Looking for Vision

alder eye

Bird Marsh, Bloedel Reserve

Bird Marsh, Bloedel Reserve

For me and for many people I know, 2017 has proven, so far, to be a year full of dread.  The hope and creativity I reaped from an artistic retreat at Bloedel Reserve on Puget Sound last October remains a fragile flame to protect from howling winds of change around me.  I am grateful, so lucky, to have had the opportunity for that beautiful and thoughtful time, just before the election, to focus on what was important to me as an artist, and to sharpen my ability to see, and to manifest what I see in my art.

My work for many years has been more about pleasure, contentment, finding the good in my world.  It has felt solid, providing a vision of beauty as a way of making sense of what is important to me. That no longer seems to be enough.

weaving a river

Weaving a River

I recently began a weaving which, in spirit at least, felt totally new to me.  Some of the visual techniques are familiar, some  are stretching, as I struggled to manifest something deeply felt and ineffable.  I have decided that it is the world of the feeling and the spirit that have meaning for me now. How to show them?  

As I was trying to focus on how to go about the new work, I was doing my morning crossword and hit upon a clue to both a word, and to what I was thinking about: “river of forgetfulness”.  Aha. It resonates.

Crossword clue

New York Times Crossword Clue

The resulting tapestry refers to the sad, longing eyes in the alder trees which watched after me on my daily walk through the woods.  They were growing around a gloriously evocative bird marsh at Bloedel Reserve, and the knots where limbs had been were all eye shaped.  This image spoke so strongly to me I knew it was a big metaphor.

alder eye

the watching alder tree

I know it seems to be a dark work.  It hurts me to look at it.  The silver river winds among the watching trees, trying to distract from what they are seeing.

River Lethe

The River Lethe, 2017
handwoven textile 34″ x 27″

targeting with the kaleidoscope in clothing design

Like many designers, I have been having a load of fun with the recent kaleidoscope apps available everywhere. Like a funhouse mirror, they can be amusing;  refining them into a usable design and actually applying them to product can get into more skilled and rewarding work. Here are a few things I have culled from my designs at PAOM.com.

WaWa body dress LFN

WaWa body dress LFN Textiles for PAOM

prairie dazzler hat LFN

Prairie Dazzler Baseball Cap LFNTextiles for PAOM

buzz star boxers LFN

Buzz Star Boxer Shorts by LFN Textiles for PAOM

prairie dazzler body dress LFN

prairie dazzler body dress. LFN Textiles for PAOM

I have spent the last six months re-evaluating just about everything in my life, from personal relationships, to how I spend my day, to what is the most essential part of my artwork.

It is a tedious task. You would think it would require an afternoon in an armchair, thinking; a few conversations with close friends; an analysis of the bank account. It certainly does, but it is so finely detailed and so incremental I can hardly tell when any progress is being made.

One of the more amusing things I have experimented with while considering the subject, was to take a number of things I had made, ranging from a small hand woven tapestry to a hand-printed tea towel of the sort I sell at the farmer’s market, to be entered in the “Open Entry” section of the local 4-H fair last week. When in Rome, I thought….

I thought it would be interesting to lay out a few things I spend my creative time on, to the kinds of people who are deeply involved in 4-H around here. I am sure we have a lot in common regarding topics like cooking, good vegetables, and what constitutes a well-sewn seam. It was, in fact, a sort of astonishing experience.

First of all, after paying my $1 fee per entry, I had my items examined by the intake crew. Hand-printed towel? I didn’t sew it, only printed it? Hmmmm. Let’s put it under fabric, hand-painted. OK. No mention of whether the design was original (why would it be?).

Second entry: the tote bag, made from my own design, quilting fabrics and ribbons.  Category: sewing.  Subcategory: totes.  Oops! I noticed just before handing it over that the stitching was far from perfect.  I had just been thinking about the wonderful design of my fabric.

Third entry: a hand woven tapestry of a butternut squash, in a nod to all the lovely vegetables entered around me.  Not mounted, so they could see the back, (I quickly surmised that, since it was not framed, it would have a hard time competing as Fine Art, so entered it under “crafts”. Of course.)

What a palaver!  was it stitched? no! painted? no! what then, woven? hmmmm.  Well, next year they guessed they better have a category for Hand Woven.  So it went into Crafts: Misc.

At this point I was thinking longingly of how relatively easy it had been to acquire an MFA from Cranbrook, where these distinctions might have been debatable but the world of definition was ever expanding.

