Documenting Life in Tapestry

Documenting Life in Tapestry

By Melissa Ludden Hankens

I have been obsessing about my house recently. Okay, maybe for the last two and a half years…!

Most of the house was built in 1750, and we are only the fourth family to call it home. I think about the fact that a family, probably with the help of friends and neighbors, erected part of this building before the Declaration of Independence was even a rough draft. In some ways, I view my role here as a steward with a responsibility to care for this little piece of history.

We have spent countless hours repairing and restoring each and every room, and have yet to call any one finished. Perhaps most exciting for me is the exterior renovation. We live in a historic district, and for many years our little house was the eyesore on a street of well-cared for antique homes.

Many of our neighbors have gone through the same painstaking process of resurrecting their homes. The neighborhood pride, support, and sense of community we feel here is something rare and special, and I wanted a weaverly way to commemorate our house's transformation.

Considering that it was likely the original inhabitants spun and/or wove out of necessity, I decided that perhaps a tapestry would be the way to go. In retrospect, it was probably ambitious of me to attempt to recreate my home in tapestry form considering that I had never woven a tapestry, but I learned so very much by starting with a challenging project.

finished tapestry

You do not need a tapestry loom to weave a tapestry. Mine was woven on a 15" Flip rigid heddle loom, and there is no reason you couldn't also use a shaft loom.

I started by thumbing through Kirsten Glasbrook's book Tapestry Weaving. I think I will use the mounting technique she covers starting on page 66 which involves first stitching the tapestry to a cloth backing and then mounting it in a frame, but I need to find (or weave!) just the right piece of fabric before that happens. I was left wanting more, and after talking with Jane, decided to find Nancy Harvey's book Tapestry Weaving: A Comprehensive Study Guide. After failing to find an affordable copy, I stumbled upon her earlier book The Guide to Successful Tapestry Weaving.

If you are interested in learning more about tapestry, but prefer to dip your toes in for free online, there are excellent WeaveCast episodes on tapestry, which you can listen to at "Tapestry – Sarah Swett" and "Tapestry – James Koehler". Be sure to check out the WeaveZine archives for additional articles and related audio. I would also suggest checking out Weavolution's tapestry weavers group at

After my copy of The Guide to Successful Tapestry Weaving arrived, I immediately sat down to read it from cover to cover and instantly become a tapestry expert. Right on! Following a basic introduction about what exactly tapestry is, Nancy mentioned that when she first started tapestry weaving, she found it difficult to find the answers to all of the questions she had. Rather than let this stall her, she decided to "weave - and weave and weave", working her way through challenges and learning various techniques. At that point I put the book down and headed to my loom. If Nancy could experiment, so could I.

Kirsten Glasbrook likes a linen warp, but suggests cotton or tightly spun wool if you are not confident you can maintain a tight and even warp with linen. You want a material that won't stretch. I opted for 10/2 linen as it is a fiber I use often.

Where I messed up, at least the first time, is my sett. I sett my warp at 8 ends per inch, and I think seven, or possibly even six, would have been better. The general rule of thumb is that your weft yarn should fit between two warp ends. A sample would have helped, of course. You can see my warp through the weft in many places. The problem didn't present itself until I started changing colors, but more on that later.

Before warping my loom, I sketched out a cartoon of the image I wanted to weave. I found that using fine graph paper was helpful when measuring color changes and ensuring that my image was properly scaled. I used colored pencils to bring my house to life on paper and determine the various colors of yarn I would need in my weft and approximate their volume.

cartoon for my tapestry

Using the cartoon, I then came up with a list of yarn colors I would need, and from there I went to my stash. This is where all of those small bits of yarn and partial cones and skeins come in handy. There is no rule that says you must use the same fiber and the same weight yarn, though you should consider how your yarn choice affects the overall look of your tapestry. I wanted a consistent look to the surface, so I opted to use sport weight wool for the entire piece.

Tapestry wool can be purchased through your local yarn shop or online in small amounts if your stash comes up lacking. You could also venture into the world of hand dyeing your yarn to create the perfect shade.

I used a 48"-long warp. This gave me a generous 31" for weaving and 17" for waste. Warping with linen can be tricky, especially on a rigid heddle loom. Wind on slowly, taking care to pull the slack out of your warp frequently.

I wove a linen header of 30 picks. (You may be able to tell that the header at the bottom of my tapestry is much more loosely woven than the top header.) The bottom header was beaten using the rigid heddle as a beater and is balanced. The top header was packed into place using a tapestry beater and is weft-faced.

My tapestry beater happens to be a plastic beater, much like a hair pick, that comes with the Mini Loom. If you use a comb to beat your yarn into place, be sure that the teeth fit nicely between your warp ends. I think that I will invest in a tapestry beater when I am ready to weave a tapestry again. A weighted beater might be helpful.

Finally I was ready to weave. I raised and lowered the rigid heddle to change sheds as I placed first black and then brick red yarn into place to form the street and sidewalk. My street slopes gradually down, and to show the slant in landscape, I gradually decreased the number of warp threads covered by the black yarn and increased those covered by the brick red yarn creating a diagonal.


