Posted by: lavernewaddington | August 27, 2010

Backstrap Weaving – Vietnamese Hilltribe Weavers in North Carolina


The colors and motifs of the Jarai and Rhade tribes of Vietnam have found their way into my work this week thanks to an amazing visit with two of these Montagnard weavers in North Carolina during the end of my US visit. Montagnard is the name that the French gave to the various hilltribes of Vietnam.

I have had to resist writing about all my fun fiber adventures with my good weaving buddies Lisa and Maurice during my stay in North Carolina and limit this post as much as I can to the two wonderful afternoons we spent with master weavers Ju Nie and Nach Rahlan.

Unfortunately on this trip I didn’t really have time to dawdle in North Carolina but we did manage to pack a whole lot of activity into my short time there.

When not warping four-shaft looms, backstrap weaving, spinning and wrestling with sheets of felt, we went blueberry picking, hung out with the family, made s’mores (first time for me, okay they weren’t made over a campfire but they were still gooood!) and spent time with Maurice who made this warping board and beaters for us to play with.

Lisa makes beautiful felt pieces like the one here on the left. She took me through the steps to making my own simple piece on the right. Mine has an animal on it too but not a felted one! I had made felt before when I lived in Chile. Now I realize, thanks to Lisa, that I hadn’t felted it enough and that explains why I have to give it a haircut every now and then. Photos of the fun and physically demanding process will be in next week’s blog post!!

We gathered a group of friends for a day of backstrap weaving. Renate here is showing off her warp while Lisa works on a yurt band design in two-color simple warp floats.

We warped up Lisa’s four-shaft loom to weave a guitar strap patterned with designs in Andean pebble weave. I will have more pictures of this next week too.

And as if that wasn’t enough….

The highlight of this visit was the trip we made to spend time with the Montagnard weavers. I was lucky to have been able to make contact with Betsy Renfrew, at left with weaver Nach Rahlan, some weeks before leaving Bolivia for this US trip. She invited me to her home where she and her husband Andrew arranged for us to meet two of the Montagnard weavers with whom she has been working. Read about Betsy and Andrew and their goals for working with the weavers here.

The first day was a “show and tell”. Maurice, Lisa and I took examples of our own fiber projects to share with weavers Ju Nie of the Rhade tribe and and Nach Rahlan of the Jarai tribe. Ju Nie’s husband Thomas Tlur Eban acted as Ju Nie’s translator at the times when she struggled to express herself in English while Nach’s English was a lot more fluent. I have to say that I was quite nervous on the drive there. Betsy had told me about Ju Nie’s lack of English fluency and had also mentioned that Ju and Nach were from two tribes that did not particularly get on. I envisioned a very awkward gathering with difficult communication and perhaps a cold stoniness between the two weavers. This couldn’t have been further from the truth!

The room virtually exploded from the very start with lots of excited chatter and movement. We were a group of weavers sharing our mutual passion!

I showed my backstrap loom, woven pieces and tools to a fascinated Ju. Lisa took her spindles and soon had both Nach and Thomas trying them out. Maurice showed several of his own floor loom pieces and explained shibori weaving.

And then it was our turn to be shown. The room that was already packed with eight people, filled to overflowing as enormous looms, blankets, skirts, carrying cloths, bags and straps were brought in to cover the floor and every available space. It was overwhelming and it was hard to concentrate on any one piece and hold back the urge to touch and examine everything at once.

Nach brought in her large loom and unravelled it to reveal one of the panels for a traditional skirt that she is weaving. The design panels on this piece are decorated with motifs woven with supplementary wefts.

The supplementary weft patterning technique used is the same as that described here. It is a single faced technique and both Ju and Nach were delighted to see Bolivian examples of this. Above you can see how panels of blankets and skirts are often joined using single columns of cross knit looping which I am used to seeing here in Bolivia in double and triple columns to edge coca leaf bags and other items. The lower picture shows simple warp float patterning where single warps are floated over a background of horizontal bars to create this striking pattern.

The most astonishing pieces for me were the ones decorated with a twining technique called kteh. Seen in the example on the right, red and white threads are twined around the fringes at the end of large woven pieces to form intricate patterns and then adorned with beads.On the left you can see gun and airplane motifs which often appear among geometric, human and animal figures.

More fabulous examples of the kteh work.

The weavers have lately been making shoulder bags to sell and experimenting with traditional and non traditional color combinations. They weave straps for the bags placing two warps on the loom at a time (picture at left) as they are not used to weaving such narrow pieces on their enormous looms. Having two bands on the loom at once helps balance things out. At left you can see the tiny temple fashioned from a piece of bamboo much the same as that used by the weavers in coastal Ecuador with whom I studied.

Words and phrases are also woven into the bag straps. Some of these appear to be lines from scripture and a google translation turned up such words as “peace” and “wisdom”

Ju here is showing us how to wrap the baby carrying cloth. This piece was more warp dominant than truly warp faced and profusely patterned with suplementary wefts.

