Fiber Art

Katz is a crafts designer and writer. By RUTH J. KATZ

”IN 1951, when we started weaving, nobody even knew what a tapestry was” – Marianne Yoors, a weaver and the widow of Jan Yoors, a designer of contemporary tapestries. Mrs. Yoors has spent 30 years weaving her husband’s abstract designs.

” ‘A tapestry?’ That’s what people said to me nine years ago when I began weaving. Today, I no longer have to ‘sell the concept.’ ” – Bruce Bierman, a designer and tapestry weaver who employs traditional methods in often unconventional forms.

”I have a gallery in Denver practically screaming at me for work. These days I cannot produce it fast enough.” – Michelle Lester, an artist who has been weaving for 20 years and whose work includes 300 tapestries for the bulkheads of Pan American World Airways planes.

”The problem isn’t selling the tapestries, it’s getting them.” – Bill Weber, director of Modern Master Tapestries, a gallery that sells designs by well-known artists, translated into either pile or flat tapestry, for prices up to $20,000.

These comments underscore the changes in the decorative textile market, a field that includes contemporary fiber arts, ethnic fabrics, display garments and traditional tapestry.

Strictly speaking, a tapestry is a fabric in which the warp, or support, yarns are totally covered by the filling yarns to create the design. Traditional tapestries have a plain, flat weave and are marked by an even surface, achieved by flowing, rhythmic, skilled weaving.

The most legendary of the French tapestry studios were the Aubusson and Gobelin workshops, which produced the type of fabric most people associate with the word tapestry – pictorial works like the famous seven-piece series ”The Hunt of the Unicorn” in the Cloisters collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. European tapestries of this genre span the period from the late 14th century to the mid-16th century.

Today, there are tapestry ateliers throughout the world that work in this traditional fashion. But contemporary weavers/artists do not necessarily adhere to the ”weaving rules” established by those workshops. Craftsmen have developed their own styles and methods and the results may more readily be classified in the broader category of textile art. This term embraces almost all forms of decorative fabrics: carpets, lace cloths, folk art samplers, Indonesian batiks, Oriental robes, needlepoint, American Indian blankets, Kashmir shawls and contemporary crocheted wall hangings.

Sotheby Parke Bernet reports an increase in the sale of diverse fabric pieces as well in the number of private clients – not dealers – buying them. ”We have many more private clients today than when we opened,” said John Gregg of the 18-month-old John C. Edelmann Galleries, an auction house specializing in rare rugs, tapestries and textiles. ”The public has become aware of and sensitive to textiles and fabrics. We’re constantly expanding our offerings. Now we include shawls, garments, block prints, kimonos and such at our auctions.”

Sales figures at the prestigious Northeast Craft Fair in Rhinebeck, N.Y., sponsored by the American Craft Council, underline this trend. In 1979, fiber sales were up 30 percent over the previous year and in 1980 they were 50 percent higher than in 1979. Kay Eddy, director of The Elements gallery, a Madison Avenue showcase of contemporary American crafts, said the gallery had started a program to coordinate sales of fiber art for what is already an established market – special commission work for architects, designers, decorators and space planners.

The new interest in textile design is due, in part, to architects and designers, who have made us more at ease with fabric on walls. We have always been on familiar terms with fabrics -on our furniture, windows, tables and bodies – but in recent years we’ve become accustomed to it hanging in the large public spaces of skyscrapers. Just as cold stone castles and churches were once draped with warm fibers, so too are our modern office towers.

”Fiber humanizes modern architecture,” said Phyllis Linn, former curator of the art collection of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company and now an independent art consultant. ”It softens all the hard edges and makes an atmosphere cozy. Moreover, it provides mystery and magic.”

Fiber is often selected to adorn these vast walls because of sheer size; a fiber hanging is more easily moved and stored than a canvas. It is also easier to find large-size textile art. Cost is, however, one of the most significant factors. The fee for a commissioned, oversized tapestry hanging may start as low as $40 a square foot, although the average range is nearer $150 to $200 and modern Aubusson tapestries can go up to more than $350 a square foot. (Antiques, of course, bring much higher prices; it would not be unusual for a medieval piece to cost more than $100,000.)

These may seem like high prices, but they compare favorably with paintings of similar size by the artists on whose designs the tapestries are based.

Homeowners are motivated by many of the same reasons that cause architects to choose fiber for public spaces. ”The sterile environments of new apartments beg for the richness provided by fiber,” explained Paul Smith, director of the American Craft Museum. ”Hangings are used for both decorative and functional purposes -to divide rooms, to absorb sound. The turmoil of the 60’s has helped a new esthetic to blossom and the appreciation of fiber is part of that.”

Textiles of all types are more readily available, not only to the knowledgeable collector but also to the noncollector who just happens to fancy a fiber work in a gallery window. ”Decorative textiles are financially accessible to many people today – young working people who may never even have thought of collecting,” said Gail Martin, one of the owners of the Martin and Ullman Artweave Textile Gallery at 24 East 84th Street. ”Lovely pieces are out there for under $2,000.” Her gallery specializes in Pre-Columbian, Oriental, Central Asian and Coptic textiles.

If it is traditional pictorial tapestries that you love, but cannot afford, Old World Weavers, at 136 East 57th Street, has Europeaninspired, small-scale works for $500 to $2,000. These tapestries are machine-made, not hand-woven, but are processed so that all the colors of the yarn appear aged. For an overview of traditonal tapestry, E.P. Thomson’s new book, ”Tapestry, Mirror of History” (Crown, $14.95), is excellent.

If you are curious about all types of modern fiber art, the editors of Fiberarts Magazine have compiled ”The Fiberarts Designs Book” (Hastings House, $24.95), with 500 photographs of work by contemporary designers. The book will open doors for the many people who, as the editors say, ”associate fiber art with all those macrame plant hangers that the neighbor’s kid keeps making.”