Five days later, after a busy week, I returned early enough to see the exhibition and then collect my poor trusting entries.  The results were humbling.  In a world where every entry gets a ribbon (think youth soccer), I still was deftly and strictly judged.  All were happy with my cute printed (painted?) towel, which depicted a local kind of melon.  Blue ribbon there, and all potential factors deemed Excellent. The tote bag only got a red ribbon, as the stitching was “faulty”, though the colors were noted to be “nice”.

The hand woven tapestry?  Well, the judge felt that its usefulness was questionable, the finish so-so, the materials appropriate.  But it was “very cute” and had “nice muted colors”!

laura foster nicholson tapestry

Butternut Squash, handwoven textile, 11″ x 10″, 2014

At the end of this trial, I felt satisfied.  I had undergone a trial by my current peers in a rural community, and had been judged “good”.

The larger question remains, though.  Do I want to remain among people who are bemused by my activities, or do I want to return to an arcane community which holds great meaning for me but leaves my current neighbors untouched?

Cropping Imagery: LFN Designs for Kess InHouse

The art of cropping imagery to make it more interesting is a recent trend, a modern stance on meaning.  If an image was meant to be read in one, static way (think Mona Lisa), showing it cropped to an essential detail reveals a new way of considering it, sometimes with humor, sometimes surprise, but always it provides a different perspective.


I have been providing pattern or surface-design images to a few print-on-demand online companies for a while now.  All were new a couple of years ago, eager to get rolling, pulling in hundreds of artists in an attempt to have a wide range of hip designs for their fairly basic merchandise.  One company, Kess InHouse, in particular caught my eye, as they were taking digital images and blowing them up to the size of a bedspread or shower curtain.  I though, fun! I would love to have a shower curtain with my Leeks design on it! So I submitted a variety of designs and waited to see what would turn out.

Fun indeed!   Kess does a great job of making your designs into interesting products, but the submitted design is simply stretched to fit the format.   I find it interesting and amusing to see the results of this way of using an image: no matter what the product, the image is just made to fit, with sometimes no rhyme or reason: very postmodern! Here is a selection of items with my designs, to illustrate the point. All products are available at Kess InHouse under Laura Nicholson.


Looking at Old Photos: Source and Inspiration for Weaving Tapestries

Recently, I had a fit of pique when going through my tapestry inventory.  I saw I had too much work around, and decided to have a flash online clearance sale. It was fast and furious, and I sold 14 out of 15 tapestries in 36 hours. It was so gratifying to send old work to appreciative new homes — particularly to those who had often expressed the desire for my work but felt they would have to win the lottery to be able to afford it.

Today, in response to a note from one of the happy purchasers, I was looking through my old source photos, and I thought it would be fun to pair the source up with the tapestries which resulted. I often work from photographs when the source is out there on the highway, and sometimes the relationship between the source and the resulting artwork is very obvious.

The tapestries shown here all date from between 2008-2010, and are based on the rural landscape near where I live in southern Indiana.

All tapestries are copyright Laura Foster Nicholson, and photos are either by myself or by Ben Nicholson.

Rural Landscapes: Power and Light

Small Tank Batteries, 2014.  Handwoven, wool, cotton & metallic, 18″ x 19″
Since moving to southwest Indiana in 2006, I been mesmerized by the flatness of the landscape in this region.  Beginning with a series of tapestries depicting simple farm structures – grain bins and barns, I made a woven language of great simplicity, concentrating on color and composition, and light, highlighted by the textures of the weave.

During this time I have become increasingly aware of the American food situation and how that is illustrated so accurately by these landscapes.  I am surrounded by fields which grow corn for livestock and for ethanol, not for humans; my food arrives on trucks from great distances.  Moving from elegiac work about the beauty of the landscape here, I see it now as a perfect manifestation of the modern ethos of Form follows Function.

We are trained by culture to regard the sleek simplicity of modernism to be beautiful, elegant, and so I have experienced quite an Aha moment in realizing my work has celebrated the very thing I have fought against in in our hyper-rational food culture.  What made sense at the beginning, now has become the height of absurdity.

