Posted by: lavernewaddington | May 20, 2010

Backstrap Weaving- Back in Beautiful Bolivia

Back in beautiful Bolivia and already thinking about the next trip to the US for Convergence in mid July! But, first things first. In keeping with my policy of “new things in, old things out”, I have spent a few days tossing things to make room for the books and bits and pieces I brought back from the US. I do believe I have tossed out more things than I brought back – ah, more space…that is a nice feeling.

The other policy is to finish all the projects that I started on the road and I am pleased to report that I am ninety-nine percent on the way to completing them.

Project number one…the larger backstrap piece I was using for my demonstrations.

Demonstrating, finishing the pebble piece at home and the new tool bag, front and back.

Needed - one more tool bag for my new collection of shuttles. Two months ago, I didn't have a single small shuttle. Always happy for an excuse to weave something!

I had warped this up with nothing in particular in mind. I just needed something to demo with at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. This poor band had a bit of a hard life having been set up at different angles, worked under different tensions and constantly picked up, woven, and put down. My weavings always turn out better if I weave on them for a couple of hours at a time and having them tied up and worked on in the same spot helps a lot too.  In any case, I got this off the loom and decided I needed another tool bag. Anyone who saw me rummaging around in my tool bags for that “special stick” or beater will agree. This new

I wove an inkle band with designs in Andean pebble weave on a couple of road trips and at the beach.

bag should help to sort out the confusion a bit. I wove a narrow blue band which served as the sides of the tool bag. All that is left to do is make a braid and sew on a button for a closure.

Project number two…the inkle band that I wove on road trips and at the beach. I completed this with twelve spaced motifs so that I could cut the band and sew it into key fobs. It was woven in Andean pebble weave with pre-Columbian and contemporary motifs.

This was a bit fiddly as I hadn’t woven quite enough plain pebble weave at the start of some of the pieces for threading through the metal ring, turning over and sewing so I had to cheat and glue some of the ends down.

So now I have twelve purple and green fobs. To be honest, I think I prefer making two at a time on my backstrap loom as I can change color and offer people more choices but…there are those times when there isn’t anywhere to tie up a backstrap loom and I can weave on my new inklette instead.

The twelve finished key fobs.

Hmmm, seems that I was in a very purple-ish mood when I was traveling as, the third project which I was weaving to show Andean pebble weave at its simplest on a very narrow band, is in an eggplanty purple shade with apple green designs. I had no idea what to do with this band when I got home  – more key fobs? No…And then I remembered a wee twill-weave sample I had made ages ago. It is nothing special at all but it was the very first balanced weave I had ever attempted on my backstrap loom and I had gotten quite a kick out of it. It was also the first time I had ever wet finished something. I had not been in the habit of wet finishing warp faced wall hangings and shoulder bags so it was all new territory.

UPPER LEFT: The thin band. UPPER RIGHT: The twill piece on the loom. I wrapped black yarn between the warps on the loom bar in order to space them for the twill. LOWER LEFT: This little bag will hold my business cards. Many people were amused to see me carrying my cards around in an Altoids tin while I was traveling. I shall probably replace this pouch at some stage with another in pebble weave with two pockets so that I can also carry my e-monograph cards.

Yemeni knife belt

The band served as sides for the pouch as well as to decorate the center. The picture at bottom right shows two other looms with projects that I took to show in the US. You may remember having seen these in other posts and I shall be getting down to finishing these in the next few weeks. The one on the left is the supplementary weft reproduction of a pre-Columbian fragment and the other is a warp float reproduction of a yurt band. I was lugging around quite a lot of sticks and string!

So those will keep me busy for some time and I have already decided on what will probably come after that. I would love to try and reproduce the Yemeni knife belt pictured above. It has been woven with a supplementary weft with a silvery sheen and is spectacular.

Now what about those yarn experiments? I have even had time to weave a few things in Andean pebble weave with two of the yarns I purchased in the US.

I got this Patons Grace yarn at Michael's-yikes! purple again! What can I say?-there wasn't a good color choice. On their site, Paton's decribes this yarn as super soft or ultra soft and I would not have bought it based on that description as soft yarn and warp faced weaving don't usually get on. I wove two key fobs with it and it is lovely. Zero pilling on the heddles and, being mercerized, it has a lovely sheen. It is a number 3 crochet yarn. These photos show how I make my keyfobs two to a warp so that both fobs have a clean edge. I weave one, then turn the loom around and rearrange the shed stick. I retie the knots at the other end so that they are right at the start of the weaving. When finished, the knots are untied and those ends get passed through the end loops once the metal needle is removed.

A few more pictures showing the weaving process and the two fobs on the loom. The finished fobs are at bottom right along with two others I made using Coats Royale number 3 mercerized crochet cotton also from Michael's - not many colors to choose from for this brand either. I would buy it from the website. Thumbs up for this yarn too.

I have a finer number 10  merc cotton, also by Coats, to try out for next week and not in purple as well as some wool. People often ask me about respinning commercial wool for backstrap weaving so we can take a look at that too.

