Posted by: lavernewaddington | April 16, 2010

Backstrap Weaving- Where it all started

Syne Mitchell, publisher of WeaveZine teaching the “Rigid Heddle- Beyond Basics” class at CNCH this weekend.


I am a teacher of English as a Foreign Language by profession and I love to teach. I knocked around doing a variety of jobs all over the place for a few years -travel agent, ski shop manager, to name a couple- until I was finally drawn to teaching. I also love taking classes, not just for the opportunity to learn something new, but also for the chance to observe another teacher at work. I am especially interested in seeing how weaving teachers manage those one-day workshops, imparting skills and sharing knowledge, while connecting and building a rapport with students over such a short period of time.  Being at CNCH (Conference of Northern California Handweavers) was a golden opportunity to learn from and observe some of the great teachers at work. I was lucky to have been able to take classes with Robyn Spady and Syne Mitchell at the conference last weekend. I finally got to “drive” an inkle loom and have bought an inklette. No thoughts on abandoning my beloved backstrap loom, though!

Robyn Spady teaching passementrie techniques that can be done on plain weave bands made on inkle looms. She has recently put out a book on the topic.

Since the conference I have been experimenting with weaving Andean Pebble Weave on an inkle loom.

I was staying in Grand Junction , Colorado with plans to do three multi-day hikes and climbs in the Utah canyon lands. A mountain bike accident put an end to all that and I ended up trading hiking boots, rope and backpack for shuttles, yarn and loom.

So, here I am in the US. I haven’t done any lengthy travel here since 1995 when I spent some time in Grand Junction, Colorado and I am reminded of  that trip so many years ago when I was fortunate to meet another great teacher – the one who set me on the weaving path along which I travel today.

This was my first real weaving experience and it was with a North American indigenous weave – Navajo style tapestry weaving. I came across Gladys Miller of Grand Junction Colorado quite literally by accident. She welcomed me into her home and taught me Navajo style weaving. Gladys was already well established and respected as a Navajo weaving teacher and had taught on several occasions at the Ghost Ranch educational retreat in Abiquiu.

I still can’t believe my luck in meeting up with her. What had started as a disastrous and disappointing vacation became a major turning point for me.

Under Gladys’s guidance and using Noel Bennett and Tiana Bighorn’s “Working With the Wool” I made these two samplers on one of Gladys’s looms practicing hooked and turned joints, raised outline and other techniques.

A Navajo weaver at the Hubble Trading Post taking her finished rug off the loom.

But  Navajo-style weaving techniques is not all that Gladys shared with me.

She completely immersed me in everything she knew about the Navajo people and their weaving.

Gladys had been taught by a Navajo woman, Mae Jim and has two of her rugs. Since Mae Jim’s death she has kept in close contact with her children. We did an amazing road trip through Navajo country, visiting trading posts and other historic sites as well as Mae Jim’s family on the Navajo reservation. We bought yarn, books and tools and covered so much ground – there was so much to take in – it was overwhelming and inspiring.

When I finally went back to Chile armed with warp and weft yarn, books, swords, battens and forks as well as my new weaving skills, my head was swimming with the designs of the rugs and the colors and shapes of the canyons and deserts. I had a loom made and got to work making larger samplers with finer yarns.

I worked through all my yarn, ordered more and some larger rugs followed in quick succession…

The rugs I made based on Storm Pattern, Two Grey Hills and Wide Ruins styles.

I eventually got to the bottom of my stash and just managed to piece a couple more rugs together from scraps…

A saddle blanket based on a chief blanket design and a Mexican motif made from gathering up scraps and dyeing them all the one color.

Gladys and I traveling through Monument Valley in 1996


A church we visited in Los Ojos

I returned to see Gladys in 1996. Another road trip ensued – this time to New Mexico and to visit the descendants of the original Spanish weavers in the region.

Again, Gladys shared her time, knowledge and friends with me and opened up a new world of Rio Grande weaving traditions. However, by this time I had already made my first trip to Peru and learned backstrap weaving and so South American indigenous weaving was very much on my mind. Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready to abandon my beautiful Navajo loom yet and continued to use it to weave wide pieces which I didn’t feel I could yet manage on my backstrap loom.

