Posted by: lavernewaddington | September 10, 2010

Backstrap Weaving – Loops, braids and edgings

The tajibos have finished blooming and now the city is splashed with the red flowers of the ceibo, the national flower of Argentina, which grows equally well here in Santa Cruz attracting all kinds of small birds to noisily feast on its nectar.

And once again we are experiencing heat, smoke and humidity after a five-day lull where rain preceded low temperatures and provided perfect conditions for Anna from The Netherlands and her boyfriend Alistair to come down from the highlands to visit.

Many backpackers abandon the cold and dry highlands for a few days of sun, swimming pools and lazy afternoons swinging in hammocks in jungly lowland Santa Cruz but Anna and Alistair were quite relieved to find cooler more pleasant conditions. They have been riding their bicycles since May 2008 starting in Alaska and plan to finish their journey in Tierra del Fuego at the very end of the Pan American Highway in February next year.

Occasionally they leave their bikes behind for a side trip here and there and so, after having crossed the Salar de Uyuni by bicycle and taken some spectacular photos including some of their campsite on the salt on the night of a full moon, they took a bus to Potosi and on to Sucre  before flying in to Santa Cruz.

Anna had taken backstrap weaving classes in Huancayo, and after having found my blog, we started corresponding. She proposed getting together to weave. She seemed so unsure of her route and movements…one moment she was coming from La Paz and then the next from Salta, Argentina… that I really didn’t believe she would make it.

But I know how it is. I am guilty of making grand plans to visit many people when I go to the US only to run out of time and money. I also know how difficult it is to keep to a schedule when one is backpacking. So, of course, I was pleased and surprised when I got her mail saying that they were on their way. It was a four-day visit and we crammed as much fiber fun as we could into that time and my small living space while Alistair, who happens to be Australian, went to the stadium to see a football game with my boyfriend and educated him on the finer points of Australian Rules football.

Day one was a chance to brush up on warping and shed making for Andean pebble weave. Anna’s teacher in Huancayo, at her urging, had warped up a long band and so Anna had only had the opportunity to see the warping process once. When I had studied there, I came away with at least four short bands and so had been able to practice warping quite a lot. I was tickled to see that Anna had downloaded my Andean Pebble Weave book and had been carrying its pages in her bicycle panniers.

Anna learns how to pick up the warps to form patterns in pebble weave.

The band on which she learned in Huancayo just happened to have been set up for eight revolution motifs and so she was able to weave many of the patterns from my book while on the road. While with me she practiced making the sheds the “Huancayo” way that I show in the appendix in my book.

Now she has several warps to take along for the rest of her trip and I supplied her with wider patterns to weave. She now has the technique totally under control and I am expecting to see pictures of some beautiful bands and especially of her weaving in some spectacular places between here and Ushuaia.

They are heading to beautiful southern Chile and Argentina and will probably pass through or very near to Punta Arenas on the southern tip of the continent where I spent my first five years in South America.

Anna brought some colorful weavings that she had bought in Sucre and Tarabuco – a tapestry weave bag, another in a complementary warp weave and a striped warp faced plain weave unku, a short poncho-like man’s garment only worn now for festivals.

She also bought a bag with the typical red and black weavings of Potolo as well as a double weave belt which prompted her to want to learn this technique.

Above she is learning the basic steps of double weave while weaving some simple triangles. We made some more warps and copied some more complex charts for her to take away.

At my request, Anna had gone to the campesino market in Sucre and got me some drop spindles and llama bone beaters called wichuñas here in Bolivia and rukis in Peru. In the picture on the right you can see a “new” wichuña after having been boiled and cleaned on the right. The middle one has had some use and is already changing color from having been handled a lot and the one on the left has taken on a nice dark polished sheen from many years of use.

When first bought in the market, the wichuñas are really quite disgusting with scraps of meat and sinew still attached. They are not so bad in the very dry atmosphere of the high plains but once down here in humid Santa Cruz, they are not at all pleasant and need to go into a pot and be boiled before they can be considered tolerable!

I have a lot of llama fiber here at home and recently got some alpaca from the US so, of course, Anna got a quick lesson in spinning on a drop spindle and took some fiber away for the trip.

And…to finish it all off we did some braiding so that Anna could put a nice finish on her Huancayo band. I dragged out my journal to teach her a six-strand flat braid that I hadn’t made for a long time. Thank goodness I have recorded everything I have learned with diagrams and directions.

I  had forgotten about this braid and decided to revive it by using it as the zipper pull on my new blue tool bag.

