Australian Tapestry Workshop: A Cohesive Whole
The Australian Tapestry Workshop is an Australian treasure that brings the old world to the new with a modern twist. Find out more from director Antonia Syme.
Australian Tapestry Workshop’s Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.
Unique to Australia and one of only a few workshops remaining in the world dedicated to hand-weaving contemporary tapestries, the Australian Tapestry Workshop has woven more than 500 tapestries over 44 years, which proudly hang in national and international collections. Using the same techniques employed in Europe since the 15th century, the Australian tapestry workshop, skilled weavers work with artists from Australia and overseas to produce tapestries known for their vibrancy, technical accomplishment and inventive interpretation.
These creative collaborations between artists, architects, and tapestry weavers translate photography, painting and digital images into new dynamic forms. The Australian Tapestry Workshop is a treasure from the past that produces contemporary wonders to behold and value for years to come. Fibre Arts Take Two was delighted to learn more from Director Antonia Syme.
46 years of ATW
The Australian Tapestry Workshop has been in the same location for an impressive 46 years, “We’re fortunate,” says Antonia, “Because it’s the most beautiful old Victorian building. This wonderful warehouse space was once Harcourt and Parry Drapers. It was Patross Knitting Mills, then Gloria Glove Factory, and now we’ve been here for 46 years, so this building has always had a vibrant textile history, which is very special to us.”
The non-profit organisation is very special to our nation; Antonia says it’s “The only one in Australia and one of only a few in the world. Our focus is contemporary tapestry as an extraordinary art form and working very much with contemporary artists, architects, and designers.”
Refining the process
Over four and a half decades have allowed The Australian Tapestry Workshop to establish effective systems of work, “We’ve refined how we try and estimate on jobs,” says Antonia, “because, in each case, there is a timeframe and a budget. That’s very important to us. So a critical part of the process is to do sampling. So all of the weavers that will be working on the project, they do experimental samples, and they’ll look at the design and look at where they want to take it, where they can push it, where they can push the boundaries and what they think they can achieve from that.
All the samples that we’ve done on every project go into our sample library. We have this incredible library or resource that goes back 46 years. We can look at similar tapestries and how long they took to make. We can then indicate what it will take, the cost, and the needed resources.
With the sheer scale of the tapestries they work on, having the right colours prepared is a true mission, “This is where the sampling again is so important,” says Antonia, “because the weavers will look at all the colours we have in our library. We have 368 wool colours and 200 cotton colours, all of which are woven on the premises. Hence, the quality of materials is critical to us, we have a professional dyer (Tony) who does all the dyeing of our yarns, and the weavers will work out from the sampling what they need.”
This takes a lot of planning, “They also need to work in advance,” says Antonia, “so they can give Tony plenty of notice of all the colours he needs to do. So if he needs to do 13, greens or whatever, he’s got plenty of time to provide the palette for them. That’s why the sampling process is so important. Once the samples are complete, and everyone’s had an opportunity to sample the different parts of the tapestry, they will come together with the artist, architect, or designer and look at their shared vision and which is their way forward to make a decision.
The weavers mix all colours, so you’ll get this complex mix of colours, and your eyes will do the mixing. If you’re working with paint, it’ll often go muddy; with tapestries, every colour maintains its integrity. Your eye does the mixing, which is why tapestries are so vibrant, and people have such beautiful responses.
Part of the joy of the Australian Tapestry Workshop is guest artists who collaborate with our weavers. Antonia shares: “Once they’ve been through a tapestry with us and understand what our weavers are capable of (which is anything), they will factor that in when designing their next tapestry.
For example, we’ve worked with John Young twice, which has been fantastic. He knows the weavers are capable of extraordinary layering of images and transparency. He deliberately designed some very complex layering in a beautiful tribute he did to Kenneth Maya that’s in the National Library in Canberra. He was keen to push their boundaries; again, this was the most wonderful challenge for them, which they met superbly.”
A cohesive whole
Creating a tapestry is not a one-person job but a united effort, “Everything that happens at the very beginning,” explains Antonia, “informs what goes beyond that. So it’s a very cohesive whole. All these very talented artists are working together to provide an overall unique artwork at the end, like a ballet or a concert in a way where you have the initial ballet or score, and you have all these talented, creative artists who work together to make the outcome. Weaving’s very much like that. Everyone’s working together to provide that wonderful whole finished piece.”
About the Australian Tapestry Workshop organisation
Established in 1976, the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) is a not-for-profit visual arts organisation with a global reputation for creating contemporary hand-woven tapestries. ATW empowers creative partnerships with a broad scope of artists and architects. Each tapestry is a unique opportunity to engage with the ATW weaving team to explore artistic ideas and innovate.
The ATW is internationally renowned for creating contemporary hand-woven tapestries. We are unique to Australia and one of only a few workshops worldwide. The ATW’s far-reaching reputation and longstanding cultural partnerships enable us to present a global program to local audiences and share Victorian creative excellence with the world.
The South Melbourne open studio, colour laboratory and galleries are a creative hub for engagement with tapestry, textiles and contemporary art. We develop and deliver multi-tiered programming that educates and inspires arts and general audiences through online and real-world avenues. We nurture creative exchange and share our specialist knowledge across generations.