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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Idaho artist gains national renown

Moscow weaver among elite tapestry makers

Sarah Swett is a professional tapestry weaver from Moscow, Idaho. Her intricate tapestries often fetch five figures. (McKayla Fox)
Alexandra Graff Murrow News Service

A basket of yarn on the floor, a tapestry hanging on a wall, and a homemade loom occupy Sarah Swett’s weaving studio.

“It never occurred to me it would be something to which I would devote my life,” said Swett, a professional tapestry weaver in Moscow, Idaho.

Swett has built a national reputation as an elite weaver. Her intricate tapestries often sell for $10,000. There are few modern tapestry weavers, and even fewer who are considered professionals. Swett, 53, is part of the American Tapestry Alliance, which includes about 650 weavers from 16 countries.

“She is one of our few local artists that we carry in our gallery because she is a nationally renowned artist,” said Heather Saltarella, co-owner of The Essential Glass Works gallery in Moscow. “She’s really a jewel in our gallery.”

(Video created by: McKayla Fox and Alexandra Graff)

Saltarella said she has sold about six of Swett’s tapestries in the past three years. Right now, she has five pieces in the gallery between $5,500 and $9,500 apiece. But considering the amount of time Swett puts into weaving the tapestries, Saltarella said she thinks the prices are too low.

More of Swett’s work is on display at the Idaho Pour Authority in Sandpoint through Jan. 22, and she will be featured in a tapestry exhibit at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey in January. 

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Swett uses weaving to tell stories from her life and experiences. Several draw on the time she spent living in the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness in Idaho and Montana.

 One of her tapestries that depicted her time in the wilderness was recently featured in Moscow’s Third Street Gallery. Another showed one of Swett’s neighbors when she lived on a ranch, said Kathleen Burns, Moscow arts director.

 “People love her work, and they’re overwhelmed with her work because it’s pretty detailed and quite labor-intensive,” Burns said, “and she’s nationally recognized as a textile artist.” 

Swett started weaving full time in her mid-20s, but before that she said she never thought cloth could be artistic.

“Cloth was something for clothing or dish towels,” she said. “I didn’t see it as a medium for drawing.”

As an artist, Swett faced a question many do: How could she support herself?

Swett saves money by building her own looms, which she customizes to each new project, constructing them out of PVC piping and metal brackets.

Material-wise, tapestry can be very inexpensive, she said. Two tapestries’ worth of wool costs her anywhere from $50 to $100.

“The biggest cost for me is time,” Swett said.

Weaving is a slow process, taking several months to create just one piece. Depending on how long she spends at the loom each day, a typical 16-by-16 tapestry would take two to three months to complete. She typically weaves four to six hours a day.

Mary Lane, executive director of national tapestry alliance, said few schools offer any tapestry-related courses. However, she said about one-third of the ATA members consider themselves to be professionals.

“Professional usually implies that you are making your living off it,” she said.

Along with weaving, Swett takes the additional time to spin and dye most of her own yarn, which she said is not typical of professional weavers.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Swett was busy at work in her studio. Her deft hands wove bits of yarn around the vertical strands that form the basic structure of a tapestry.

“It’s all just little tiny shapes built on the grid,” Swett said. “Without the image, there is nothing. The picture is the cloth.”

Swett likened the creation of a tapestry to building a wall out of stones.

“You have to start at the bottom and build up,” she said. “You can’t go back and change it.”

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.