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