Developing the Arras Tapestry Loom: An Interview with Rebecca Mezoff

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SSC: Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us to discuss the process of developing the Arras Tapestry Loom. One of the most important aspects of working out the design of a new product is to be sure that the product functions for the intended purpose. That’s why we sought you out. We wanted the expert advice of an experienced tapestry weaver to provide feedback to us about whether the loom from your point of view functioned as it should. I think it might be surprising to our readers, how much development is involved in creating a new product. Can you talk about how you conducted your tests?

RM: Sure! I was happy to participate in this process. I met with you and Barry and your designer Matt to talk about your original ideas for the loom. Matt worked on it and then I was able to test a prototype. I was looking for a loom with excellent tension, variable sett, and a shedding device. The original prototype had all these things, and working with it was just a matter of tweaking the ease of use.

You all sent that first loom to me without any instructions on purpose to see if I could figure it out. I was able to figure out how to warp the loom and use all the parts without any instructions, with the exception of one little glitch in the tensioned shedding handle. Once Matt told me how to adjust the tension, it all worked great. I had some suggestions to make the warping and weaving easier, but right from that first prototype, it was a great loom.

I sent a long document with images and some of my suggestions to improve a few things back with the loom and Matt worked on further prototypes. Some months later, I came down to Boulder to see the next prototype and give it another try. The loom I saw incorporated all my suggestions and we worked through a few minor things like the length of the shedding handle while I was there. I was able to test that loom in your factory. I haven’t seen the final loom that is in production yet, but I’m looking forward to weaving a tapestry on one.

SSC: Rebecca, we can hardly wait to have you try the final product, which is still in production. Once it’s ready, you’ll among the first to see it. Moving to a more general question, what would you say are the critical requirements of a tapestry loom? What were you looking for when you were testing the Arras?

RM: The most important thing for me is a loom that can maintain a strong tension. Tapestry is easier to weave at a fairly tight tension, so the equipment has to be able to withstand that. Variable tension on a larger loom is also important. I like the ability to put on a continuous warp for longer pieces, which this loom has.

Beyond that, things that are helpful are a way to space the warp evenly and a shedding device. I also look for sturdy construction. Because of the tension I ask of a tapestry loom, the hardware has to be sturdy enough to withstand that stress over time.

After those qualifications, I am looking for a loom that is kind to my body and easy to use. That means that the shedding device is in a place that I can reach easily, the loom is able to be placed in such a way that I don’t have to strain to operate it, and if possible, the weaving height is adjustable.

And, of course, it is important that the loom is capable of weaving a tapestry the size that you want it to! The size of this loom is a great size for most of what I see small- to medium-format tapestry weavers producing today. It is wide enough to weave a fairly large tapestry but small enough to be easy to store and move around.

SSC: You provided important feedback from your testing—which was so helpful in making changes to the original design—such as raising the legs higher in order to be able to warp the loom in the vertical position. We also make the loom adjustable so that it can be vertical or slightly tilted during weaving. Now when I see the loom, it is hard to imagine that we didn’t initially design legs for it. You provided important critiques that led to modifications in the final product. What do you think tapestry weavers will love most about the Arras?

RM: I think that many people will love its beauty. Schacht does a magnificent job with their wooden tools and this loom is no exception. The wood is well-finished and gorgeous. A beautiful tool is a joy to use.

I also think tapestry weavers will love the excellent tension and the ingenious coil system. I liked that your coil fits over an aluminum rod, which supports the coil and keeps it in place.

I also love the way the shedding device has an internal tiny spring-loaded ball bearing which keeps it in place as you weave one shed but makes it easy to shift to neutral or the other shed without much force.

And of course, all the adjustments in height for warping, shedding device height, and angle of weaving address that ergonomic comfort factor.

