Edward S. Curtis Photogravure Prints as Jacquard Tapestries

by Sheila O’Hara 11/9/09 -   www.sheilaohara.com

You may recall my article from November 2005 about my involvement with the creation of three industrially woven jacquard tapestries for Ceago del Lago winery in Lake County, CA. They depict images from Edward S. Curtis photogravure prints taken in 1924 in Mendocino and Lake Counties, California. The original prints are in the collection of the Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, CA. Ceago del Lago was very pleased that Sherrie Smith-Ferri, the Museum Dirtector, generously loaned the prints for the project. The images were scanned at Magnolia Editions, Oakland, CA, by Donald Farnsworth. www.magnoliaeditions.com

The scans were then converted to digital weaving files using a program that was developed at Magnolia Editions. The files were then e-mailed to an industrial weaving mill Belgium. Using the state-of-the art computerized jacquard looms, the mill created these woven artworks 6’ x 8’ tapestries using 16,800 warp threads sett at 200 epi! There is an 8-color rotation in both the warp and the weft. Donald uses a 2,100 pixel wide image to design for this warp – 16,800 divided by 8. The colors they achieve are like an 8-color printing idea rather than the classic 4-color printing. You need white yarn because there is no paper – only air and warp and weft. In my article I had a photo with the first tapestry that was installed at that time. Since then, they have installed the other two tapestries. See the photo below with all three installed.

“Gathering Tules, Lake Pomo,” “Pomo Seed Gathering Utensils” and “Canoe with Tules”
by Edward S. Curtis 1924 as commercially woven jacquard tapestries 6’ x 8’ each.
Installation: Ceago Vinegarden, Nice California

Moving forward three years, in November 2008, I wrote an article about receiving a second hand 672 hook AVL Jacquard loom from Mim Wynne in Arkansas. I have had the loom for 16 months. I used up the 10 yards that came with the loom. After struggling with a warping wheel, I gave up and wound a 30 yard warp on my warping mill. This worked out pretty well despite the factor of winding so many turns on the mill.

I have never done sectional warping in all these years of weaving since the warps were usually only about 15 yards long and had tons of color changes in them.

This past July 2009, I tackled putting on a 62 yard warp with help from a friend. We wound 62 spools with 690 yards each. Then, using a tension box, we wound on the warp in 2 inch sections. We didn’t get it quite right and the uneven tension showed up especially in the one shuttle weaves. I ended up winding the whole warp down, under and onto the cloth beam at the back of the loom, a few inches at a time and then all back up and around onto the warp beam. I removed all but the last set of sectional pins on each side of the 22” wide warp, using them like flanges. I used my raddle attaching it to the cross arm that usually holds the tension box. I tied the warp back on in the front and I have been weaving away. So far so good. For the next warp, I think I will try cones instead of spools... Ah weaving – the great humility teacher. J


In the summer of 2009 I found out that there was an exhibition planned at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, CA, of Edward S. Curtis photogravure prints. I decided to try weaving a few of the North American Indian images now that I had my own jacquard loom. I didn’t have 16,800 warp threads like the loom in Belgium but I had 672. As I mentioned, if you think of the resolution on the 16,800 hook loom as divided by 8 colors then it is really only 2,100 pixels in essence. I looked at it like I had one third the resolution of this gigantic industrial loom. I could work with that.

I called the Sherri Smith-Ferri, still the director of the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, CA, and told her about my idea.  She thought that I should possibly start with “A Pomo Girl” since they had that image in their collection. I searched the web and found an image of “A Pomo Girl” at a resolution of about 650 x 800 pixels. This was almost exactly what I needed for my 672 hooks! I was ready to go since I had learned in 2005 that these images are in public domain.

Inspired by this photogravure print taken by Edward Curtis in 1924 of “A Pomo Girl,” I wove a jacquard tapestry using the marvelous random shading feature of the ArahWeave jacquard software. The software has about 20 weaves that you can use for one shuttle weave shading. There are twills, satins, broken satins, broken twills and more. The idea is that if you have a 1-5 satin, you can make gradations from warp faced to weft faced weaves in steps: 1-5, 2-4, 3-3, 4-2, 5-1. The beauty of the software is that it adds many more than these 5 steps with variations that enhance the subtlety of shades. Of course you have to figure out what weave best suits the image and do test weaves to get accurate ppi for proper proportions of the images. Once you do the test, you can then just put in the actual ppi and a new weave file or card file can be created in seconds. You don’t have to do any aspect ratio calculations.

