Woven Glass








                                Alex Zonis at the loom Her Main Page

I call my technique Woven Glass because I do indeed weave with glass and because it sounds like a paradox which I enjoy. I can call it “glass beadwork on a loom”, but it is not nearly as much fun.

The technique is a combination of mosaic, stained glass and tapestry weaving. The technique in itself is not new. There are numerous examples of bead weaving by American Indians. Russian serfs of 17th and 18th century made a lot of bead woven jewelry and headdresses. Some museums feature bead woven purses originating in 19th century Europe. Large scale beaded loomwork is very rare because of the sheer amount of labor it requires. One of my larger tapestries – Pastorale (36”x16.5”, Private collection) – took endless hours of weaving alone, with design and finishing work combined amounting to approximately the same time.

The design work for beaded tapestries presents a unique challenge – it contains a lot of math. Because beaded loomwork is essentially a grid, creating patterns and symmetry requires geometrical thinking and quick mental arithmetic. I start my designs on graph paper that I make myself. Since beads are not perfectly square, the designs made on commercial graph paper will get distorted when woven with real beads. Next I use computer software to create an overall composition called a “cartoon” that I use as a guide during weaving process.

One interesting problem to solve when designing a cartoon is resolution. In drawing or painting, a point is as small as a finely sharpened pencil or a #2 round brush tip allows. In computer graphics, a point can be as small as a pixel. In bead weaving, a point is as big as a bead, which in case of Delica beads measures 1.4mm by 1.8mm. This is a very large point! I joke sometimes about wishing that people viewing my work would realize that and stop commenting on how small those beads are. The size of the point introduces limitations on a design, which has to be implemented using lines that are 1.4 to 1.8 mm thick. The simplicity, balance and right proportions become very important.

I follow the traditional structured approach to oriental carpet design: main field, positioning of the central design element, subordinate elements, main border, sub-borders. I also use very limited number of colors: 6, 7, maybe 9 at most. The antique oriental rugs never had a great variety of colors, because the wool was dyed only with pigments found in nature: indigo for blues, various clays and minerals for reds and yellows. The richness we observe in the old rugs comes from ingenious color combinations and contrasts.

I dress the loom in a regular way that all textile workers would recognize with the warps tightly stretched and carrying even tension. It’s the way the wefts work makes a significant difference with the weft of a traditional flat-woven tapestry. I work with two wefts, one of them carries beads, the other secures them to the warps. Two wefts allow me to weave several hundred beads in one row and do that with minimal mistakes and rework. I use needles instead of shuttles. You can see my loom and the weaving in progress on the photo (at the top).

I work with Delica seed beads made by Miyuki Shoji of Japan. They look like little cylinders and produce the most uniform glass fabric I have seen. The color and finishes on the beads are a big part of the joy of beadwork. The reds, the cobalts, the golds of the beads are scrumptious. There is this special luminosity of the colored glass that no oils, watercolors or any other pigments can be compared to. Many beads have precious metal coating on the inside or outside surface: gold of various carats, silver, titanium, rhodium. I weave with miniature jewels.

The weaving process is meticulous and slow, but mistakes and culling make it even slower. There are on average 900 usable beads in every thousand, the remaining 100 are non-uniform beads – too wide or narrow, too tall or short, misshapen, broken, or have a color defect. When I find one of these on my needle, it has to be taken off and discarded. For 100,000 beads weaving it makes 12,000 beads, each one individually picked up, looked at, discarded and replaced.

When the weaving is complete, and I take it of the loom, I have in front of me about 800 hanging warps and wefts that I need to tie up and hide to finish the tapestry. When I was young, my Grandmother taught me needlepoint. She used to say that the sign of mastery can be seen on the wrong side of the work: it should be as clean and beautiful as the right side. That was the way of the old world. I like the old world way: my weavings have no right or wrong side, they are identical on both sides.

Weaving is a high concentration, meditative work. It is purifying and relaxing. It is a joy and an escape. At least until my back starts to ache. These tapestries are a part of a series of works called “Magic Carpets”.

Alex Zonis, March 2006                                                                                                            The photo on top is by Michael Mitz