SSC: We had wanted to make a new tapestry loom for many years. The first-generation Tapestry Loom was the first loom we made over 50 years ago. Since then, we felt that tapestry weavers were looking for a beefier loom with more features, such as a shedding device, that would enhance their weaving experience and be able to endure the rigors of weaving under high tension—something I feel that we’ve achieved with the Arras.

I guess after the wishing period, the development time for this loom was around a year. With your help I feel the loom functions as it should. It was a matter of refine, refine, refine until we were completely satisfied that the loom worked perfectly and was also pleasing to the eye.

The last steps in the development were making final decisions about all of the hardware, making a short run of parts to test the production, deciding on packaging, and writing the instructions. We have just posted a video on Youtube that introduces the Arras, highlighting its features. Did this lengthy process surprise you?

RM: No! This does not surprise me because you are Schacht. Your products, I’m guessing, are all tested to this extent and it shows in the resulting tool. I believe this kind of rigorous process results in the best possible fiber tools and I’m grateful that Schacht is willing to go to these lengths to test their new products. This tapestry loom is fairly complicated and it is important that the features are usable and not in the way of the process of weaving. I think you’ve achieved that goal here!

SSC: Have you been involved with any product design/testing in the past? If so, how did our process compare?

RM: I have tested various other looms and tools for a variety of companies. Most of the looms I’ve tested are far less complicated than this particular loom and the process of testing was far simpler. The maker sends me a loom and I try it and give feedback. But untensioned frame looms are hard to compare to the complexity of the Arras!

I’ve tested lots of tapestry beaters and other small tools some of which are fantastic and are now being sold and some of which didn’t work at all.

Mostly when testing yarn, it is a process of getting a sample, weaving it in a small tapestry, and replying what I do and don’t like about it. I might or might not get a follow-up sample if the mill/designer decides to proceed.

My thought processes are similar in these instances to what I did for the Schacht Arras loom, but I don’t spend nearly as much time on yarn or simple looms and tools because their use is so much simpler. There were so many variables for this loom that it was important to really think about the “what-ifs” of all kinds of users. Fortunately my work with so many tapestry weavers, especially with beginners, gives me a pretty good feeling for what things people new to tapestry weaving understand about looms and what they don’t, as well as what they are looking for in terms of function, price, storage, and portability.

SSC: Here at Schacht, we often talk about the importance of making great products that enable the craftsperson to create with ease. In a way, we feel that the tools and the crafter are partners in a creative mission. I would say that this drives our design and the attention to detail in how things are made, as well as the customer service we provide. How do you view the importance of the tools you use?

RM: Tools are so important. I try to advocate for excellent tools wherever possible. It is far better to spend more money or take the time to make a really good tool than to settle for something less expensive that doesn’t do the job you need it to. Looms are the most important tool of weavers, and having a tool that does what you need to get the results you want in your weaving should be paramount when choosing a loom. I also agree with that “creating with ease” slogan. As an occupational therapist (retired), the importance of tools that work with your body cannot be overstated.

SSC: I think our readers would like to know more about you. Do you think your background in occupational therapy informs your equipment preferences? How did you come to tapestry? How long have you been weaving? What kind of tapestry weaving do you do?

RM: I did have a 17-year career as an occupational therapist. During the last years of it, I was working in the public schools part time and learning tapestry weaving, first as a student at a local college and then as the apprentice to James Koehler in Santa Fe, NM.

I do find that my background as an OT influences the way I approach weaving to some extent. I weave most of my large-scale tapestries on a countermarche floor loom and I find that my body does very well with the horizontal warp. I weave lots of teaching samples, smaller tapestries, and demos on smaller looms that sit on a table like the Arras does, or on small untensioned frame looms. These three kinds of looms require me to use my body in different ways and my OT career makes me aware of how that is as I’m working with any of these tools. I will quickly reject a tool that isn’t sturdy or has parts that catch or don’t operate the way I want them to or that forces me to use my body in ways that cause pain over time.