I was coaxed into donning the traditional skirt and blouse. At right is a photo in Ju’s home of young girls in similar costume wearing woven headbands.

Ju, Nach and myself wearing one of the skirts. It felt beautiful on but it beats me how they manage to keep them up as they don’t wear a belt. It is simply gathered and tucked. And just in case you are wondering, I am not tall! At right another gorgeously patterned garment with warp float patterns and kteh edging.

So, that was day one! I have no idea how much time we spent there but the time just flew by and I arrived home thinking, why didn’t I take a closer photo of that and how did I forget to ask about this? I am very grateful to Maurice  and Lisa who took photos when I was not able and allowed me to use some of theirs.

Are you ready for day two?

Day two found us at Ju Nie’s home where she was set up and ready to warp. Ju’s husband builds all her tools and he has made her a very nice warping arrangement which fits conveniently in the house beside the bed to which she attaches her backstrap loom. It reminds me of my situation here at home where I weave attached to my bed and warp on the floor nearby.

The warping set up. Five posts are used. One post, the second from the right, acts only as a measure around which the heddle strings are wound. Ju encloses the warps in continuous string heddles as she winds the warp. I was tickled to see that she uses Aunt Lydia’s number 10 mercerized crochet cotton as I have done and uses this same yarn for her string heddles.

In the blink of an eye Ju was off and warping and it was very hard to keep up. Not wanting to interrupt her, as I know how important it is to concentrate when warping, I struggled to follow her quick movements which at first weren’t making sense to me. I had mistakenly thought that the cross was that shown in the upper right hand photo but later realized that it wasn’t. My sketch of the process had to be frequently modified until I finally caught up with her.

Ju makes a circular warp and uses two strands of yarn at once much the same as I do in my four stake warping, separating out the doubled threads only around the cross post and at the place where she pulled the string heddles through. The cross shown above is made of doubled threads and serves as the place where she later inserts her “rolling stick” or “coil rod” as it is sometimes known.

Her movement with the string heddles was so quick that only after having studied the video I had made multiple times am I able to follow it and reproduce it on my warping board here at home. All the warp ends where color changes occur are tied in slip knots which are untied and retensioned once on the loom. This results in an intimidating mess of yarn ends and even the heddles looked loose, uneven and scary! Of course eveything was under control!

Ju was kind enough to let me try warping. I would never let anyone touch my warp!! She, however, took control of the heddle string at each pass but I was slowly coming to understand what was going on.

Warping finished, safety ties were added to the warp and it was slipped off the warping stakes and the rolling stick was put in place. Ju closed the end “cross” around the rolling stick and then put the main loom bar in place which was attached to her bed, just like mine!

Ikat weavers that I have seen in Ecuador told me that the rolling stick helps stop their warps from slipping and blurring their design. I have seen other weavers use it to help space the warps. I imagine it also stops the warp threads from slipping in together as they often do on the far loom bar and keeps them in order.

The weaver’s loom bar seen at left has prongs around which the backstrap cords pass. The sword has a hooked end which is used for picking up threads for patterning. All these pieces have been fashioned by Ju’s husband Thomas. Ju had warped a sample band for us to witness the process. Her loom is normally used for much wider pieces which explains how oversized and unwieldly everything looks.

The thick roll against which Ju braces her feet then had to be placed at just the right distance. Having something against which to brace one’s feet is a big help. I have sheets of wood under my bed which serve this purpose and this helps spread the load of tensioning the warp between one’s back and legs. Once Ju had untied the knots in the warps ends and retensioned the warps, she sent Thomas out into the yard to cut some thin bamboo sticks which she inserted in the sheds to get the weaving underway. She then carefully moved each and every warp into place with the point of a stick before passing the first weft.

Ju opens the heddles by grabbing hold of the shed roll and a bamboo slat which she places on top of the warp. She then rolls both away from her while pulling up on the heddles.When I use a second cross in my warp, I use this method by rolling the shed rod and the second cross stick together. I enjoyed showing Ju another way that I use to open my heddles by rolling them over my hand. At first she was anxious to show me that I was doing something wrong but then saw that it worked and laughed, pointing and saying “new way”. Her shuttle is a simple stick around which the weft yarn is wrapped. These photos were taken by Maurice Blackburn.

I was dying to get into the loom and finally asked Ju’s permission to do so.

What a wonderful birthday gift! A day spent with a master backstrap weaver! There I am happy as a baby. The picture at right shows my view up the warp!

We went home with images spinning in our brains! It wasn’t until I got back to Bolivia that I sat down and went through my notes and sketches, watched the videos and managed to sort it all out. I bought a 12 ft long band from Ju that she had intended using as straps for many bags but was happy to part with. I liked this piece as it gave me many examples of the motifs that they weave with warp floats. I was able to examine it to figure out the technique. This is a new one for me! And so, to work. I wanted to reproduce the structure and make something useful.

