2010 Weave of the week #1: “Swept Away”/Coptic weaving

"Swept Away," designed, handwoven, and photographed by Ann Rosenthal

Ann Rosenthal is a longtime friend and a textile artist whose work fascinates me.  (To read my earlier posts about her weaving,  see herehere,  and  here.)  Each of  Ann’s weavings is about trying to resolve a different complex weaving idea.  The idea behind her latest piece,  Swept Away (shown above),  was to weave a pattern and then “dissolve” it,  but when I looked at the image of the girl sweeping away the checkerboard floor,  all I could think of was how intensely I wanted to sweep away 2009.  So Swept Away seemed like the perfect choice for the first featured weave of the New Year.  (It is just a coincidence that last year’s first weave of the week was When Opposites Attract,  another of Ann’s works,  see here).

Ann’s unique hybrid tapestries have been baffling me since she started doing them in the 1980s,  but I had never asked her what inspired them until I started thinking about writing this post.  Her technique of combining twill and tapestry in the same weaving comes from fifth- to sixth-century Coptic weaving.  (The Copts are native Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first century.)  Coptic textiles woven in that style are sometimes misidentified as being embroidered or even painted (that happens to Ann’s work, too),  but she examined both sides of several Coptic woven pieces at the textile library of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Ratti Center)  and confirmed that the two weaves were created as a single piece.  The detail below from a fourth- to seventh-century Coptic weaving (Museum of Natural History and Ethnography,  Colmar,  France) shows the two weaves particularly well,  as well as the single row of twining that surrounds the motif.

Coptic textile detail. Photo: Julien Schweiger

Here are some weaving details about Swept Away:  It is 12″ x 14″ and was woven sideways,  tapestry style,  on an 8-harness Macomber.  The diagonals visible in the background have the same function as Navajo rug weavers’ “lazy lines” do:  they make it easier to work on small sections of a large area.  Ann shaped the words with yarn and tied them down with couching threads (they are not woven in).  Personal note:  my favorite detail is the broomstick,  which was woven with a bit of leftover velveen yarn from one of my scarves.

I read a bit about Coptic weaving on the Indiana University Art Museum’s excellent website and in Early Decorative Textiles by W.  Fritz Volbach (a 1969 book available on Amazon),  and it’s easy to see why Ann is so drawn to it.  See her lively 2009 piece,  A Not So Still Life (below,  right),  and the charming fifth- or sixth-century Coptic piece that inspired it, Vase with the Tree of Life (below,  left).

In trying to put Coptic weaving into context,  I learned that much of it was created during the period of great upheaval popularly known as the Dark Ages (fifth to eleventh centuries) that started with the decline and fall of Rome.  It was a period of barbarian invasions,  social and political chaos,  wars,  economic depression,  epidemics,  and perhaps a global climatic catastrophe in the sixth century.  But through it all Coptic weavers kept on working,  weaving images of warriors,  gods,  plants,  and creatures into their fabrics.  Happily,  enough of those cloths have survived to help inspire us to do our own work,  and hope for better times.  And whatever debris history leaves on your doorstep — sweep it away!

Cheers and Happy New Year.


4 Responses

  1. Thank you, Fern, for showing us more of Ann’s amazing work and your great discussion about Coptic weaving.

    Wishing you all the best in the new year!


    • Hi, Eva, Thank you so much for reading and posting. I enjoyed writing this one very much b/c I learned a lot in the process. Glad that you enjoyed it too.

      Happy New Decade.


  2. Hi, Sue, thank you for your comment, it’s great to hear from you.

    My best wishes back to you for a joyous, creative, year.


  3. Ann’s work is always so interesting. Thanks for your great post pulling together so much information.

    All the best to you and yours in the new year (and new decade)!


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