I knew about weaving as a little kid because my grandparents were weavers. But I didn’t learn to weave myself until I started my first job as an occupational therapist and could afford to buy a loom. I started learning to weave multi-shaft fabrics, but pretty quickly became interested in creating images in cloth which led me straight to tapestry and back home to New Mexico. I met James Koehler while a student at Northern New Mexico Community College in the Fiber Arts department, took a couple workshops with him, and then he took me on as an apprentice.

I worked in his studio until the year before he died. I started weaving tapestry in 2004 and I started teaching in 2011, not long after James passed away. I started my online school in 2014, which has a couple thousand students, along with running tapestry retreats and teaching or speaking at occasional conferences.

I love weaving tapestry in the style that James taught me. I strive for a flexible cloth that flows and presents an almost blanket-like surface. My imagery is mostly abstract, and I love to use color gradation in part because it feeds my love of dyeing yarn. All the yarn for my large tapestries is hand-dyed with synthetic acid wool dyes and I love the dye process almost as much as the weaving, though it is much harder physically. Now that my online school is more established, I’m looking forward to having some time to return to weaving large-format tapestries in the coming years.

 

SSC: I recently heard that you had 250 people taking your on-line tapestry weaving class. That is an impressive number and I find it exciting that there is that level of interest in tapestry weaving. I would say it is a testament to your skill as a teacher, too. Can you talk about how your online classes came about and the other teaching that you do?

RM: Thank you! There are over 250 people in my most recently released online course. But I have over 2500 people in my online school, most of whom have taken more than one class. So the interest in tapestry weaving is very large.

I started teaching tapestry when my mentor, James Koehler, died. However, I had two other careers in which I was a teacher before this one. I taught piano to children and adults and then I became an occupational therapist, which also involves a great deal of teaching. I was James’ apprentice and really hadn’t thought about teaching when he died unexpectedly in 2011. His teaching schedule was very full and a few of the organizations for which he was supposed to teach asked me to teach the classes he had been scheduled for. I said no for a long time but then decided I would give it a try, partly because I think James would have wanted me to. I found that I really enjoyed teaching tapestry and at the same time was becoming more and more disillusioned with the health care system in the USA. I was honestly looking for a way to decrease my hours working as a therapist by finding another income stream and teaching tapestry came along at the right time. I didn’t see anyone teaching tapestry online and so I started taking business courses online and through the local small business development center. I learned to use a long list of software programs, figured out basic accounting, and I bought a camcorder and some lights and started making videos.

There was immediate interest in my first online course, Warp and Weft. I had quit a therapy job a few months before opening the class but had been looking for another one. The Warp and Weft class did well enough that I never went back to therapy. Slowly the online school has grown, and I’ve been able to continue to do one of my favorite things—developing and teaching curriculum about tapestry weaving.

SSC: Where can people find out more about your weaving and teaching?

RM: You can find more information about my tapestry weaving and teaching on my website at www.tapestryweaving.com. My blog is also there with lots of free information about tapestry weaving. I have a YouTube channel with many free tutorials and I’m guessing one day soon there will be a video about the new Schacht Arras tapestry loom.

SSC: Rebecca, thanks so much for sharing the process of testing the Arras loom, as well as a bit about your weaving history and school. We so appreciate your expert insights, sensitivity to the project, and enthusiasm for the art of tapestry and sharing your knowledge with others.

 

Schacht Spindle

Schacht Spindle Company, Inc. was founded during the back-to-earth movement of the late 1960s and its accompanying craft resurgence. Their first loom was a simple tapestry loom, a version which they still make today. Over nearly 50 years, Schacht has developed a broad range of high-quality hand weaving and hand spinning tools, including their popular Cricket Loom and Ladybug Spinning wheel. Schacht’s mission is to create beautiful and well-designed products that enhance customers’ weaving and spinning experience through innovative problem solving, creative ideas, skilled woodworking and craftsmanship, and friendly, knowledgeable customer service. Schacht’s family-owned business is located in Boulder, Colorado.