Posted by: lavernewaddington | January 5, 2010

Backstrap Weaving-The Backstrap Loom-all those sticks!!

Loom seller at Chichcastenango market, Guatemala


Recently I found myself in the unusual position of having run out of loom rods.

This is because since joining Weavolution in June, I have been completely soaked in new ideas and inspiration for projects that I can adapt to my backstrap loom. Rather than adding them to my woefully long ”to-do” list, I prefer to at least warp up the project, get it started by weaving a few rows and then put it aside so that at any time when the urge hits me, I can just throw on the backstrap and continue weaving. This has resulted in a closet shelf full of loom rods with brightly colored warps attached. The days of one-project-at-a-time are long gone. Fortunately, this is one of the many wonderful things about backstrap weaving-you can warp up a project, roll it up and put it away.

So when I found myself needing to make up several warps for some tutorial pictures, there were no more loom rods to be had. I don’t like borrowing loom rods from unfinished projects so a new set had to be ”found”.

A quick scan of the halls and terraces of my apartment block did not turn up any abandoned brooms or mops whose handles make marvellous loom rods. So I actually had to go out, for the first time, and buy dowels. While doing so, I was reminded of my students and the new weavers in my Backstrap Group who go looking around the house, garden shed or hardware store for bits and pieces to make their first looms and was prompted to write a little piece about putting together a backstrap loom.

I showed the parts for the backstrap loom in my WeaveZine article but space did not allow me to cover the topic in detail and there are a few refinements and tips that I have always wanted to add and a lot more photos that I would love to share. So now that I have woven up some of those closet projects and have loom rods to spare, I have been able to put together a short photo tutorial on the backstrap loom.

First the loom rods……..

loom rods

From right to left….

A pair of my recently purchased 1” dowels;

A pair of 3/4”  broom handles;

The next three sets are from Guatemala. The middle set was bought at the stall at the Chichicastenango market pictured above. The other two are the loom rods from the weavings I worked on with my teachers in Guatemala. I brought these back to Bolivia with the unfinished weavings attached.

I weave happily with my broom sticks and mop handles. I simply cut them down to 19” length and I use these as my standard loom rods-even for the tiniest of bands. The shortest of the Guatemalan rods are 14” and these work well for me too although I prefer the longer length. The main feature of the Guatemalan rods is that they have grooves cut into their ends.

grooved loom rods

Personally, I don’t find these grooves particularly useful but my Guatemalan teachers do as they tie up their looms like this……………

tying up the loom in Guatemala

The grooves on the far end loom rod will stop the cords from which the loom is suspended  from slipping in to the center of the rod.

So, you can experiment with the ideal length of your loom rods and decide if you like them with or without grooves. In any case, you will need two loom rods.

Cross sticks, heddle rods and shed rods………….

It’s nice to have a good collection of thin dowels and sticks of varying lengths depending on the width of your project. Pencils work well as do chopsticks and kebab skewers and then you can always go out and buy dowel rods. Packages of thin, round craft sticks are ususlly available at the dollar stores and are probably the most useful things I have. These sticks have all sorts of uses-as cross sticks when you are warping, heddle rods, shed rods, their ends can be sharpened so they can be used as pick up sticks and they can be slipped under pesky warps that have gone slack to take up tension.

Those used as shed rods need to be thicker depending on the size of your project. I don’t use anything thicker than 3/4″ for the very biggest projects. I even have a set of cheap touristy pan pipes which are abundant here. This I have dismantled and the hollow bamboo pipes in their different lengths are lightweight and handy for all kinds of things-my apologies to the music lovers!

Above is a random selection of my thin sticks-one, as you can see, even gets used to stir the dyepot. It is very handy to cut grooves in these sticks eventhough my grooves are not exactly pretty.

grooved thin sticks

The grooves will help you tie your sticks togethers securely in the cross on your warping board and loom. They will allow you to secure your shed rod in the shed.  Anyone who has had sticks drop out of their loom will know just how important this is!

So, where are we now in our loom construction?

Let’s see our rods and sticks in action!

At left you can see the warp on its loom rods with cross sticks in place. These cross sticks are just that little bit too thin for grooves-I have snapped too many already trying to put in grooves-or maybe I am just not that good with the tools! Anyway, these are simply secured with adhesive tape.

The loom rod on the left with the knotted “start” and “finish” warp ends will be attached to a fixed point-a heavy piece of furniture or a tree (more about these options in a future blog post), while the loom rod on the right will be attached to you by means of your trusty backstrap – speaking of which……..

The backstrap…………….

a selection of backstraps

This  is all a matter of personal preference, but for me, the broader the backstrap the better. Those of you who have read my article on WeaveZine will remember the simple homemade backstrap shown there made from a pillow slip and will also recognize the red strap above. The straw one next to it is my all time fave-made for me in Peru and much chewed by my cat. Moving left, you see another one that I wove and, finally, a leather beauty that I bought in Guatemala. Weave your own backstrap-a wonderful first project to go with your homemade loom. Check out my instructions on WeaveZine.

