Tapestry is an ancient art form and the author, Francis Paul Thompson in his history of tapestry stated that it should be called “the mirror of history”. He suggested that the first tapestries were woven some 400,000 years ago by nature before humans made anything, when the winds would bend the tall leaves and grasses and interweave them between the rushes around the lakes and swamp edges. The warp of strong stalks and weft of the pliable grasses may have suggested the first weavings used for mats and baskets and later developed into tapestries with discontinuous weft covering the warp – weavings with embedded images that mirror time, place and events.
Some of the earliest fragments from the Egyptian tombs remain in museum collections with woven symbolic crowns, floral emblems and hieroglyphics telling us about the kings from 3500 years ago.
The tradition of tapestry narrative continued to leave us a visual history; Roman rulers were depicted in spirited Coptic portraits; religious tapestries in churches and cathedrals presented the stories of the bible to the illiterate; Peruvian weavers made tapestries depicting Inca culture and the Spanish Conquest, Medieval weavers produced romantic scenes depicting courtly life and loves and in the 18th century there was a fashion for so called “Indian Hangings” – visions of exotic landscapes, fearsome animals and strange natives.
Tapestries tell us about people, their pursuits, beliefs, battles and joy, and the land they inhabit. Our tapestry continues the tradition, marking the centenary and presenting our reflection of Canberra.
Artist, Annie Trevillian, who was born and brought up in Canberra, was appointed as the designer because of her experience, research into the history of Canberra and ability to make images that I knew would translate well into tapestry. Recently I came across a quote from William Morris the father of contemporary craft and Founder of the Merton Abbey Tapestry Workshops in London, talking about the requirements for tapestry design:
“…..the first thing to be considered in the designing of it is the force, purity and elegance of silhouette of the objects represented, and nothing vague or indeterminate is admissible.”
I think Annie’s design would have met with William Morris’s approval as it is a strong and highly individual interpretation of the objects that symbolise our city, an elegant image which people readily identify with.
Traditionally large tapestries are woven in workshops with teams of trained weavers who have spent up to 8 years learning the required skills before being allowed to work on a commissioned tapestry. Here we had no group of professional weavers, but with a leap of faith we set out running workshops to introduce the basics of tapestry. There was a fantastic response from the community and over 3 months we ran 3 sets of classes teaching over 90 people. The groups included librarians, scientists, teachers, mums and daughters or sons, young and old, male and female. The workshops gave people a practical insight into the technicalities of warp and weft, an experience they will recall whenever they see a tapestry.
One exchange student from America joined the class saying he had always wanted to be a Navajo weaver like his grandmother, but she had said that boys don’t do this weaving. He was very happy to learn that in the European workshops the weavers were exclusively men and that he could continue making tapestries. A visiting artist from South Africa wanted to learn to weave so she could take back this way of working to villages in her country so people could weave their own images and stories.
Some of the students from these classes went on to weave the large tapestry with other experienced weavers and many visitors who dropped in to put their mark in the work. Some also wove their own small tapestries shown here with others sent from around the country and the world.
Daniel Edwards was our master weaver at the loom 3 days a week for a year, warping up, inking on, guiding the colour and interpretation, watching the edges to get them straight and making sure there was continuity throughout. You might also have seen him out demonstrating in libraries, at schools and markets or at his local café. Dan had a willing team who came in to the workshop week after week, sometimes dashing out from work to weave in a lunch hour or coming in regularly to catch up with sewing the slits as the weaving progressed. Some weavers came from other parts of the country – Melbourne, northern NSW, Perth and there were also international visitors who came from America, Canada, Britain and Scandinavia. Everyone’s contribution was vital to building the tapestry and the weavers’ names are recorded on cotton tape sewn on to the back.
Our outreach through the banner, printed cards, an e-mail list and blog was creatively managed by Al Munro, who has also designed and produced a calendar for next year so everyone can relive the project month by month.
When the weaving was complete we were delighted that Sir William Deane, the patron of the centenary was able to be our honorary guest at the cutting off ceremony. In his speech he suggested that the tapestry should be called the Great Centenary Tapestry. Although not modest in its claim, I think this is most fitting as it celebrates the large number of people who participated in the project – over 800 who came in to the workshop and many more who engaged in outreach projects and demonstrations; recognises the great number of wefts over warps or marks in the tapestry – approximately 850, 500 and major part the tapestry has played in people’s lives over the last year.
We thank ANU, the Canberra Centenary Community Initiatives Funding and the ACT Legislative Assembly for their support and hope the Great Centenary Tapestry will give great pleasure to everyone who sees it and in 100 years’ time it can be our very own mirror of history.