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New Haven woman weaves new with old

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NEW HAVEN-BASED tapestry maker Elinor Steele has several of her creations on exhibit at the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow in Middlebury. Steele has been weaving wool for more than three decades.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


September 24, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

NEW HAVEN — Elinor Steele has her feet planted in two epochs as she deftly manipulates dozens of delicate strands of wool into stunning tapestries in her New Haven studio.

The very basic upright frame loom at which she toils is a throw-back to the 1300s. But the designs that inspire her tapestry creations come from a modern-day computer.

“It’s the same technique as with medieval tapestries, but with modern design,” Steele says.

Several of Steele’s most recent creations are now on display at the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow. Each tapestry — most of them measuring four-feet-by-four-feet — bursts with vibrant colors and geometric shapes that seem to dance around such common agrarian fixtures as barns and rolling hills.

It was in high school that Steele, who grew up in Charlotte, developed an interest in weaving. She decided to make it more than a hobby. To that end, she earned a fine arts degree at the University of New Hampshire, then immersed herself fully into the craft of tapestry-making during a year-long program at the Edinburgh College of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1972. There, she studied under the tutelage of Archie Brennan, now a New York resident who continues to be one of the biggest names in tapestry making.

“He has an incredible technique, and was able to pass it on well,” Steele said.

It’s a technique that is unforgiving and allows no shortcuts. Weavers like Steele can spend upwards of 150 hours on a single tapestry, mixing in scores of colors mounted on bobbins at a their looms.

“It’s a very slow process,” Steele said. “It can be fairly taxing.”

But the results are always worth the effort, according to Steele, who looks forward to the gradual “unveiling” of a tapestry as more and more of the wool fibers crawl into place.

“Each section has its own challenges,” Steele said, noting that good math skills are essential when it comes to making gradual transitions from one thread color to the next.

Living in Vermont, Steele has had no shortage of beautiful scenery to provide her with inspiration for her tapestry scenes. But she has also received a helping hand from her computer — particularly when it comes to creating perfect geometric shapes.

Steele explained that until the advent of computers, weavers had to draw out their images free-hand and affix them to the back of their looms to provide a tracing template for the tapestry. Now Steele can use her computer and Photoshop software to create images that can be enlarged and printed to form tracing templates.

“It saves some time,” Steele said, though she stressed the actual weaving process is all done by hand. It is through this process that Steele has created hundreds of tapestries, many of them commissioned by corporations, public entities and private individuals. Her creations routinely can fetch upwards of $5,000.

Porter Hospital recently commissioned Steele to create a tapestry honoring its birthing center nursing staff. The tapestry features a series of children’s hand imprints framed by the words “caring,” “kindness,” “compassion” and “nurturing.” It’s a project that carried a special significance for Steele, as she gave birth to her two children at Porter.

Along with commissions, Steele has done her own projects, which have included a series of tapestries focusing on hay barns.

Her exhibit at Frog Hollow, titled “Reconstruction,” will run through the end of September.

With more than three decades of weaving under her belt, Steele has no plans to leave her loom.

“It’s sort of a part of me,” Steele said.

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