Monday, May 28, 2012

mardi nowak - tapestry artist q + a

After the gorgeous Mardi Nowak asked if she could interview me for her blog, I started thinking about all the questions that I've been wanting to ask her, as well as other tapestry artists who inspire me - but from a beginner's point of view.

I started documenting my tapestry studies here from the beginning because at the time I couldn't find anyone else doing so. I now try to encourage other students to do the same, because this is how we all learn! I spend a lot of time stalking reading through other artists' blogs, and I have learnt so much from them, as well as refining my own techniques due to their wise advice.

So without further ado, my first 'interview' is, rather fittingly, Miss Mardi Nowak herself! I was excited to find another tapestry artist in their 30s, which is pretty rare! Her work is fresh, modern and non-traditional, and her in-your-face use of colour attracted me instantly ;)


What made you want to learn tapestry weaving?
A bit of a long story! I grew up in a very textile orientated family. My parents owned a Singer Sewing Machine store, my father was a sewing machine mechanic and bootmaker. My mum was a pattern maker and sewing teacher and I had a grandfather who was a milliner. It was no surprise that I was going to end up doing something textile related.

I studied art throughout high school and VCE. The whole time I was also involved in gallery work and curating (my now day job!). I loved textiles and fashion but the artworld was where my heart was. I applied to many universities to major in either printmaking or painting. It was at Monash University that I happened to meet Kate Derum, who looked at my folio, chatted to me and recruited me to tapestry with the statement "if you really hate it after a semester, I can change you to another major". Always up for a challenge and for learning new things I took on a Bachelor of Fine Art, majoring in tapestry and have been making art this way ever since!

Kate went on to mentor me throughout my BFA and Honours year as well as supervised my Masters by research project as well.

Why tapestry? Like most contemporary tapestry artists, I love being part of such a old and strong tradition. Having parents who had skills like they did, I love being able to keep these skills alive but in a new and current context. In terms of the way that I work as an artist, tapestry works for me. It's about colour (in the way you mix the weft), shape and texture. These have always been important elements to my work aesthetically. I also love being able to create large works and roll them up for shipping and storage!

Mardi Nowak - 'I Love You, Me Too'
How did you learn?
I've completed a Bachelor of Fine Art (Tapestry), an Honours year and my Masters of Fine Art by Research. Basically that was 6 years full time of making art! I had a fantastic teacher in Kate Derum who really encouraged me to look beyond tapestry and to keep my work in a contemporary critical art context. It is always about the art first, then tapestry second for me.

My tapestry practice has been about trial and error and looking at different ways of interpreting something. My work in my undergraduate years was quite diverse while I learnt how to weave but also to learn what my visual language was. This has been refined over and over to what I produce now. I'll be refining this forever!

How long did it take for you to be confident with the techniques?
I think after my first year of study, I made the decision to go BIG! Although a brave decision, working on such a large scale (about 2 metres by 1 metre) really made me work hard. I had to work consistently to finish the works for assessment. From this I learnt how long weaving really takes as well as how the warps and my style of weaving works along on a large work. I think this 'jump into the deep end' made me confident about my work and I was supported greatly by my lecturers and other peers too. What can I say? I love a challenge!

I also think that exhibiting my work throughout my studies built my confidence with the work too. It really helps to sort out what you are doing and why and how you sit in a critical art context too.

Mardi Nowak - 'Onto The Shadow'
What is your preferred warp sett?
I mostly weave on an 18 gauge warp with about 9-10 warps set in an inch or 4cm. (I think this is right? When I warp up I put one warp on the line, 4 in between, another on the line - I place my lines at 4cm spaces.)

I generally use 7 threads to my weft for this setting.

What is your favourite weft material?
I mostly use a combination of wool, cotton and linen - sometimes silk. I rarely use just wool as I find it a bit too squishy for my liking. The cotton and linen gives a much harder surface and finish to the tapestry. I also swear by using a bobbin winder to apply the weft to my bobbins. Since using one over the last 9-10 years, I've found a difference in the surface. It gives a smoother surface and probably a better tension for me.

What is your preferred method of finishing and presenting your work?
My methods change according to the tapestry size, where it is going etc. Mostly for the large works I plait back the warp (I don't ever create a woven hem) and hand sew a wide strip of acid and dye free fabric around the edge. This captures the warps inside the fabric and any loose weft ends that may poke out the sides. I sew Velcro to the top fabric screen that attaches to a thin piece of wood or metal that then attaches to the wall.

For smaller works I (under 40cm) I cover a piece of wood the same size of the tapestry with acid and dye free fabric and then hand sew the tapestry to the fabric. This creates a little tile to hang on the wall. Being a curator as well, I'm very aware of being able to remove any of the framing elements from the tapestry easily if need be.

Back of one of Mardi's small tapestries

Detail of how Mardi has stitched the piece onto the fabric
I rarely put tapestry behind glass. This is a personal preference and mostly because I like to see the texture of the work. Also, framing works is expensive and difficult to store, especially for large works!

Are there any aspects of tapestry that you have to pay attention to every time you weave?
I think for any weaver you pay attention to the tension and the sides of the work. I also sew up slits as I go to assist with my tension. I try to keep an eye on how the work is looking as a whole as I'm weaving and I have been known to change elements half way through to give a more balance work aesthetically. Nothing is set in stone for me!

How did you create your own ‘visual language’?
I think that it is about being confident with your work and what inspires you and what you have to say. For me, my language developed into making work and images that are inspired by my everyday world. Don't get me wrong, my work has changed over the years but I think in the last 10 years, people would be able to identify my work as mine from particular features.

I often use text or letters in my work but it is always figurative too. Lately I've been experimenting with some smaller works but trying to approach them as I approach the large works. It is very trial and error but has been a good way to loosen up too.

Mardi Nowak - 'Stasi'
Is there any advice that you’d like to give to beginners?
Oh, there are so many things! Here are some key points that I think are important.

Setting up the loom and warp - take care to do it properly. I've been known to rush and stuff it up and regret it while weaving. It's like preparing a canvas, start off with a good base.

Look at the best way to weave the work - is the image better on the side for smoother lines? Also, work out what works for you best - all weavers work differently.

Don't be too precious! I never un-weave anything! I take on the motto that it is better to complete the work and then learn from an error to take forever reworking it. Take the learnings into the next work. Often we look and think we could of interpreted the image better but we all learn by trial and error.

Keep your themes and concepts strong. Just because something is woven into tapestry (and yes, I KNOW it takes a long time!) doesn't mean that it is good art. Just like painting, sculpture etc... there is good and poor works.  If you have a good concept and theme, the tapestry will always be good.

Experiment to work out your own language and style. It takes time, don't beat yourself up on it! Look to other artworks, artists, exhibitions, music, life around you. Find your inspiration in a bunch of things - not just tapestry.

And finally, keep good posture and work methods! I've had back and muscle issues over the years and it is important to keep healthy work techniques.
Good light, chairs etc and remember to stretch!

Where can we find out more about your work?
I have a blog where I talk about my work, what's inspiring me, what I'm doing etc. I think everything is quite inter-related. I also use my blog as a visual diary of sorts, to capture things that may influence my work or an idea to work on later. I'm at

There are links on there to upcoming exhibitions and all of that too!

I also have a solo exhibition planned in Melbourne for early 2013 if people want to see the works in the flesh!


Thank you so much Mardi - you are definitely the rock star of the tapestry world!


  1. Wow, Michelle! great interview and much much food for thought and implementation - thanks


  2. Interesting interview, i'll go check out her work.

    1. Hi Kaite! You'll love it, she's so inspirational :)