Other tempting project ideas that have been appearing in my inbox are pictures of belts and bags woven by the Huichol of Mexico as well as drawings of motifs woven by the Cayapa of Ecuador.

Teyacapan, too, continues to inspire me with her gorgeous photos of Mexican crafts and textiles.


Now it has occurred to me that this blog has been filled with images of the US the last few weeks and that it was about time I showed you all a little of Bolivia. I recently contributed some photos and information to Handwoven for a piece they wrote on Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, and its attractions for tourism related to weaving. How frustrating it was having to narrow down the images to just three or four pictures! In May last year,  I went to Sucre for what was probably my fourth visit but, this time, I went with my brand new and first ever digital camera.

So here is a little whirlwind photo tour of Sucre…

Sucre, the "White City of the Americas"

Sucre sits in a valley at around 3500 meters and it is obvious how it earned its nickname. From the hill tops to down at street level, both inside and out, Sucre is white – almost blindingly so in the mid morning sun! Wooden enclosed balconies adorn most of the downtown buildings as well as black wrought iron window coverings and flower filled window boxes. It has quite rightly been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site.

The most well known weavings of the area are made by the Jalq'a people of Potolo, upper left, whose textiles depict wild mythical creatures which completely cover the woven surface. Those made by the people of Tarabuco, on the other hand, have designs that are placed in well organized columns and depict common every day objects and events. These textiles are woven by the women on oblique looms while the men weave the brightly colored tapestries, lower right, on floor looms.

More examples….

Weavers from Tarabuco and Potolo demonstrate weaving at the ASUR museum in the heart of the city and it is also possible to travel to the town of Tarabuco or, further, to the villages of Candelaria and Potolo to see weavers at work and purchase their textiles.

Shopping! Traditional weavings and knits from floor to ceiling as well as items produced with traditional based designs for tourists.

More shopping...the Sunday market in Tarabuco, a couple of hours away, is a textile lover's heaven. Again, you can find traditional pieces as well as weavings made specifically for tourists. At bottom right you can see one of the market stalls in the Sucre campesino market where you can buy llama fiber, spindles, cochineal and bone weaving tools called "wichunas".

People in and around Sucre...weavers from Tarabuco and Potolo, a woman spinning in Tarabuco on her way home from the market with her granddaughter wrapped in her carrying cloth, an elderly Tarabuqueno wearing the leather hat or "montero" which is said to be based on old European style helmets, men performing ritual offerings to "pachamama" on Sunday morning in a plaza in downtown Sucre.

A visit with Felicia and her mother in the village of Candelaria. Felicia's cousin, also called Felicia, taught me to weave the pick up technique of Tarabuco way back in 1998. She and her family have long since left Candelaria and I was lucky to run into her cousin who welcomed me into her home to sit and watch her weaving. I took weavings and photos to show and her mother, who is not a weaver, was delighted looking at my things.

I have spent many years traveling around and spending time with weavers here in South America. It is not so easy finding a weaving teacher especially in the cities and not all my attempts to learn to weave have been entirely successful. One thing is finding the weaver, another is finding one who has the time to teach you and, lastly, finding one who is also a good teacher is something else all together.  I have almost always found a good weaver and teacher with some time to spare within a few days of my arrival in a place.

Typical textiles of the Tarabuco area.

On my second trip to Sucre in 1998, I found that I had enough time to look for a weaving teacher. The museum in Sucre had given me the name of a weaver in Candelaria but I bumped into  Felicia while I was waiting for transport from Tarabuco to Candelaria ,we struck up a conversation and she persuaded me to come and weave with her instead. I doubt that Felicia herself knew what she was letting herself in for when she took on the task of teaching me to weave. Youngsters generally learn by observation rather than through explanation and Felicia seemed to have long forgotten which designs she had learned first, how difficult it was to learn from scratch, and I doubt that she had contemplated how time consuming and possibly boring it would be sitting for hours with me and having to help me along with every little thing!

The first classes...Felicia would sit at her loom picking up her pattern warps on a metal needle. All I could see was the long end of the needle flicking to and fro as it emerged from her fist. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how she was forming and reading the patterns. Finally I was able to persuade her to set up a miniature warp for me on another loom and picked out the simplest design I could find from a book I had bought at the museum. I was being a stubborn gringa and I wanted her to teach me MY way.

Here are the loom and mini warp that Felicia set up for me in the yard . But things still did not go well...Felicia still flicked her needle around, sighed with impatience when I didn't get it and rolled her eyes at my questions! Finally I figured that I could slip the warp off the loom bars at night when everyone was asleep. I tied the warp to my bed rail, set myself up with my backstrap and unwove. In a couple of nights, I got it figured out and once I had made a chart of the motif, I was on my way. I decide after that, that I would leave the weaving classes and just enjoy my stay in the village. There was no transport out anyway until the market day the following Sunday.

