Choice of Structure
Several years later, while I was at Cranbrook pursuing my MFA in Fibers, I was striving to find a finer cloth that could carry more detail to make a more interesting use of cloth and pattern. Historic European, Persian, and Indian textiles were of great interest, and I wanted to produce textiles with images that reflected a richness of color and surface. I reduced the size of my threads and looked for a weave which would provide capability for good detail, yet still leave the emphasis on form rather than texture: a simple weave.  I examined both paisley and Kashmiri shawls, and found them to be based on fine twill grounds. Moreover, the Kashmir shawls were woven in three-harness twill tapestry with interlocking wefts, or discontinuous
weft with no ground weave, whereas the Paisleys were woven with a ground weft and continuous weft brocading. The long weft floats on the reverse between brocaded areas were often clipped to reduce weight. Neither structure was exactly suitable to my needs, so I devised a discontinuous weft inlay system to avoid the long floats on the reverse.  This also enabled me to use a much greater variety of brocade colors.

Kashmir shawl (detail of front and reverse sides), Kashmir, 19th century. Cashmere fiber.

Jacquard paisley shawl (detail of front and reverse sides), Scotland, 19th century.

In the Kashmir shawl, you can clearly see the twill structure: each colored thread is a separate discontinuous weft thread, which interlocks at each edge with the neighboring thread.  The white outline thread, also woven in, is circled above on the face and on the reverse to show how the interlock occurs. This gives dense clear colors, but is extremely labor intensive. There are approximately 100 threads per inch. In the Jacquard paisley shawl, the twill weave shows plainly on the face. There is an ivory ground weft holding the cloth together, and, as you can see on the reverse, several colors of inserted continuous brocade wefts. The floats have been clipped after weaving to reduce the weight of the shawl.

The beauty of a three-shaft twill is that the turnaround at the edge of each design motif interferes less than it would with a more complex pattern, or a longer float. Also, with three harnesses, there is no balanced weave possible; your options are weft dominant (over two, under one thread), or warp dominant (under two, over one thread.) I attempted the twill tapestry (discontinuous wefts, interlocking) in one or two pieces and was frustrated with the labor involved in interlocking tapestry versus inlay brocade, so I modified the three-harness weave to include a ground weft.

Laura Foster Nicholson, detail, Burr Comb, 2009. Wool with cotton; 30 by 24.5 inches

I would lift shaft 1 and insert all the discontinuous brocade wefts, then lift the next shaft as well and throw the ground shuttle. Not only did this relieve me of the labor of manually inserting discontinuous wefts for
background areas, but I was delighted to find that the brocade weft slipped neatly in front of the ground weft, thus not hampering packing, but hiding the ground weft. That was a major color breakthrough for me because I no longer had the ground weft diluting the color of the inlaid thread, and also it solved the problem of packing too much in one area and not enough in  the ground. The resulting cloth was also weft faced in the figured areas, and warp faced in the ground, a perfect equation for making images. I want color density in my inserted images, and the warp dominant background provides both a textural change and a distinctly different color effect.

I say “weft dominant” rather than “weft faced” because one sees two thirds of the weft color and one third of the warp color. So in fact one has a slight translucency working. Ditto with the warp-faced ground: one third
of what shows is ground weft, which affects the remaining two thirds of warp showing by giving it the color from that weft. This still did not solve all of my color problems, but it gave me fluidity in drawing and ease of
construction, which was gratifying.

I still wrestled with certain color problems that resulted from always having some warp infiltrating weft color. Most problematic were compositions involving extremes in value (the lightness or depth of a color) and complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel, such as red/green). In each case, when crossing a color with one so intensely different, the weave could not maintain the color saturation I desired.

Laura Foster, Topiary Garden (detail), 1982. Wool and cotton. 

What happens above, in this detail from Topiary Garden (1982), is that the very dark green of the topiary forms brocaded is lightened and de-saturated by the pale colored warp threads. You can see the deep green warp striped running throughout. I attempted to ameliorate this problem by my old trick of staining the warp with dye in places, so the dark inlaid brocade is slightly more saturated, but still unsatisfying.

In the detail from Cabanas (1987) the attempt to use strong primaries on a circus striped ground of yellow and blue backfired with each color being diluted in some way. It was difficult to manage a sense of brilliant color when often a deep color was cut by a lighter value, or a pure blue was rendered greenish by the yellow warp. You can see in the detail that in the weft-dominant inlay sections, the colors do seem more saturated, but in the background, for example, it was impossible to maintain a saturated yellow-blue stripe. I had to weave it with either yellow, which would push the blue toward green or blue, which would dirty the yellow. As the blue was stronger, I chose to support the yellow with a yellow ground weft.  Full Spectrum breakthrough I worked this way for a number of years, and, being the color junkie that I am, was occasionally frustrated when attempting color palettes, which required strong contrasts.

Laura Foster Nicholson, Deauville Cabanas (detail), 1987. Wool and cotton.