As I continue to drive through this landscape I have begun to notice all of the architecture of energy generation and how that interacts with the simplicity of the farming structures.  From wind turbines, which radiate their simple elegance of hope for a new energy, to power-line towers, to the aging battery tanks for storing crude oil and the small oil pumps dotting the landscape, these structures modify that original simplicity with their own functional lines.  I am seeking with this most recent work to come to terms with what this landscape means for us in this region, using the loom’s simple, rational methods to try to make sense of a strange new composition.

Spring Field, 2014, 26” x 27”, wool with cotton & metallic
Uneasy Sunset, 2014, wool, metallic, 27″ x 29″

Midsummer; 2014, wool with cotton and metallic,  26” x 35”

Pumping A.  2015, 26” x 35”, wool, metallic, cotton, nylon

Battery Tanks, Wadesville. 2014,  24” x 28” wool, cotton, nylon, metallic

All work is handwoven by Laura Foster Nicholson, and copyright Laura Foster Nicholson 2014-15.  Please do not re-use without permission.

The Freedom of Weaving Samples

 I rarely take the time out of my regular studio work to weave samples.  Every once in a while I get a commission for a specialty fabric and it is a pleasure to follow the road of the client’s ideas to find a lovely woven idea.

The last two weeks, however, I decided to weave a series of samples on spec, for products that would eventually be handwoven by someone else.  Flying without any clear plan, I have put multiple warps on the loom (trying to keep up with the legend that Jack Lenor Larsen wove off a warp a day when he was at Cranbrook).

I remembered early weaving classes where I resisted understanding weave drafts, and had loads of fun with the simplest renditions of summer & winter or honeycomb with unusual materials and colors.  So I went back to my worn old copy of Marguerite Davison’s A Handweaver’s Pattern Book to begin, and spent a couple of days playing with simple twills and honeycombs, using linens and wools and odd knitting yarns.

Trouble is with shuttle weaving, I get bored easily, so samples are great for me, with their short lengths and narrow widths.  Just about the time I think I will scream with boredom, well it is time to start the next one.  I never have a set plan, because the fun is in the ideas that stream out as I go along.  What about this color combo?  How about varying the treadling this way?  How will this look in metallic?

Friday I began a new warp with flat weave rug samples.  I spent an inc and a half doing weft faced tapestry and quit from boredom; went back to shuttling stripes in colors which fascinated me.  I hope to finish those tomorrow — pulled out Peter Collingwood’s The Techniques of Rug Weaving for some pattern based weaves to try.

My guess is that at the end of the rug samples, I will be very happy to return to my half-finished tapestry.

Muddling to Enlightenment

“Mid Summer”, 2014, Laura Foster Nicholson (copyright). 28″ x 35″, wool with cotton and metallic

Tomorrow marks the opening here in New Harmony of my first show of all-new work since 2010.  I have been in a major hiatus away from weaving after the last exhibition of new work opened in Santa Fe in 2010 failed to sell anything (yes, I am accustomed to making my living from the sale of my artwork). I had thought it was wonderful work, and it crushed me that Nothing Happened.  I have continued to show that work, and I have sold some of it as well, so my ego has recovered somewhat, but in the process came a deep examination of what I expect from my artwork beyond making a living.

The time off was spent working very hard to find alternative, creative, means of support, which mostly involved textile design and hand-crafted objects.  Both are processes I greatly enjoy, but neither nurtures my soul the way that art making does by invoking  the voice of the individual speaking what is true.

I wrote about all of this at length in my last post so I will get to today’s point.  As I drive back and forth across the midwest from here to Chicago mostly, I spend the hours contemplating how I can make weavings that talk about the amazing and significant architecture that is springing up wherever I look, in juxtaposition to the modernist, “conventional”, swaths of endless agriculture.  These are the enormous, awe-inspiring and scarily anthropomorphic power towers for transmitting electricity. Along with cell phone towers and the occasional, beautiful and bright wind turbine, they punctuate the rural scene with an insistent hubris, and are reminders of our addiction to power.  I recently asked a friend who knows more about these things than I, why does it seem that I see more of them every time I drive?  He responded that even with renewable wind energy, we still need the power towers to transmit the electricity.

Am I the only one who ponders these things when I am driving through the fields?  Ah, then I find this inspired design as I scroll through Google images:

“The Land of Giants”, Choi+Shine Architects

So I am inspired to try to make sense of these through my art, and the best way I know to make art is to weave.  Even though these power towers seem like giant textile constructions, they would be murder to make as woven (all those non-90 degree lines!).  For a while I fantasized about learning to make Batternburg lace and making them that way.  (Here world, I throw this idea out there for someone else with more time to figure this out!)

