Posted by: lavernewaddington | November 26, 2010

Backstrap Weaving – Weft twining with the Montagnard backstrap weavers.

But first a look at gorgeous rural Maryland where I am currently staying with  friends on the first day when it has felt really cold out. There has been talk of snow on Friday…I hope so as we are putting up the Christmas decorations here that day! while Santa Cruz Bolivia in the meantime experiences a “cool” change with temperatures dipping below 30C  (86F). Most of the leaves have fallen here and it’s interesting to see the turkey vultures perched in the gaunt leafless tree across the street every morning.

Last week I was down in North Carolina where the weather was mild and the neighborhoods were still awash with red, gold, yellow and brown.

I was down there revisiting the Montagnard (Vietnamese hill tribe) weavers whom I had met on a visit last August about which I wrote in this previous post. I had discovered Betsy Renfrew’s videos and photos on her blog about the group of Montagnard people in her community and her project to help them integrate and find sources of income by teaching them English and making it possible for them to gather the materials and resources necessary to build looms, buy thread and practice their traditional weaving skills. Betsy was more than willing to extend an invitation to visit. She has also allowed me to use some of her photos in this blog post.


Betsy and weaver Ngach together on the left during my first visit. On the right a scene from my first visit with Lisa and Maurice in Betsy’s home with weavers Ngach, Ju Nie and her husband Thomas. It was a chaotic afternoon with lots of chatter, sharing and interaction which cleared away all  language barriers.  Backstrap looms and textiles covered the floor of Betsy’s front room and, as this was my very first encounter with these kinds of textiles, it was impossible to wade through and take it all in during our short visit and I left with many unanswered questions knowing that I would simply have to return one day.

We got to see Ju warping and setting up her loom and Lisa and I both got to try out her warping technique where she adds string heddles as she winds the warp as well as weave on her backstrap loom. I tried to photograph as many woven pieces as I could – skirts, blankets, baby carriers bags and belts so that I could figure out the woven structures when I got home. Ngach put on skirts for us and Ju modeled the baby carriers. Many of the structures I immediately recognized and it was fun to show Ju and Ngach pieces woven with the same techniques in South America. In fact that was the most fun part of the visit…comparing and sharing our different experiences with the textiles, patterns, tools and looms and seeing for what purpose the textiles were intended. I was able to study and figure out some of the other less recognizable techniques when I got home.

Some of the different patterning techniques which include simple warp floats, cross knit looping, supplementary warp and weft can be seen below…

I like the supplementary weft patterned piece on the right as it reminds me very much of some flower motifs that I recently wove using Guatemalan supplementary weft and warp wrapping techniques. The similarities in the designs across cultures are astounding.

If you have been following my blog, you will know that the technique which really grabbed my attention was the following one which both Ju and Ngach, who are from different tribes, call kteh.

Above you can see two pieces with the kteh weft twining technique that Ngach has worked around the warps on the edge of  her woven blankets. The upper left picture is a loin cloth which Susan Stem showed me when I made inquiries about this technique on the Tribal Textiles forum. I think that Ngach’s pieces are every bit as fine as the example photographed by Susan.

So this was the technique that I really wanted to learn more about and I got to see even more amazing examples on this most recent visit.

When I got home I was keen to try weft twining and made examples in different colors using Montagnard designs that I had photographed and seen online. (at left)

I learned a twining technique from books on Maori Taaniko..You can read more about this here and here.

I was surprised on my visit last week to see the use of yellow in the main design in one of the pieces as, by coincidence, I had chosen it to use in my own experiments at home.

All the pieces I had seen on the previous visit as well as in books and online had been patterned in only red and white with only the stripes done in green and yellow.

In weft twining, strands of “weft” are twisted around warps. When weft strands of two colors are used, patterns can be formed by controling which of the two colors appears on the upper surface of the piece after each twist.

Here are some more examples of Ngach and Ju’s work in kteh technique.

The above piece of kteh adorns the edge of an extremely fine skirt which Ju wove and which H Ni Buonya modeled for me.

Instead of being wrapped and tucked as traditional skirts are, this skirt had hooks sewn into its waist band which held the folds in place.

The twining was flawless and the selvedges impeccable. I think this was the finest of all the pieces I saw.

Eventhough I was able to reproduce the designs in my bulky cotton thread, I couldn’t feel convinced that I was on the right track until I could compare the reverse of the kteh pieces to my own twined work.

Besty sent me a picture of the back of a piece and  I was finally able to see for myself on my visit.

What I really wanted to do was learn how to do the twining alongside Ju and Ngach and Betsy was able to organize classes for me with both ladies. Ju and Ngach, as I said before, are from two different tribes, the Rhade and the Jarai and both Betsy and I thought that it would be interesting to see differences in the way the two ladies did their twining.

LEFT: Twining class with Nagch at Betsy’s house. At right, Ju shows me how she gathers the warps in groups and sizes them before twining.