First to sample. I could see that Ju’s white and red warps had a 3:2 weight ratio but I wanted to see if I could get away weaving it 1:1.

In the photo on the left, Ju’s band is the one on the right. My first 1:1 sample is on the left and my second sample, in the middle, where I also used a 3:2 weight ratio looked far better than my first attempt.

So I went ahead and wove more motifs on this sample band until I was convinced that I had the technique down. I decided to weave a wider piece so I could make a couple of zippered pouches and tried to copy the traditional colors used by my new weaver friends as much as possible. Here is the piece I made on the loom. By cutting between the two white horizontal bands in the center I woud have two pieces which I could fold and sew into bags.

Here is the piece off the loom, then cut and folded. I sewed two lines of stitches in the center of the piece and cut between the two.

I sewed a single column of cross knit looping along the edges of the larger of the two bags as Ju and Nach also use this for decorative finishes.

Here are the two bags with zips in place and braided zip pulls. I had yet to sew the other edge of cross knit looping when I took this picture as I wasn’t convinced about using it at all.

Once the bags were made (I kept the cross knit looping in the end and really like it), I decided that I would try to make something using the blue and black color combination that Ju and Nach also use in a lot of their pieces. I warped up for a band in these colors wide enough to make a cellphone case and chose some motifs from my photos.

I had trouble settling on the colors for this band and had to pull out warps and replace them once it was on the loom. I decided to keep it very plain and dress it up later with cross knit looping.

Here it is finished. I am not sure about working the cross knit looping on the flap as well.

And here is the set almost finished. I would like to put a cord on the cell phone pouch but would like to ask Betsy if she knows if Ju and Nach use any particular kinds of braids in their work so I can use the same.

I can’t thank Betsy and Andrew enough for making this visit possible. The work they have done teaching English to the members of this community and documenting these traditional techniques and processes is wonderful. Together they are building a blog which will document this journey.

I hope that I will be able to contribute something to this project by perhaps helping with the documentation work or maybe helping to develop small woven products that the weavers can sell. This was part of my reason for experimenting with these bags. The other part of the reason was my insatiable curiosity and love of the backstrap loom and traditional techniques! Betsy hopes to inspire younger people in the community to want to learn the traditional weaving techniques.

This article gives further insight into Betsy’s work with Ju Nie and you can view a stunning photo essay on Jue Nie at her loom here.

And once again, the “worldwide weaving guild” that is the internet has led me  to a new weaving acquaintance, Susan Stem, who lives in northern Thailand and who has generously allowed me to use this image of a Rhade loin cloth which has the twined kteh technique.

Let me leave your here with what Jennifer has made on her inkle loom using Andean pebble weave technique.

She has a really nice inkle loom which has plenty of space in front to have the two string heddles controlling the pebble sheds, allows her to use the saver cord and she uses the loom’s heddles to form her picking cross.


  1. I have forwarded this comment to Betsy. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your clothing retail experience.


    • Hello!!!
      My name is Brandon Markle. I am a student at Albion College in Michigan. This semester I took a class on Native North American Art. In our vault, we had numerous, albeit unfortunately unidentified, pieces from all over the country. One of our donors had passed, after which he bequeathed a generous portion of his collection, which was amass with undocumented Native American objects. For this class, we were allowed to select from a number of beautiful pieces 4 semi-related pieces. Because I appreciate the fabric arts so much, I chose four woven bags. They are brightly-colored shoulder bags adorned with various motifs. I had one problem though: EVERY search (trust me, I spent days and nights trying to identify these) yielded nothing. It took me some time to get acquainted with the process and build my vocabulary, mostly because of this incredible encyclopedia you’ve created – also because you were listed fairly highly on EVERY Google search. I also conducted extensive seed research as the bags are adorned with seeds. However, my knowledge of seeds was on par with my knowledge of weaving, and I was looking for a needle in a hay stack. At any rate, I finally came upon this page and the bags are nearly identical in design (although the bands on all of my bags are oriented horizontally and there are metal and silk strands attached). I was unable to find a bag with straps forming the two sides of the bag attached to two faces. The tassels from the straps even continue below It was not only the design, it was also the Job’s tears. I had neglected to look into them because I was convinced that these bags were adorned with pine nuts, and possibly of Peruvian origin. I am leaning with almost complete certitude towards these not being Peruvian. I assume you are quite busy – what with all of these enlightening posts and adventures – but I have pictures of these bags I would love to send you for some advice. I have worked so hard to identify these VERY old items, and it’s sad that I’ll have to begin working on something else now. Please let me know, and continue this great site!!!

  2. Thanks, Laverne, for sharing your adventures with Ju and friends. Great pictures and beautiful weaving!


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