It was a fun few days of weaving, spinning, braiding and chatting. I lived ten months in a backpacker hostel when I first came to live in Santa Cruz and used to teach weaving to many foreigners who were passing through town. It has been many years since I have done that. We learned from each other and this is one of the things that Anna taught me…

One of Anna’a gifts to me…a bunch of bicycle spokes! I have been using steel knitting needles and piano wire (in the upper part of the photo) to create my third selvedge on my weavings and struggling to find things that weavers can easily get hold of and use. I used to suggest cut down coat hanger wire which is really a bit on the thick side, but bicycle spokes are perfect!! I think that even the smallest town must have a bicycle repair place or somewhere where spokes can be purchased.

Anna and Alistair are back on the road now and riding, if I am not mistaken, by back roads into Argentina. You can start reading about their adventures and enjoying their photos here.

So I had dug the old journal out to brush up on the six-strand finger loop braid and while flicking through stopped on the page with my cross knit looping diagrams and instructions for other edgings and finishes and decided it was  time to brush up on some of these forgotten techniques. So you will be seeing some of those appearing in my projects in the next few weeks.

It seems that I had gone a little cross knit looping mad after I first learned the technique in Potosi back in 1997. The woven cover of my journal is edged with it and even some of the pages within. Pretty much anything with an edge got looped!

Triple columns of cross knit looping on the edge of a felt pouch I made many years ago. The button is piece of gourd from Peru. On the right is a page from my journal where I describe different bands, braids and finishes and have worked cross knit looping along the edge.

I always did triple columns as that is what I had been taught in Potosi and never thought to experiment with any other way until recently when I saw that the Montagnard weavers use single columns of this looping to decorate edges as well as to join two pieces of fabric together.

At left, the Montagnard weavers have used this technique to join the side of a bag to the main body. They work it in sections of various colors. I used it in the same way to decorate the edges of some small pouches I recently made.

I was keen to try it as a joining stitch to join two pieces of fabric side by side. I had woven a narrow table runner some time ago and, as it wasn’t being used, I decided to cut it in half and use it for my joining stitch experiment.

I think the joining stitch goes well as its form mimics the comb design that I had originally woven into this piece of fabric.

Above left is the front of the fabric. At first, I ended up with a not particularly attractive column of diagonal stitches on the back. Unless the diagonal stitches are exactly the same length and at the same angle they just look untidy and I unhappily pulled out the stitching and redid it several times. I then  looked at an article by Lila O’Neale which contained a diagram showing how the looping can be worked simultaneously on the back of the fabric and so that is what I did. The photo above right shows the back with its row of looped stitches and I am much happier with the way that looks.

And now…finally a tool bag long enough to fit my longest shuttles and a few of my medium sized beaters.

Then I wanted to try it out as a decorative stitch in the middle of a piece of fabric rather than along the edge…

Here it has a different appearance to the work on my tool bag. On the tool bag the looping had to hold two pieces of fabric together and so the “legs” of the stitches had to be spaced widely in order to span the two pieces of cloth. In the example above, they did not.

I have to thank Sue Prior of the Online Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers for kindly giving me the link to the Lila M O’Neale article on Peruvian needle knitting which proved to be so very helpful. Sue is part of a Peruvian Textile Study Group in the Cambridgeshire Guild in the UK and a very interesting article about the group’s studies was published in the Journal  for Weavers Spinners and Dyers this summer. In this group Sue has managed, amongst other  things, to needle knit some three-dimensional figures using this looping technique. An article on this technique also appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Interweave’s Piecework magazine and was more recently re printed in Interweave’s Knitting Traditions magazine.

My aim is to be able to work many columns of stitches flat incorporating color changes and pre Columbian patterns.

While investigating on the net I found this short slide show of the work being done by a Chilean artist to make jewelry with this looping technique – beautiful!

And on re reading the artcile on the Peruvian Textile Study Group I see that Peruvian knitters are also using the versatile bicycle spokes, in this case as knitting needles.

After some more rummaging through my gigantic journal, I found my directions for a nice two-color edging that I was taught by my sling braiding teacher in Peru and so out came another table runner for a refresher on this technique.

The cradle of the sling that I made with my teacher in Peru is edged with a two color looped stitch. Above that you can see the stitch on the edge of my table runner.

I think it makes a really nice finish for this table runner. The central band is a balanced double weave piece.

Some instructions for this two-color edging…

I am right handed and was taught to hold the fabric wrong side up with the edge on the right. The two threads will be on two needles.

  • With color one sew an “X”  which sits along the edge and bring your needle and thread back up to the wrong side of the fabric as shown.
  • Sew a small stitch into the wrong side of the fabric with color two to anchor the thread before passing it under the “X” formed by color one (the needle does not pierce the fabric as it passes under the “X”)  and bring it back out to the wrong side as shown.
  • Color two will have formed an “X” in this path. Color one then passes under the “X” formed by color two and so on.