The original prints are about 20"h x 16"w. The image in the jacquard tapestry is 26"h x 20"w. making the tapestry larger than the original print. With a top and bottom border added of advancing point twills, the piece is 36"h x 20"w. The warp is 10/2 black cotton at 30 epi and the weft is 10/2 golden beige cotton at about 30ppi. Once the weave file was created, I turned on the air compressor, the loom driver computer (with JacqPoint software), the control box and then sat down at my jacquard loom to weave.

Right before I started to weave, I was compelled to put down my shuttle and give thanks to the Pomo girl who posed for the picture in 1924, to Edward S. Curtis for taking the picture, to Mim Wynne for giving me this her AVL jacquard loom, to Dusan Peterc from Slovenia for writing the amazing software ArahWeave and to the cotton plants that provided the fiber to make the yarn. I randomly grabbed a music cassette tape made years ago to listen to while I was weaving. It turned out to be Buffe Sainte Marie singing about Native American Indians! Sometimes things just get on a roll now and then. Then I started to weave with a different sense of purpose than I have felt before. After a few tests, the image was very close to the proportions of the original photo. I think I was able to convey the spirit of the Pomo girl. It was like I was bringing the girl to life!


“A Pomo Girl” by Edward S. Curtis, 1924 as a handwoven jacquard tapestry 36" x 20" and detail

Above you can see “A Pomo Girl” on the loom. Happy with the results, I then wove up two more Pomo images from the Grace Hudson collection. See below.


“Pomo Dance Costume” & “A Mixed-Blood Coast Pomo” by Edward S. Curtis 1924

as 36" x 20"  handwoven jacquard  tapestries

Thanks to one of my weaver friends and her husband, I now have the Edward S. Curtis North American Indian CD with 2,226 images from which to choose. My friend just started doing grant writing for a Miwok Indian Tribe in Shingle Springs, a city east of Sacramento, CA. She and her husband wanted me to weave up an image of a Miwok Indian woman holding a sifting basket. They were able to pick the weave structure that they liked the best while we sat at my desk using ArahWeave trying out different variations. The woven image can be viewed in a very accurate fabric simulation in ArahWeave. This way you can get a really good feel for what you will end up with before you start weaving. You can specify colors, weaves, densities, etc. You can even design your own textured yarn if you really want to get detailed!  When my friend gave the tapestry to the tribe as a thank you gift for hiring her, an invisible wall disappeared and she was welcomed into the tribal council community.

“Sifting Basket-Southern Miwok” by Edward Curtis as a 20" x 26" jacquard tapestry

Now that I have the CD with 2,226 images I started looking through them to see if any images caught my attention. Seventy-five percent of the images are listed by titles, not thumbnails, so it is a bit of a slow guessing game which ones to view. There were several that I thought I might be able to weave and I haven’t looked through all of them yet. Below is the next one I tried. He has such a great presence and I think that the weaving has captured it. With so many to choose from, I am sure it will keep me busy for quite a while.  I am finding that people are immediately drawn to these universal images and can’t resist taking them home to continue enjoying their company.

"A Jicarilla”(Apache) by Edward S. Curtis 1904, as a 36" x 20" handwoven jacquard tapestry and detail

Since I started weaving these images, I have been gathering information about Edward S. Curtis as well as Native American Indians. This has given me an insight into our past history and the current state of Native American Indians. Yesterday, at the Grace Hudson Museum Exhibition, I spent a long time viewing the photogravure prints by Edward S. Curtis. www.gracehudsonmuseum.org   It turns out that Grace Hudson met Edward S. Curtis on his travels to California to photograph the Pomo Indians. I also read about Curtis’ urgency to document the Native American Indians. Among the thousands of images he took over his lifetime, there were over 40,000 photographic images of over 80 North American tribes. We are fortunate that he had the vision and persistence to travel, photograph and document these times. I feel grateful to be able to weave these fantastic images. I feel I am giving them new life in a tactile dimension as handwoven jacquard tapestries.

Sheila O’Hara


A few footnotes from Wikipedia for those who want to know a bit more.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952) was a photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.

…In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Both Grinnell and Curtis were invited on the famous Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.

In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. 222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.