Swords and beaters………..

I collect swords and beaters in my travels and have a ridiculously large collection of them but here are just a few……

The sword acts to prop open your shed so that you can pass your weft. It can also double as a beater to beat the weft into place once you have changed sheds. The bottom sword is my favourite for wide projects-a homemade job, can you tell?! Above it you can see an adapted ruler and, above that, my favorite small beater for bands-this one was made for me in Peru.

Bevel one of the long edges of your flat sticks as well as the ends and round them off as shown so that they will enter the shed easily. The upper stick at left was once a long shuttle for my Navajo loom, hence the “v” cut into its end-this is not necesary for your sword/beater.

I generally prefer to put a lot of tension on my warp and push the weft into place with a pointed stick in addition to some moderate beating and so I have never felt the need for a big heavy beater like those shown in the above photo. Everyone has their method. There is no one ”right” way to do it.

Let’s see another “”sticks-in-action”” shot……

almost ready to weave

“Almost” ready to weave?………What’s missing?

a shuttle and a weft "butterfly"


These carry the weft through the open sheds. I have the above  home made wooden job made with the help of someone who is handy with tools and a simple “butterfly” of weft. I would love to have a small wooden shuttle too but have been making do with a cardboard cut-out version these last fourteen years! My indigenous teachers simply wrap the weft around and around  and up and down a long stick.

Now we are on our way-the string heddles have been made, the shed rod is in place. I have added an extra stabilizing rod from my collection of small dowels. This will stop my shed rod  from rolling about in the warp and is placed in a second cross behind the shed rod.  I have even managed to weave a few inches. This is where the final part of the loom comes into play-the roll up stick. This should be, preferably, the same size as your loom rod and will enable you to roll up your weaving as you progress so that you are always in easy reach of your heddles, shed rod and weaving line.

By the way, if you have been looking for pick up sticks in these photos, you won’t see any. Pick up sticks are used to lift and hold the warps when you are weaving  design motifs in your cloth. My fingers are my nifty pick up sticks although I have a lot of bone and wooden tools for this purpose in my collection.

And now, a  few final words from someone who has been watching this whole photo taking process with much interest and who insisted on being in the final picture………..

The Backstrap Loom

Just remember that, although the basic elements are the same, backstrap looms take many different forms in different cultures around the world. There is no one ”correct” way to set up your loom and I have based these descriptions on the looms that I have seen and used with my indigenous teachers here in South America and Guatemala.

Now to finish this green band, make it into something useful and free up another pair of loom rods for the next project!

I hope you have enjoyed this little article and have found it helpful. If you have,  let me know-I love to receive your comments.:-)


The red woven piece on which I posed the loom parts for many of the above photos is a weaving of the Jalq’a people of Potolo in Bolivia. Their weavings are almost exclusively done in red and black and have a chaotic display of figures called khurus, a word which means ”wild” or ”untamable”. Every space on the cloth is filled with strange figures. There are even creatures within creatures and I watched weavers forming the myriad of figures without reference to other weavings or swatches for help or inspiration. Incredible!

A weaving from Potolo, Bolivia

The weavers use a simple oblique frame loom and a long wire to pick up the hundreds of warps which form the patterns in each row.  Rather than using a beater, a wichuna-a bone tool fashioned from the leg of the llama- is used to push the wefts into place. The designs are woven into the woman’s axsu-a tunic cinched at the waist with a woven belt.

The typical loom of Potolo

I learned this warp-faced complementary warp technique with my teacher in Potosi, where it is used for a completely different design layout. I have never used the technique to create anything anywhere near this level of  complexity!

A weaver working at the ASUR Museum in Sucre, Bolivia

This Jalq’a woman is weaving a piece that will be sold at the ASUR (Antropologos del Surandino) Museum in Sucre.

© Laverne Waddington and, 2009-2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Laverne Waddington and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Darn it, Laverne? I *love* reading these and seeing the amazing work being done by these marvelous weavers!! I’ve told you already, I have no time left for this; however, I know one of these backstrap looms will have to be added to my collection! It just looks like great fun; and I *love* the beautiful pieces that are created on them. Hmmmm… may have to be sooner than later. Thank you each and every time you share your story with us!!!! Can you tell me, with this incredible piece being worked on in Sucre, does she work the entire piece one weft row at a time, or does she work segments, as might be done with a tapestry? How lucky are you to be able to share the lives of these magnificent weavers! And how lucky are *we* to benefit from your writing and documenting their work!!! You will have to write a book!!!!

    • Thank you Linda!
      The weavers in Potolo work one row at a time and you should see the speed at which they pick up thse warps!! All you see is their wrist moving up and down as they work the metal pick up stick across the row. I have a video on my Flikr page-I think I have linked to it on the blog-of a weaver in Candelaria. She is also in the Sucre area but of another ethnic group and she does a different kind of weaving but you will be able to see in the third of the three short segments how fast she is at doing the pick up.
      I am so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  2. nice to see some more of your ‘tools’ I’m already quite attatched to my sticks 🙂
    That red and black woven piece is amazing, thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Fran,
      Yes, we do tend to get attached to certain sticks and tools-I certainly have my favourites and I am glad to hear that this has happened to you too!