Two pieces employing South American pick up techniques lashed to my Navajo loom.

These are two warp-faced South American pick up pieces that I wove on the Navajo loom. Now I am spoiled with my backstrap loom and the way it allows to me increase and relax tension at will and I just don’t feel that comfortable weaving them on other looms. Yet I have to remind myself that I was perfectly happy weaving these pieces on my Navajo loom all those years ago – this will please those of you who would like to give these techniques a try but are hesitating about using a backstrap loom…

So, how did this all come about? Well we were chatting one night in the hotel room at CNCH last weekend about what our “gateway drug” into weaving was, that is, the activity that led us into weaving in the first place – were you first a knitter or a quilter or…?. It turns out that mine was mountain biking! I was in the US to do a series of canyon hikes in Utah, destroyed myself on my first day in a mountain bike accident, managed to hobble my way to a Navajo weaving exhibition while recuperating , met Gladys and there it all began – like I said, quite literally by accident.

One of Mae Jim’s granddaughters getting ready for her puberty ceremony

Well the years went by and I lost touch with Gladys but we were lucky to get back together after Gladys read my article on WeaveZine last year.

I was so excited to hear that she is still teaching, giving talks, getting together with Mae Jim’s family, leading tours and now weaving fabulous miniature rugs.

Who knows how many more people she

Gladys with one of Mae Jim’s daughters and her family

has set on the weaving journey with her energy, enthusiasm and generosity.

In fact, she sent me a photo of one of her miniatures on a C.Cactus Flower loom, a loom I had never heard of before and this now has me thinking about getting one and revisiting Navajo weaving in miniatures. You see, Gladys, you’ve done it again! THANK YOU!!

Three of Gladys’s rugs. The center one is on the C.Cactus Flower Loom – won’t take up too much room in my limited living space. I was lucky to be able to get acquainted with one at  CNCH.


A few of the backstrap woven sashes in Kathe’s collection that are used by the Russian “old believers” in the communities in Oregon.

Speaking of the conference again, I have to tell you about two other teachers that I met there. Now this was just one of those freaky meant to bekind of meetings. I wasn’t signed up for their classes but we happened to be seated together at one of the dinners and got to talking.

Kathe Todd-Hooker and Pat Spark, after our initial introductions, suddenly put two and two together and recognized me as that “backstrap blog person”. They had run into my blog while googling backstrap weaving and “Old Believers”.

And that is all that I am going to tell you for this week. Next week’s blog post will be all about what Pat and Kathe shared with me about the Russian “Old Believers”, their community in Oregon  and most of all…their beautiful backstrap woven sashes. They are doing wonderful work documenting it all. The sashes will completely blow you away! Guess what will be my next reproduction project!!

And one of the most interesting and exciting things for me is that I am sure that there is a community of these people in Santa Cruz Bolivia where I live. Once or twice a year I have spotted a few of them in the streets but no one has been able to tell me anything about them. I had to come all the way to California and have this chance meeting to find out! Kathe taught tassel-making in her final class and invited me to see her slide presentation on the ”Old Believers”.

I just can’t believe my luck sometimes! 🙂

And there is a lot of other stuff about cool weavers and spinners I met at the conference which I will share with you next week.


I have spied a blog with Becky aka Yodaknits  working on the “S” yurt band border design that I showed you all recently (pictured below). Her blog goes by the name of Knitasha Von Stashenskeins. She took weaving along on her Caribbean cruise on a picture frame loom and has since bought an inkle loom on which she wove the “S”. Check it out!

Janet, my roomie at the conference, has been weaving it on her backstrap loom, pictured at left, with fine perle cotton that looks super with its gorgeous sheen.

Becky’s “S” band woven on an inkle loom.


Finally, seeing as I have been telling you about teachers and learning experiences, I thought I would leave you with a story about a fun and unusual teaching experience I had when I went to Salasaca in Ecuador in 2005.

One of the typical supplementary warp backstrap woven belts of Salasaca and my rough charting of some of the motifs.