I learned to balance colors, watching as they intermixed in the weave and blended optically to form new colors, and then one day Theo Moorman popped back into my head and I began a more directed search. Taking her basic theory of alternating dark & light tie-down warps, I decided to employ alternating warm and cool warps. In essence, in the 3-harness twill I use, raising 1 out of 3 threads forms the tie-down for the brocading threads, then raising that shed along with the second sequential set of threads brings up two-thirds of the warp, and the ground shuttle is inserted. The difference is that in Theo Moorman’s technique, there is specified supplemental tie-down warp. In the three harness twill, one warp does all the work.  Fruit Cellar was one of the early experiments with deliberate warm/cool warp. As a close look reveals, each warp stripe is predominantly warm (a mid-range terracotta) or cool (a mid-range drab green), alternating with a rather
“neutral” dull brass, which is approximately half way between these two hues. The weft striping (ground thread) is a deep brown to pull down the saturation level of the two colors, so that the inlaid wefts can pop in contrast as each is free to push toward warm (like apples) or cool (like the green pears.)

Laura Foster Nicholson, Fruit Cellar (detail and close-up of weave structure), 1989.
Wool with cotton and silk; 34 by 32 inches.

Looking closely at this detail of the weave in Santolina, you can see there are vertical bands of warp colors. The lighter band on the left uses a blue-green (cool) and terracotta (warm); the darker band on the right uses a deeper teal and the same terracotta (I do this to add the stripe interest to the warp). You can see how the warm-colored weft (dark terracotta stranded with a black/white seed novelty thread) traverses both stripes
and is affected in color by the difference in the stripe, moving upward into the brocaded area. You see less of the warp threads and are focused more on the weft brocade colors, even though you get flecks of the warp threads showing through.

Laura Foster Nicholson, Santolina, (detail close-up of weave structure), 1993. 
Wool with cotton and acetate. 

Now here’s the math: since every other thread is either warm or cool toned, rather than one-third of the color mix being, say, cool (which supports the cool green brocade hues), only one-sixth of the visible color field (warp and weft) is warm, and the rest reads cool (on right). Stony Path and Watery Stones are two related pieces, one woven on a predominantly warm warp (terracotta) and the other on a cool warp, deep blue. It is quite difficult to manage color on a very strongly colored warp.

Laura Foster Nicholson, Stony Path and Watery Stones (detail) 2003. Wool with cotton.

The deep blue tends to desaturate the warmer colors woven into it, whereas the colors on the terracotta
seem brighter, even though they were woven with the same brocading colors. The reason for this is that terracotta has a mix of all three primaries in it: a lot of red & yellow, but some blue in it too, whereas blue is a primary and so it does not support the other two primaries, red & yellow (both warm), to the same degree. Generally colors appear cooler when woven with blue, which renders warm colors more drab. I find that working on mid-tone colored warps, the balance of dark and light is more manageable than when working on strongly dark, light, or brightly colored warps. The more saturated the color, the more difficult it is to balance the inserted weft colors, particularly when one desires a contrast. The warp in the detail of Planting Line alternates brown with either terracotta or a twisted grey/black thread, forming a mid-to-dark tone. You may remember that if you mix all three primary colors together you get brown, so I reasoned that it contains a percentage of each color, and thus supports each brocaded inlay in some portion. Hence the green is as vibrant as the orange, in relation to the deep ground. Some of this is optical—the relationship of complements tends to push each color to seem more vibrant.

Laura Foster Nicholson, Planting Line (detail), 1992. Wool with cotton.

Burning Barn was, as its name suggests, intended to produce a hot glow of fiery color in the depths of a dark wood. With such great contrast, I decided that the warp itself should change color to support the information. A high contrast was needed, with no compromise of the orange fire, so a strong yellow warp was dipped in black dye by sections. The yellow supports the bright green foreground and also brightens the fiery orange of the building, in strong contrast to the dark woods, which were inlaid with a deep green wool thread over the black dyed warp areas.

Laura Foster Nicholson, The Burning Barn, 2011. Wool with cotton, dip-dyed wool warp;
30 by 29 inches.

Pulling it All Together
Throughout all of these years of experimenting with color, I have kept a few constants: I use the same weave structure which serves my image-making purpose well; I use wool warps, which carry saturated color extremely well. My ground weft is usually wool or a mix of wool with other fibers, but my inlay threads are generally mercerized embroidery cotton. This is for two reasons: embroidery floss is available in a wide range of colors, including variegated or space dyed effects. And more importantly, the sheen of the thread lifts the color “out” from the weave. A wool inlay thread tends to sink down and mix more with the warp, whereas a thread with some gloss tends to appear as if it is sitting on the surface. It also then tends to deflect the eye from the underlying warp striping, if there is any.  Color for me is not a matter of taste or decoration: it is essential to the stories I have to tell. By working with all of my options within a constrained format, I have learned both to push actual color as described above, and to play color tricks, implying more intense color by using complements, balancing related values against contrasting ones.  I use variance of material and texture if it enhances color effect; I use novelty yarns to add tiny color details, and I use space dyed yarns to imply depth. When I see something in my head which I can’t figure out how to manifest, it is often time to push that color as hard as I can. There is no room here for favoritism. Every color is a hard working tool in my cabinet of curiosities. As my ideas about the world evolve, I hope that my weaving stays flexible enough in its ability to express them.

Laura Foster Nicholson is an award-winning textile artist and designer at LFN Textiles, internationally known for her handwoven brocaded tapestries. She designs custom textiles for interiors and household textiles for companies such as Crate & Barrel. Nicholson also writes about color trending for and served as a juror for HGA’s Small Expressions 2013.

Photographs by the author except as noted.

Beetles (detail).