But I digress.  I like to use weaving the “easy” ideas to ponder how I will move along, as well as to ponder where I am going.  The hands at work makes the ideas flow like clear water.  I have found that color is thrilling me again.  I wove several pieces on a not-to-waste 6-yard warp I had wound on a year ago (!), when I was thinking of doing something else entirely.  (For those of you who don’t weave, this is a major investment of materials and time, as a 30″ wide warp at 30 threads per inch is 900 threads carefully handled throughout the whole process…).  As I fought the predetermined color and fineness, I started experimenting on another loom with scaled up thread, same weave, still wool, but heftier (and thus carrying less ability to hold detail).  I find that for where my head is right now, the heavier threads are giving me a new language of color, and I am thrilled.

But the Power Towers?  ach. Not yet.  As I drove through Posey county regularly this summer, however, in addition to enjoying watching the color waft through the spectrum week by week as time worked on the crops, I began to notice our own interventions.  This area is part of the Illinois Basin, a deep midwestern oil resource that brought us an oil boom in the middle of the 20th century.  The landscape is full of oil storage tanks, small oil pumps, flames shooting off gas exhaust at night.  I realized that this is all part of the story, and part of my current weavable vocabulary as well.

“Uneasy Sunset”, Laura Foster Nicholson, 2014.  Wool with metallic and cotton, 27″ x 28″

I rushed to complete this work in time to hang the show yesterday.  I am thrilled with the color (though this is a hasty photo), less thrilled with the craftsmanship (haste makes waste…) On we go. Watch this space!

How I spent my summer hiatus

I have not written on either of my blogs for several months.  I have been a period of fairly deep transition — no, let’s say self-examination.  It’s been a few years of most of my studio work being design and craft based, while avoiding the issues and depth of the fine art-making that I associate with my woven work, and in the spring I began to feel that I was spinning off center.

Spring Field, detail.  2014, wool with cotton & metallic, 26″ x 27″
Laura Foster Nicholson (copyright 2014)

Ever since I began weaving I felt an almost mystical connection with the process.  For many years I worked almost like a demon, taking few breaks, focusing on weaving as my most important means of communication in art.  I strayed off the path in the early 90’s when I bought a computerized knitting machine, and substituted knitting jacquards with deep focus.  Then in the mid-90s I learned to design for and weave on the jacquard loom, and eventually segued that knowledge into founding a ribbon business, which for a number of years took up a great deal of my time.

Generally when I work through whatever it was that sparked such intense curiosity I come back to the loom full of fresh insight.  After machine knitting, I rediscovered the joy of slow hand manipulated weaving with a lot of detail.  After jacquard, the investigation of color re surged with great urgency.

Each time I take a break of any significance from my woven thought, I come back to it with a changed point of view, which seems to amplify the expressive powers of my chosen medium.

Now, after spending 7 years expanding my practice of textile design through ribbons and home furnishing textiles, I am finding that I need to let the artist gain precedence once again.  Here is my thinking.

For me, design, while a great discipline with which I have barely come to terms, remains something which is tied to someone else’s needs.  I began by working with smaller companies which, like me, valued individuality and creativity for their own sake, and the interaction with the market was a happy one, where (as it appeared to my admittedly naive eyes) the customer came because she valued what we put out there under our own terms.  But now (after having read hundreds of posts and comments and opinions about the value of promotion and marketing), I feel impatient with the fickle customer, for whose favor I must fight constantly.  It would seem that it is not only essential to have a broad range of styles, but one must be able to work completely in disguise as some other creature.

Maybe I am just to old and stubborn, but I see that in art, one of our primary tasks is utter honesty about what is being made, the voice that is speaking; whereas in design for the general market (I should qualify that to say “surface design”), the job seems to be to do anything to stay the most popular girl on the block.

I am aware this could seem jaded or bitter.  I still very much enjoy designing ribbons and rugs, and value the support of my clients who want my work in its fullness, not a pastiche of trend.  But the reinvention on a seasonal basis of style, palette, and trend are making me crave the solitude and thoughtfulness of my studio and my loom.

All this thought takes introspection, and I don’t like to write when I have nothing to say.  But I’m back, and will try to stay here!

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 www.pantoneview.com and served as a juror for HGA’s Small Expressions 2013.

Photographs by the author except as noted.

Beetles (detail).