We gathered to learn in a store rather than at a weaver’s house and so had to improvise a few things. We warped in the yard using metal and wooden stakes and whatever else we could find lying about.

I had gone to Salasaca,  a small town in the  central highlands of Ecuador, to learn how to weave their traditional supplementary warp patterned belts on a backstrap loom. I showed them my weavings as I always do when I approach potential teachers as well as photos of my home and other weavers in Bolivia. They were pleased to have this Bolivian contact as they believe that their ancestors were originally from Bolivia and are people who were forced to come over to settle in Ecuador as part of a Spanish plan to divide and weaken communities.

Juan had never woven before while Natalia had some experience. Here they are trying warping as I had shown them on their own.

They were very interested, therefore, in learning a Bolivian weaving technique – something that their ancestors had very likely known how to do –  and so I was persuaded to teach them rather than have them teach me. They looked through my woven samples and chose pebble weave.

First, a day or so was spent respinning their chosen yarns so they would be firm enough for the backstrap loom. Then we warped up in the yard and looked for a place to tie onto in the shop. My students were 19-year old Juan, Anita’s youngest son, who for some reason had never learned to weave the tapestries on the floor looms as his older brothers had, and Natalia who had learned to weave as a teenager but who had not had much opportunity to put it into practice.

Natalia didn’t need to be taught about heddle making. She got to work making her heddles before I could stop her and tell her that we had to make new crosses on which to make them. So here she is having a good chuckle as she undoes them.

Natalia’s classes were being constantly interrupted as she had a market stall across the street. She seated herself by the  door so she could dump her loom and take off every time she saw a customer approaching. So it was Juan who made the most progress.

Juan was such a great student! I showed him how to weave a triangle, he copied that a few times and, despite my recommendations to advance more slowly, wanted to go straight on to a more diffcult hummingbird motif. Here he is sitting on sacks on the concrete floor and using, at first a piece of cloth,and then some kind of tool belt as his backstrap. There weren’t any beaters or swords about so he used sticks from the yard which he cut and shaped for his heddle sticks and swords.

Juan with his mother Anita and Natalia. You can see the looms we were using on the floor tied to the wooden post.

I told Juan which warps to pick up for his first hummingbird and then away he went! Although it wasn’t perfect, he did an amazing job of copying it. His mother, who is not a weaver, was thrilled.

And then it was time for me to leave. I wanted to leave Juan with more designs that he could continue working on so that he wouldn’t just have the hummingbird to copy. Unfortunately I didn’t have any textiles that I could leave so I bought paper and colored pencils and drew pattern charts and tried to explain how to read them and relate the pictures to what he had just woven.

He was not one bit interested in learning about my crazy charts and,  no matter how much I tried to persuade him, he just wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Well, I left them there anyway as I had a feeling that when I wasn’t around, he might just pick them up and have a look.

I am happy to say that I was able to return to Salasaca eighteen months later to find that Juan had picked up the pattern charts and woven some of the motifs, invented a few of his own and even adapted a design from one of the traditional Salasaca belts to weave in pebble weave. I was thrilled! I then had his brothers asking me to teach them. Apparently Juan wouldn’t teach them – this was “his” thing and they had their own thing – the tapestry weaving. I didn’t get to catch up with Natalia on this trip as she had taken work in the city. I am amused to think that maybe some time in the future some anthropologist will be scratching his or her head and wondering how pebble weave found its way into Salasacan weaving!


One more thing before I leave you all for this week…

Helena from Brazil, who first introduced me to the weavings of the Huni Kuin people of tropical Brazil and Peru, (you may remember that I wove a bag patterned in supplementary weft based on their motifs – at left) has sent me a link to an amazing YouTube video on these people and their weavings and it has English subtitles.

Do check it out – it’s wonderful. Thank you so much Helena for always keeping me in mind 🙂

PS…I have made a new page with links to all the videos on this blog.  A lady I met here in the US said it took her ages to find the one-weft double weave videos so now they are indexed and linked on a new page.


  1. Thats a great story about Juan, it appeals to the anarchist in me, ;-)! Those Russian backstrap weavers are interesting, I look forward to next weeks’ blog and finding out more!

