Christabel Balfour is a tapestry weaver, having picked up a toy loom when she was a child and never having really left the craft behind. She’s now been weaving full-time for four years, focusing on bold, geometric designs in soft, muted neutrals. Her simple forms are given life with contrasting textures and strong arrangements. Having just upheaved her work (and huge loom!) to move into a new space in Dalston, we visited her in the run up to the London Design Fair.
Do you find tapestry weaving therapeutic?
I can sit and weave for hours, but my body starts to let me know when I need to take a break. It puts a lot of pressure on your back and abdominal muscles! But yeah, I usually get into a flow around 5pm, so when everyone else is clocking off work and heading out I’m hard at work! I’m a bit of a night owl, especially when I have a deadline.
It’s quite calming just watching you weave, and it looks satisfying.
Very satisfying. I think the main challenge is that it is quite slow – a lot of hours are put into each piece. A lot of hand crafts are very time-consuming, slow processes. What’s also tricky with weaving is that I have to do each of the different yarns and coloured sections at the same time, so I have to balance each section and then interlock them.
From looking at photos, we thought you would have to do it entirely row by row, but now we see that you’re weaving a few rows of one coloured area, and then some of the area next to it – some of the beige, some of the brown then some of the cream.
On my other, smaller loom, I do weave row by row, but with this large loom I have to move around so much on the work bench that it makes more sense to sit in one place and work on it area by area.
One of the fun things about weaving is that there are many elements to the process – it can be meditative and thoughtful, it’s also very practical and mechanical and engineered. There’s a lot of maths involved, balancing the thickness of the warp with the thickness of the weft. Making sure there’s enough space, but not too much space! I spend a lot of time playing around with different yarns, different combinations. I appreciate the balance between it being quite intuitive, but also strategic.
How did you first learn to weave?
I started weaving when I was a child – my mum bought me a toy loom. I studied textiles at school and Fine Art at university, focusing on a lot of sculptural weaving and installations.
When I graduated I decided I had to focus on one technique, so I started doing two-dimensional tapestry weaving. I pretty much had to teach myself from scratch! Now, weaving is quite popular and there are a lot of online resources. But when I started, around 2013, there wasn’t. I taught myself from books! I bought my first big loom and had to figure out how to put it together, how to use it….I’ve made quite a few mistakes over the years!
I think I’ve got the hang of it now. I tend to bite off more than I can chew – my first big tapestry was on the loom for a month!
What are your tools called?
The tool that holds the wool, that I feed through the loom, is called the shuttle. And the rest are different types and sizes of shuttles! Then I have a comb to push down and tighten the weave after I’ve fed it through. Most of the tools I have were given to me with the loom when I bought it.
How do you see your work progressing?
I started out very function-centric, weaving pieces that people would use as rugs on the floor in their home. As I’ve progressing they’ve become art pieces, in my mind, that should be hung on the wall. I’ve focused more on design, technique and texture.
Do you teach any workshops?
Yes! I teach them here at my studio; the tapestry weaving workshop takes about three hours and everyone gets their own small loom to take home. I’ve also started rug weaving workshops across two days and is better suited to anyone that wants to work with larger pieces. For the really committed, I do one-to-one classes. I just did four classes at the Barbican Centre and it is really fun. Students get very ambitious, though – weaving a perfect circle has taken years of practice!
So will this be the second year that you’ve shown at London Design Fair, as it is for us?
This is actually the third time I’ve shown – first as part of a group stand, the second time as part of the British Craft Pavilion. This year the British Craft Pavilion has been nice enough to invite me back! I’ve decided to keep it quite simple this year and show three larger pieces.
When you think of traditionally tapestry weaving, you think of very large-scale, usually historical, pieces. I always wanted to weave larger-scale pieces, but when I got this loom at the beginning of 2017 I didn’t touch it for almost the entire year. I only really started using it this past summer – I finally felt ready to make bigger pieces.
To see more of Christy’s work, or to try your hand at weaving your own tapestry or rug, visit her website.
Christy wears the Markova in Cherry Blossom.