9 Elsmere Road
Liz Chester has been a tapestry weaver since 1980 when she was taught by the Lyth Tapestry Weavers studio of Caithness in Scotland. She became a professional weaver in 2007 after a 21 year career in engineering.
She produces work for exhibition both locally, nationally and internationally. Liz has also completed commissions both for personal customers and in one instance for a fashion designer. In addition she gives lessons and talks about the art of tapestry.
The work is largely graphic in nature and takes inspiration from her local environment and interaction with her children and friends. She can work in a variety of detail and scale from small domestic works to larger commission pieces using her 2 meter width loom. Tapestry is an old and slow art form which allows the artist time to develop a work of great beauty using colour, texture and pattern. Like all hand made work, it has warmth and soul. Read this interview with Liz...
Focus on a Tapestry Weaver
Liz Chester’s tapestries are graphic illustrations inspired largely by the landscape and rendered in subtle shades of wool. She is a member of Suffolk Craft Society and the Norfolk and Suffolk Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. Diana Grace went to see her in Ipswich where she lives with her husband and two young daughters.
What made you decide to take up tapestry-making?
I come from Scotland where there is a long history of tapestry-weaving. There used to be many woollen mills in Scotland which each produced over a hundred colours, though sadly almost all them have now disappeared, leaving only a cottage weaving industry. When I was fifteen and a member of the Dunfermline Art Club, I was given the opportunity to have some tuition under the auspices of the Carnegie Trust. (Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline.) I made a small panel as part of a much larger piece which is now hung in the Carnegie Library there. Some of us involved enjoyed the experience so much that the Trust arranged for us to have further tuition and I was hooked. It was the beginning of a passion for working with warm, tactile colours.
What did you do after that?
Although I exhibited some of my work in a craft shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile I knew it would be impossible for me to make a living that way so I did a degree in engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. After graduating I was offered a post with BT in Ipswich where I spent twenty years, mostly doing software programming. Tapestry remained a private passion for a long time!
The landscape of Suffolk must have been a bit of a shock for you after Scotland?
Yes, I hadn’t even heard of Ipswich and had to look it up on a map. I missed mountains and I thought Suffolk flat and grey but now I love the gentle landscape and the gentleness of Suffolk people too. I am here to stay.
Tell me about the process of creating a tapestry...
I sketch and photograph images that I find interesting, often trees or views or perhaps my children and then make a cartoon in black and white from which I work. It is best not to use colour on the cartoon because once I am weaving, the hues of the wools turn out very differently and I need to make all kinds of colour decisions as I go along. I then set up a simple wooden frame or a larger loom by wrapping round tightly-spun cotton warp. A row of knots along the bottom of the warps holds the weaving in place. The tapestry picture is usually made with the weft. I prefer wool weft to cotton or silk because wool has enough give in it and it packs down well to cover up the warp. After the weaving is complete I fix the weft in place by also knotting along the top before cutting the finished tapestry off the frame. I sew up any vertical slits, trim the ends and sew a plain cotton material on the back. I make wooden battens to act as a hanger for the finished piece, which is attached to the battens using velcro.
Where do you get your wool?
I like to use ready- dyed commercial yarns from specialist suppliers around the country but if I can’t get the shades I want I buy undyed yarns and dye them myself. Luckily today’s chemical dyes are non-toxic which makes it possible for me to dye in the kitchen in an old jam pan. I wash any oil from the skeins and leave them in warm water until I need them. I mix the dyes in a jam-jar and then add the desired colour to a pan of warm water. I dunk the wool in the dye bath, taking care not to agitate it too much in case it felts. When the wool has taken up sufficient colour, it is removed from the dye bath and put straight into warm, clean water and into successively cooler batches of clean water until the dye stops coming out before it is dried.
It sounds like a long process. How long does it take you to complete a tapestry?
A small one can take me a week, working solidly all day and evening. If I am not completely satisfied with it I will either undo it and start again or keep it for myself. I wouldn’t try to sell something that didn’t satisfy me even if any fault was invisible to anyone else.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I do some teaching and exhibit with amateur groups but now that my children are at school my long-term plan is to exhibit in local, national and international exhibitions. I want to build up a good track record and get commissions. We all need to promote the value of art created through craft if we are to see these ancient skills survive.