In the fall of 1999, architect Michael McKinnell approached Helena Hernmarck to design and weave a tapestry for the William T. Young Library. Textiles had already been chosen as the main art theme for the building with the fifth floor display of 64 handmade quilts. During Hernmarck's first visit to Lexington, she walked through the new state-of-the-art library to select the wall most suitable for her tapestry. The subject matter she felt appropriate for the design was that of a story-telling picture of Overbrook Farm, its founder, William T. Young and the farm's main breeding stallion, Storm Cat. She chose this because she felt it uniquely challenging to weave such a large and demanding photo-realistic tapestry, including a full-length portrait and a horse, previously not attempted by her.
Beginning the process of designing the image for the tapestry, Hernmarck spent many hours at Overbrook Farm, walking the bluegrass countryside at different hours of the day, visiting the paddocks and learning about thoroughbred horse breeding, while continuously photographing images for her design. Working together with the staff at Overbrook as well as with the well-known photographer Tony Leonard, Hernmarck returned to her studio with hundreds of images. Blending the chosen images to create the final design, she worked with a color laser copier and a computer to bring the colors and images into a cohesive and satisfactory representation from which to weave the tapestry.
After the design had been approved by Mr. Young, a paper cartoon was enlarged to full scale of 12' 7" X 22'. The tapestry was woven on an eleven-foot Swedish rug loom and the cartoon was fastened under the warp in order to correctly follow the scale and images of the design. As the work on the loom progressed, the tapestry was rolled around a beam, thus enabling the weavers to see only the last twelve inches of the work. The actual blending of colors, and the interpretation of the design is a constant process of judging, acting and re-acting to the tapestry, as it is woven row by row. Color blending is done from a palette of more than 700 yarn colors in wool and linen that are spun in different weights and textures.
In order to achieve the best quality of wool, Hernmarck works closely with the most highly regarded Swedish wool specialist. The Walstedt family's workshop is located in the picturesque and quiet setting of Dala-Floda in the province of Dalarna. The wool comes from several local sheep farmers, who breed the Swedish lantras sheep, which produce the best wool for handweaving yarns. At the beginning of a new commission, Hernmarck travels to Dalarna to oversee the process of choosing the fleece, dying, mixing the colors in the fleece and spinning the yarns into desired plyes and tensions. It must meet her rigid standards of the carefully chosen nuances of hues to be included in the palette to be used while mixing the threads for weaving her tapestries.
Hernmarck's technique is very different from the French tradition of Gobelin tapestries. The Gobelins are usually woven on an upright loom where the outlines of images are carefully followed by building up shapes and forms in a fine texture that covers the warp threads. Hernmarck, however, uses texture, color and value contrast to establish shape, line, and depth in her work. The mixed bundles of yarn used for weft are thicker, visible warp threads play a significant role in the color composition. While monitoring the structure and tension of the carefully balanced and dressed loom, finishing one length row and beating it down before going on to the next row, she uses her own invented technique, which is a variation of the traditional rosengang. Hernmarck uses the technique in a very free fashion and calls her own special version, "free rose path." It consists of two rows of tabby with one row of pattern that is either the "rose path" or, as in Overbrook, free picked floats. The constant play and changing of colors and values between pattern and tabby gives the weave a surface topography that is eventful, full-bodied and alive.
Attempting to read the image too closely is likened to viewing an impressionistic painting, such as Seurat's pointillism, a blur of harmonious color blending. As these monumental tapestries are meant to be viewed from a distance of 20-40 feet, the further away the viewer is, the clearer the images become. While the tapestry is being woven in the loom, this distance is achieved by looking through a monocular backwards or through a reducing glass.
It took two weavers together with one assistant, nine months to complete the Overbrook Tapestry. Over seven hundred colors were used and the final weight is approximately 300 pounds. The tapestry was woven in two halves from bottom to top and later sewn together to complete the full image.
Text by Britt-Marie Graham