Being a tapestry weaver

 19 December 2011

Dovecot Studios is a leading contemporary tapestry studio. Weavers Douglas Grierson and Jonathan Cleaver, and director David Weir, share their perspective on the history and current state of tapestry.

Dovecot Studios is a tapestry studio that was set up in 1912. Following a two-year renovation programme, it moved into a new building in a former Victorian swimming baths in the middle of Edinburgh.

A career in tapestry

Jonathan Cleaver

"Tapestry's just really exciting. It may be slow to produce, compared to some other trades, but just making an object is sculptural as well.

"It's not like applying a pigment to a surface. You're making this bodily object which has got an image and a colour that goes all the way through it. And then it's a piece of cloth that started from scratch and it's just amazing."

Douglas Grierson

"Tapestry's just really exciting. You're making this bodily object which has got an image and a colour that goes all the way through it."

"I've been working in tapestry about 47 years as a weaver.

"When I was young, kids left school at 15. I was looking for something with an artistic vein to it."

Jonathan Cleaver

"I studied the tapestry course at Edinburgh College of Art, which was taught very much as a fine arts sculpture course.

"After that, I was doing my own weaving for myself to learn the craft, and working in related or unrelated industries. I was doing textile conservation for a while, which is great because it means you get to see tapestries from the back.

"When the opportunity came up to join the Dovecot, it was too good to pass up."

The work of Dovecot Studios

David Weir

"The studios had a history of working with an amazing collection of artists from David Hockney to Frank Stella. They had an equally astonishing list of clients from PepsiCo's headquarters in New York to the Queen Mother to the British Library to the Museum of Scotland.

"Probably most importantly, that third ingredient, they had a skill, which is not something that is easily regained once you lose it."

Working as a tapestry weaver

Douglas Grierson

"I'd hate to see tapestry die out, so we're looking for young people to come into the business."

"A Dovecot apprenticeship was quite intense in those days. There was drawing and doing lettering and a lot of technical aspects to scaling up drawings and that sort of thing.

"So there was all manner of skills that had to be learned.

"A tapestry weaver's day could be anything from just sitting at the loom from half past eight to half past four, just simply weaving. It could be working on designs, winding bobbins, choosing colours for the tapestry.

"At the moment we're just starting one, and so most of these activities are coming in one day. It takes maybe about a week to warp the loom, and from there, knowing it's a case of getting the cartoon ready, blowing up from the original design, inked onto the warps and choosing the colours and carrying on with the tapestry.

"I'd hate to see tapestry die out, so we're looking for young people to come into the business."

Jonathan Cleaver

"There aren't that many courses around, so I would recommend really getting work experience and getting hands-on making experience, whether that's you doing it yourself, or working with other institutions."

Supporting tapestry as a craft

David Weir

"We've been entirely supported privately, and it surely is now the time for the public sector to recognize and possibly even to match-fund what happens in the private sector. To develop what is already a thriving but slightly fragmented sector, conceivably more fragile than we realise.

"I think that without that public sector intervention that has to be done in a very practical way, we are in danger of losing these craft skills."

Douglas Grierson

"At the time, I wasn't sure how long tapestry weaving was going to last, and it's taken me through my whole life. So that's one of the biggest surprises to me as I sit here."

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