I’ve always been fascinated by contemporary tapestries since a childhood visit to Parliament House in Canberra where I saw the Great Hall Tapestry based on a painting by Arthur Boyd. It’s stunning and the sheer scale of the work took my breath away. As you move closer the details, textures and level of craftsmanship are revealed, it’s just amazing. My teenage mind was blown! Until now I didn’t realise that beautiful tapestry was made here in Melbourne, at the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
I’ve been following the ATW for a while on Instagram (@austapestry); I love seeing the processes behind how artwork is created, and discovered that they had an open studio today as part of Open House Melbourne.
What a fascinating place. I was mesmerised watching the master weavers at work, quickly manipulating the bodkin around the warp and methodically beating down the weft. I learnt so much just by watching.
Of course it takes years and years of training to reach the skill levels required to become a production weaver at the ATW, and all the weavers there are trained artists as well as skilled weavers.
The yarn is dyed on the premises by Master Dyer Tony Stefanovski, 370 colours to be exact, and is made from wool grown in western Victoria. Cotton is also used. The yarns are then blended on bodkins to match the colours of the art piece by each weaver. As many weavers work on one piece, it’s important that there is consistency of colour and technique through the work. You will never be able to distinguish one section of weaver’s work from another.
There is a long process of collaboration with the artist, and making of samples before a large loom is warped. Key areas from the final design are woven to scale prior to the start of weaving to resolve any technical problems posed by the interpretation of the art work and to establish the final colour palette.
Behind each loom is a sketch called a ‘cartoon’ which is to scale and guides the weaver. They transfer ink marks to the warp as the work progresses to use as a guide, but all the colours are referenced by eye from a print of the original artwork. Getting the colours correct is a skill in itself.
The work is labour intensive and time consuming, with most tapestries taking months and months to complete by a team of full time weavers. The Great Hall Tapestry which is the second largest of it’s kind in the world took 12 weavers over a two years to complete. Wow!
The back of the tapestry, which is rarely seen, looks quite different to the front, this sample shows how all the yarn ends are left shaggy. A cotton backing is sewn onto the tapestry back which protects it.
The ATW also has an artist in residence program. The artist in residence program invites artists to immerse themselves in the unique studio environment of the Workshop for 2-8 weeks, full or part-time. Artists working in any medium – not just the visual arts or textile based practice – and at any stage of their career can undertake a residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
I was delighted to discover that Cat Rabbit is the current artist in residence and she will be giving an artist talk on Tuesday the 28th of July 2015 at 1pm. It’s free to the public and I’m going to try and pop in to listen and learn.
As part of the open day they had some free weaving activities for kids which Emma really enjoyed. I was actually really surprised at how focused she was making here weaving and I’m considering enrolling her in one of the school holiday programs they offer.
I always under estimate how capable she is. She is just growing up so quickly.
If you’d like to visit:
Viewing the Workshop
Visitors are welcome to view the Workshop at any time from Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm (they recommend visiting before 3pm) for a gold coin donation. This allows visitors to observe the weavers at work from the Workshop mezzanine, and look down from the mezzanine into the Colour Laboratory where the yarns are dyed for production.
Guided tours are also available
262-266 Park Street
South Melbourne Victoria 3205