So I joined in with Felicia's chores instead and learned a few things. I am sure she was relieved that I had suddenly stopped asking for lessons and no questions were asked! We made bread. I am eternally grateful that she didn't have me get my hands into the dough which was made with globs of pig fat from a sack in the corner-that apparently was grandma's job. She showed me how to peel wafer thin slivers of skin off their tiny potatoes with a knife and get the kitchen fire going. Can you tell I am a city girl? I also learned how to use the stone to grind the chili peppers to make 'llajua"-a spicy sauce which she served with the bolied potatoes. Then there were the neighborhood kids to mind. I would go out for walks with a long train of them behind me.

Somehow we ended up hitting it off and I finally showed her the motifs I had been secretly weaving at night. She was pretty happy about that but did not praise me by calling me “machita” as my other weaving teachers had. Probably not surprising as you can see at left all that I managed to weave in a week!

The white yarn used in the background area  is a highly overspun cotton. You can see how the heddle strings, which are made from the same yarn, are curling up on themselves with the overtwist. The pattern warp is overspun acrylic-about three times thicker than the ground weave and not as tightly spun.

We just used twigs from the yard for the shed rod and heddle stick.

I was very surprised to receive a phone call from Felicia’s husband when I returned to Santa Cruz telling me that he had sent me a package by bus. Inside was a chuspa (coca leaf bag) and a wichuna which belonged to Felicia’s mother. Wow! I wonder if Felicia took on any other gringa students after I left!

The bread oven in Felicia's yard. A piece I wove using the technique I learned during my stay in Candelaria. I used the same weight yarn for both the pattern and background colors which gives it a very different look.


Two hair sashes that I had bought in the market at Chichicastenango. I particularly liked the one on the right in its soft autumn colors. I later discovered that it was originally woven in bright primary colors and then overdyed to suit the taste of foreigners. I have been told that sometimes textiles are simply soaked in tea to tone down the colors. Now I would like to wash this band and recover the orignal hues.

One of the things I enjoyed a lot on this trip to the US, was the chance to play on other looms. I had a great time on what I had been calling my “first encounter” with a four-shaft loom but I had completely forgotten the quirky little four- shaft/backstrap loom that I had woven on in Zunil, Guatemala.

While staying in Guatemala’s second largest city of Quetzltenango, I heard about the hair sash weavers of Zunil and the strange four shaft loom that the weavers used.

The warp is attached to and tensioned by the weaver’s body.

I was intrigued by the loom but also keen on learning how to make the lovely sashes.

Zunil is a twenty-minute bus ride from Quetzltenango and I arrived to market day madness. You can see some of the women there using their hair sashes. A short walk uphill brought me to the relatively peaceful town square and church where I found the weaving cooperative. There I was politely told that classes would not be possible as women were not permitted to weave during Semana Santa (Holy Week). Disappointed, I left, only to be chased down the street by a woman who told me she would take me to a teacher. And so I was led up the hill to Clara’s house which had a gorgeous view over the town and surrounding valley. We negotiated the price and when I questioned the Semana Santa thing I was simply told that “some people get jealous”.

So here is the rickety and very squeaky loom. The warp stretches from the weaver's waist through the reed and shafts around a hook in the door frame, back to the weaver's waist via another hook in the side of the loom. The warp is cotton which is sized with something that smells truly awful - corn starch and other ingredients - and the weft is acrylic. The reed is made from bicycle spokes.

Amazing to think that a weaver using such a loom can produce these beautiful even sashes.

The band on the left is what I wove in my classes. An experienced weaver using exactly the same warp and weft would produce those fine, narrow bands on the right. The sashes are finished with large heavy tassels.

So that was my first four-shaft loom experience. Here are the loom parts that I bought in the hope of making my own one day. Clara was an excellent weaver and teacher.


In the coming week on Weavolution I will be running a Weave Along. This will be for those of you who have been working their way through my e-monograph on Andean Pebble Weave and are wanting to extend their skills and  weave a wider piece. It is also for those who have purchased the monograph but have been feeling a bit hesitant about getting started. Join in and weave with the group!


  1. Gorgeous weavings! Both yours and the Bolivian weavers’. Sucre looks like a beautiful place to visit.

  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Sucre is a weaving attack! unlike here in Santa Cruz where I live. Fortunately I have been there often enough now so I just look and take pictures and don’t buy. However, Sucre is also known for its handmade chocolates……

  3. As always Laverne, a wonderful and informative post. Many thanks. Will be returning to Nicaragua next week so count me in for participation in the Weave Along! Happy weaving.

    • Great! Some folks are starting tomorrow but anyone can join in at any time. I am sure that we will be playing with this for some time to come! Have a good trip back.

  4. Hi, Laverne.
    I also have been to the weaving co-op in Zunil. The inside is full of color! and the deck had a wonderful view. I bought some yarn there in fabulous colors, but it is so fine compared to what I usually use. Now I am inspired to dig it out and do something with it.

    • Hi Annie!
      I got yarn there too. I was going to build myself a four shaft squeaky loom and weave sashes-hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps I should just get the yarn out and use it for something else as you are planning. Aha! I see you are on wordpress now!

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