To clarify, when I first introduced the red yarn in the open shed, it spanned the first twelve warp ends and the black yarn went from the thirteenth warp end through to the far edge. In the next pick I increased the number of warp ends spanned by the red yarn to eighteen and decreased the number spanned by the black yarn by six. This gradual increase in the number of warp ends spanned by the red yarn and decrease in the number of ends spanned by the black yarn continued until the black yarn was phased out and I was only weaving the brick sidewalk.

After the street and sidewalk were woven, things started to get more complicated. I was now looking at a driveway, some garden space, a picket fence, a tree trunk, some sky, and the foundation of the house. Yikes!

I gathered the corresponding yarns and began to wind butterflies. Essentially you are wrapping the yarn in a figure eight pattern between your thumb and another finger. You want light and happy butterflies, not bulky butterflies. My largest bundles were probably about ten wraps or so.

One way to follow your cartoon is to place it under the loom so that you can view it through your warp and pin it to your header. Kirsten Glasbrook suggests placing your cartoon under the warp and then using a felt tip pen to sketch an outline directly onto your warp. I am a bit less precise and opted to rest the cartoon on a chair next to my loom and refer to it as I was weaving. You can see that the final tapestry is a bit different, especially when it comes to the sky. I had fun winging it.

When I first started weaving, I worked from the bottom up, pick by pick, working with all of the colors needed across each pick. I changed my shed each time, eliminating the need to manually work my butterflies over and under the warp threads.

A technique called pick and pick enabled me to weave the picket fence quite nicely. For this section, I alternated between picks of white and green yarn to create vertical stripes.

I thought it might be interesting to make the tree trunk more three dimensional, so I simply wrapped my brown yarn around a pair of warp threads, pressing the yarn into place to build up a column. This created the desired effect with vertical slits on either side of the trunk.

I had my first real, harrumph moment when trying to decide how to manage the strong vertical lines in my drawing. You can see just to the left of the foundation where the side of the house meets the garden and then a picket fence, the edge of the house looks messy - nothing like the clean edge I was hoping for. I tried using the interlocking weft technique, hooking adjacent weft colors around each other where they met. Clearly this did not work so well, and is especially unattractive where the edge of the house meets the pick-and-pick picket fence.

pick and pick

I ended up tidying most of the edges where the weft interlocked by hand stitching a column of white yarn over the join. The fence posts are more defined this way, and it covers up my mistakes.

After I got past this mess, I started to weave smaller sections of my warp separately. My weaving seemed to progress more quickly this way. I also decided that in order to create strong vertical lines, I would leave vertical slits between areas such as the house and the sky. This leaves you with the potential to have a space that you can then see through. You can go back later to and stitch these areas together by hand.

Another issue I had was in sections of the sky where there were larger spans of blue, I started to experience draw in that spanned smaller sections of warp. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was leaving vertical slits between color sections. It is especially visible just above the roofline of the house. The result is that my tapestry doesn't really lay flat (though a good pressing seems to have helped a bit) and it is shaped a bit like an hourglass. Nancy Harvey suggests weaving large design areas in smaller sections to minimize draw in. This, coupled with using the interlocking weft technique, would probably eliminate the problem.


Once the house was woven, I tried creating columns of smoke billowing from the chimney by leaving vertical slits between the colors I had chosen to represent the smoke.

What I am pleased with is how the smoke looks as it puffs off into the sky. Kirsten Glasbrook refers to the technique I used as distorted weft (see pages 32 – 33). This involves building up areas of weft at different angles to the warp. I like how this section of the tapestry looks a bit more organic. Just make sure the edges of the area you are building up gradually taper in as you weave. You need to be able to rest your next layers of yarn on top of what you have woven.


Obviously I need to work on my circle weaving skills as the sun looks a bit like a giant yellow eye. The idea is that you weave the area around the circle up to the midpoint creating a cup. As your circle widens, the number of weft picks should increase between steps. You then weave the bottom of your circle to fill the cup (at this point you should have a semi-circle) and continue on weaving the rest of your circle. The weft to either side of the top half of the circle is then woven in.

I added some detail to my tapestry after the weaving was complete. The tree branches and the trim on the house, windows, and door were all added by hand stitching with a yarn needle. I found this quite easy to do while the tapestry was still on the loom and under tension. I think I would have used an embroidery hoop if it had been off of the loom.

I hemstitched the cut edges to keep things in order, but you could also overhand knot or zigzag stitch everything in place depending on your mounting technique.

After cutting the tapestry from the loom, I gently washed it in the sink using lukewarm water and some Soak. I pressed the excess water out by rolling it in a towel and hung it to dry. Once dry, I gave it a good pressing in hopes of flattening out the distorted areas. This helped, but my first tapestry will forever be a bit wonky. Finished dimensions are 14" long by anywhere from 11" to 11 ¾" wide.

I really enjoyed this whole process. It was by no means quick, so be sure to give yourself ample loom time depending on how complicated you plan to get. I am now eyeing Schacht's tapestry loom. I'm guessing that it would minimize some of the trickiness of getting a linen warp to behave. Plus, it would take up almost no space at all in my already overstuffed studio. Oh the possibilities…

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