  3. Laverne, Thank you so much for the detailed information and great photos. Your own work is so clear and instructive. Also, the khurus cloth is fascinating. Do you know anything of its symbolism or history? Really appreciate your blog.

    • Hi Sandy,
      I have read and heard a few different versions about the symbolism of the creatures on the weavings of the Jalq’a people and it is really hard to determine who is correct. If you ask the weavers themselves, the answer you get is along the lines of ”this is what we weave”. I am sure that it is something they are not willing to share with the casual visitor. I have read and have also been told by guides that this is their representation of the underworld. In other books I have seen that that the word ”khuru” can refer to distorted images and shapes seen through the mist.

  4. Great tutorial! I would love to see some YouTube videos. Have you ever thought of writting a book about your quite adventurous weaving life? Experiences and knowledge like yours are rare! Thank you for sharing yourself so generously.

    • Hi Kelly,
      I have bought the video upgrade for this blog and made videos. Now it is just a matter of figuring out the best way to upload them with the very ”iffy” internet connection I have. I may have to just bite the bullet and upgrade my internet too. So look out for those soon and maybe a book!!

  5. Hi Laverne, Wonderful explanation and picturew. I have small ackstraplooms wich I bought while in Peru and at the moment they are still sitting there waiting for me to do something with them as I could not qute remember how to work them again so your wonderful explanation should give me a clue and I will try it out as soon as this month’s felting workshop from th eOLG is finished. One only has got one oair if hands and a limited amount of time in a day!! AND getting not younger I am getting slower then I used to be!
    But thanks again for a wonderful display Marjo

    • Thanks Marjo,
      I would love to see the looms you bought, Maybe you could post a picture some time at OLG. I am watching the felt workshop as I, too, only have one pair of hands! but it sounds like it’s going to be great.

  6. Hi Laverne. As always, top-notch!! By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever commented on the excellent photos — do you set them up and take them all yourself? They are very professional, like your weaving and your writing. Thanks so much for sharing.


    • Thanks Bonnie,
      I am very lucky to have a brother who is an excellent photographer and very patient and who is forever giving me tips on how to improve my photos-by long distance-he is in Australia. Yes, I do set them up myself and have just bought a high powered lamp which I haven’t yet learned to use to my advantage-so some pictures work and others don’t! but I am learning 🙂

  7. Awesome tutorial! Love the senior supervisor on set! The end photo is beyond words, I have to look for one to look at it up close. You should be proud of how you can demo AND document what you have mastered. Deb

    • Thanks Deb,
      I have other photos of that weaver at work I could share with you. Notice how the warp curves around my senior supervisor in the last picture-she would not budge!

  8. Thank you sooo much for your website and article in Weavezine. It is my New Year’s resolution to try this!

  9. WOW! I am in awe of these beautiful weavings. Thank you for the easy to understand explanations. I have not started weaving since I thought I had to wait until I had a big wooden loom. Thank you so much for the inspiration!

  10. well ! all has been said already ! what can I had ?? just a huge thanks to you for all of this !!!

  11. euheu, I meant “what can I add” !!

  12. I just read where in Guatamala you go to visit that Chinchiastenana market in Bolivia to buy a set of Authentic Back-Strap Loom Rods they carved themselves.

  13. Hi Laverne,

    I’m visiting Ecuador and a friend from the US would like me to purchase a backstrap loom and warp/weft fibers for her. Any suggestions on where I should look? Quito and Otavalo are easy for me to reach. I may try to get down to Cuenca as well. Thanks for your wonderful work!

    • Hi Becky,
      You will find the warp and weft in the street markets in Otavalo. Finding loom parts to buy may be harder. I met a family when I did a crafts tour there and then went back on my own to visit them for some days after. I bought some swords and beaters from them. I never saw a complete loom being sold anywhere but I am sure if you ask around you will find something. I am pretty sure you won’t find anything in Quito and, as Cuenca is known for its shawl weaving, the loom parts there will most likely be enormous. I think Otavalo is your best bet as both large and small pieces are made on backstrap looms.

  14. […] et dans les Andes en général, on ne tisse pas ces galons sur un métier à tisser, mais sur un système rudimentaire.  Cela ne requiert donc aucun investissement particulier autre que des navettes  et quelques […]

  15. I love the photo essay. Especially the beautiful cross eyed cat, I wonder if he planned the whole thing to match the cloth he is posing on! He stole the show

  16. is there any updated links to your tutorial on weavezine which is now a 404?

  17. […] of the weave is created in two ways. The first is by beating the weft down tightly using a “beater” or “beater bar” to pack the weft strings close together. The second depends on how tightly […]

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