    • Thanks Caroline! I can’t wait to get back to Bolivia and see what I can about the Russian Old Believers. The weave looks like Andean Pebble Weave-it has me quite baffled!

  2. This weeks episode was a pleasure to read.It proofs to me that even accidents can lead to good things. Though i have not much time for weaving at the moment I keep following every thing going on here and on weavo. Just now i am learning things i need to know for working in an office .I am following a intensive jobtraining . That is quit stressfull and reading your blog and weaving a little bit is so relaxing!
    With kind regards

    • I think proofs must be proves? sorry for that:)

  3. I look forward to learning more about the “old believers” too… my gateway hook was tablet weaving… then “Byways of weaving by Atwater” that showed me what she called “euorpean pickup” …. (as apposed to pickup on stripes that is comon in most parts of south america, sometimes called “pebble weave”). Then I did more research and came across other “latavian” sashes….. and I was caught! The desingn motives that you shown for the “old believers” is similar to a lot of the ‘baltic’ area of russia/east Europe.

    • Thanks for that info on the origin of the “old believers” sashes Sharon. If you come across European belts that are woven using this same weaving structure, I would love to know about them. Kathe has a bunch of other sashes woven with what you call “European pickup” which I will show next week. A lady I met at CNCH was kind enough to GIVE me a book on Latvian sashes and I recognize many of the motifs in there.

  4. Now I want a Navajo loom. Can’t wait for more about the Old Believers bands.

    • Hi Becky,
      Yep, I want a tiny Navajo loom too!! But then I will need yarn as well. I guess I should do it while I am here in the US or I shall regret it when I get home. What’s next on the loom for you?

  5. I love the way you can take us around the world, show lovely photos, and weave several great stories all in one blog post! Glad I figured out how to subscribe and now I won’t miss a one!

    • Hi Annie,
      Yeah my posts keep getting longer and longer! but I enjoy reliving the trips as I blog about them and it makes me remember details that I had almost forgotten.

  6. Wow, wow, wow! Thanks so much for sharing your travels with us! I live in Utah, and I’m so glad you had a chance to visit the wonderful people here. I’ll be re-reading this column several times: there’s so much to learn and enjoy. Thanks, again!

    Mary in not-so-cold-today Utah

    • Mary, I love Utah! I did manage to hike there the year before my bike accident and again the year after. There is something so special about the canyons-I almost felt like I belonged there. I am so glad you enjoyed the post and that I was able to describe your home well.

  7. Thanks for sharing your stories. And I must say Thanks for sharing yourself with us in Northern Calif. And thanks Janet for allowing this to happen. I was lucky enough to meet and spend time this weekend with Laverne at CNCH and even more fortunate to spend a whole day with her at Aunt Janet’s Fiber Mill in Whitethorn weaving. She is so delightful to be around, patient and kind and so full of weaving energy.
    I wish you well on your journey
    Peace and Harmony,

    • Hi Connie,
      The conference and this week at Janet’s have been so wonderful. Thank you for showing me your C Cactus Flower loom-toying with the idea of buying one and I got the inklettte because I as able to see yours too. I hope you still remember how to do the pebble weave and finish your band. If not my book is coming out very soon and you can get together with Janet and Jani to learn it together with the book. I’ll be back! Janet and I have some ideas going….

  8. Wonderful post! I knew about the Old Believers but hadn’t seen any textiles. Wow!

    Here is a wonderful B&W photo collections of Old Believers in Russia, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Oregon. Beautiful!

    • Wow Anne,
      Thank you so much for embedding that video here-beautiful! I looked very closely but couldn’t make out their belts. It seems there are other videos about them which I muat take a look at.

  9. How did it do that? I just copied the URL. Sorry, I didn’t mean to embed the video.

    • No problem Anne! I will embed it in my post next week just in case people miss it here.

  10. Thank you for sharing your Colorado experience about learning Navajo Weaving. I was the lucky one to teach such a gifted pupil and to travel through the country I know so well with you. Your weaving instructions are great and the pictures, too. Keep it up. Gladys

    • I wish I could have written and shown more Gladys because you have done so so much more!!!

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