My mind is swirling with ideas….! Now I am thinking that I might decorate the piece of felt that I made with my friend Lisa on my last visit to North Carolina with this looping technique. I just have to find the right design.

Lisa is a skilled felter and was kind enough to give me a chance to learn a little about the technique when I was visiting her. I had made felt many years ago in Chile, following instructions in the Ashford spinning book, rolling it around on the kitchen floor and taking all the color out of the plastic tile!  I had not felted my piece enough and had no idea about what a physical activity it was!

First we chose colors and laid out the wool in five or six thin layers. As there wasn’t enough colored wool we used a white base.

Shapes are cut and placed and then the whole thing gets covered with a piece of tulle and sprayed with hot water and detergent. We then rubbed the surface through the tulle adding more hot soapy water as needed.

When we were satisfied that felting was underway and that the various design elements were clinging sufficiently to each other and the base, the fun began!

The piece had to be rolled so we both sat on benches facing each other, put on some jolly music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and rolled away stopping now and then to unroll, turn the piece and re roll. Then came a lot of folding, slamming and pummeling. The piece was rinsed and tossed onto the roof of the shed to dry. 

Back home in Bolivia, my cat has still not decided if she wants to let this luxurious felt piece go. I am not particularly in love with the design I made and so will most likely turn it over and use the white side to create some kind of applique and embroidered design – something inspired by a South American textile no doubt!

I have just about caught up on all pending projects. The guitar strap came off the backstrap loom, all six feet of it and so there will definitely be some left overs to sew up into something.

And here are those blue bags again. I sold the original two and made up two more from the piece I warped up for demonstrations at Convergence. My belt shuttles and sticks once again have a home. You can see the six-strand finger loop braid on the left that I used for the zipper pull. My weaving teacher in Potosi taught me this braid which we used to make a strap for the chuspa I wove with her.

Online weaving friends have been posting pictures in the forums…

Amber has been studying simple warp float techniques weaving both single and two-color motifs and inventing some patterns of her own. I like her two color “S” on the background of horizontal bars.

Amber dove into the deep end earlier this year and wove mug rugs on a backstrap loom following my one-weft double weave tutorial as her first backstrap weaving project and is now weaving simple warp float bands on an inkle loom which allows her to weave in a more confined space.

Marydargie is continuing to follow the lessons in my Andean Pebble Weave book and is also working on an inkle loom producing great-looking bands.

I have a new project in mind for next week which involves charting, which, fortunately, I love so I will be down on the floor once again with paper and colored pencils to see what I can work out. I am very excited about a design I have found and can’t wait to weave it.

Finally, helloooooo out there to Anna and Alistair. I hope you are enjoying smooth riding where ever you are!

Alistair is from Adelaide and Anna now makes her home there too so perhaps we will meet again on my next trip to Australia.

I will leave you all with some gorgeous shots from Anna and Alistair’s time in the hotspring and salt lake region on the Chilean/Bolivian border…The little animal is a viscacha and is one of the motifs in my pebble weave book.


  1. Thanks, Laverne, for another interesting and inspiring post. Now on to my backstrap and inkle looms.
    Connie in No. Calif

  2. Dear Laverne,
    I am fascinated by your works and travels!
    I’m an Italian weaver and I’ve never tried a backstrap loom (I use a 4-shaft countermarch), but it looks so interesting! I love so much all the historical ad geographical information you put in your posts, too!
    Thank you,

  3. […] may remember my blog post about Anna who came to visit and learn backstrap weaving with me here in Bolivia. She and boyfriend […]

  4. Estimada Sra. Laverne,
    En primer lugar, me gustaría felicitarte por tu maravilloso blog. Aquí hay una gran cantidad de información y es todavía un espacio de difusión de la cultura de nuestra querida América Latina.
    Mi nombre es Rodrigo y trabajo en la oficina brasileña de la Organización de los Estados Iberoamericanos para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura.
    Me pregunto si la señora permite el uso de una de sus imágenes para ilustrar un pequeño cuaderno que vamos distribuir para nuestros empleados al final del año.

    La imagen es:

    Por supuesto que les daremos el debido crédito, y se publicará la dirección de Backstrap Weaving en el cuaderno.


    • Hola Rodrigo,

      Gracias por su comentario en mi blog. Por supuesto que puede usar la imagen. Me alegra saber que se usa y se disfruta de esa manera. La inclusion de mi direccion de blog puede atraer a nuevos lectores y seria lindo contar con mas personas de Brasil.

      Los mejores deseos de exito.

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