I first met up with Ju at Betsy’s house where a collector was coming to see and possibly purchase one of Ju’s woven pieces. Ju, who I gather never likes to have idle hands, had brought along a finished piece of weaving that was to be sewn into a bag. She was busy twisting the fringe dragging the warps through a wad of sticky cooked rice that she carried in tissue and then rolling them on her leg to set the twist. She would select four warp ends, divide them into two pairs and then, with one quick movement, roll the two pairs away from her on her leg and then swiftly roll the two twisted strands back toward her to unite them.

She used this same kind of sizing to twist and group the warps ends together for twining which, as a beginner, I found very helpful . Ngach on the other hand does not size the warp ends.

The first class was with Ngach. After having seen pictures of Ngach warping outdoors on Betsy’s blog it was nice to see the enormous tree where she does it in her front yard right on the edge of a very busy street.

Here you can see the different set ups that both ladies use. Both fold and tack the woven cloth so that it can be suspended on a rod or bar with the weft ends, or fringe hanging down.  Ju, at left, has a lovely stand built by her husband especially for twining. Ngach suspends her work on a metal rod which she has supported on two chairs. Ngach is twining the end of a child’s skirt while Ju is twining  the ends of two small bags, something which she is only doing in order to be able to teach me on a small piece.

Here are pictures of Ngach twining on warmer and brighter days courtesy of Betsy. The pictures we took this time around tended to be somewhat darker unfortunately.

The wefts are stored and carried on bobbins. Ngach says that they are made of clay in Vietnam while Ju used to use wooden ones. Both ladies have had to improvise their bobbins in their new homes.

Ngach has lovely bobbins fashioned from cement.

Ju’s were heavier and made from wood. Her husband bought a pestle from a Laos store from which he carved them. I bought a pair from her. Both use Cebelia size 20 thread.

Below you can see Ngach at work holding the warps under tension with her left hand while she twists the wefts on their bobbins with her right…one twist to change color in the pattern and two twists to continue with the same color.

Her movements are so fluid, graceful and rhythmical and she uses her one long thumb nail to separate each group of warps around which to twist the wefts. This was the part that really slowed me down…separating the warps into correct groups of three. What was nice was that Ngach and I could sit side by side and work together. I would struggle along trying to match her rhythm. We could both work simultaneously on different rows of pattern.

Here is a rather dark piece of video which will at least give you an idea of the movements. Ngach is making a pattern in red and white. Her movements are very graceful and I love the soft “clack clack” of the bobbins as she works. You will see her doing double twists when she wants to continue with the same color and a single when she wants to change colors. I have brighter but longer videos which need to be edited when I get home so I can upload in another post.

Above, Ju is twisting warps on a piece so that I can take it home and practice. I really think both my teachers enjoyed showing me this. Ju, even with her very limited English, was very talkative and eager to show me the entire process while Ngach was very keen to make sure that I learned it just right, constantly correcting and adjusting the way I was holding the warps and not letting me get away with anything. At one point when I had made a mistake and untwined to fix it, I asked her if she always undid her errors. She looked at me over the top of her glasses and said “no mistakes!”. I am not sure if that means that she doesn’t tolerate them or that she doesn’t make them but there was definitely a twinkle in her eye. I liked Ngach!


We finished a tiny design on Ju’s small piece but didn’t get as far on Ngach’s larger one. However, I enjoyed working more on Ngach’s piece for some reason. I think sitting and working alongside Ngach made all difference as I was able to watch closely and try to follow her movements and rhythm.

Each twined row always starts on the left and moves to the right. When the right edge is reached, the weft ends are knotted and cut leaving a small “fringe”.  This was something I had been very curious about as the instructions in my Taaniko book indicated that one needed to ambidextrous and twine in both directions back and forth across the piece.

Ju’s enthusiasm for showing me all about the weaving arts from her home in the hills of Vietnam didn’t stop at twining. After I had become tired from twining and the concentration it required, she brought out a wonderful spinning wheel that she had had sent over from Vietnam.

What a sweet little spinning wheel this is. It is made from simple bamboo wood and wicker and all held together with hand carved wooden pins.

Ju set to spinning cotton, which had also been sent over from Vietnam, with her foot thrown over the beam of the spinning wheel to anchor it down. She really seemed to be enjoying showing this to us.

Once she had finished with her small quantity of prepared cotton, she brought out a funny little tool that looked much like an archer’s bow to prepare more. Below you can see this tool and Ju skeining on a niddy noddy.

The following video will show you how it works. I would love to show this to the cotton spinners that I stayed with in coastal Ecuador.

On another day, I got to see a bit more of Betsy’s work with the Montagnard ladies. A few weavers gathered with their looms in a local church. Its congregation has kindly allowed its space to be used for possible weaving demonstrations. The idea was to see what would be required to enable the weavers to set up their looms in those facilities . Not only would they need a strong and stable place to tie up their looms but also a way to set up the foot braces against which the weavers push to tension their warps as they weave.

Ju and H Ni attended and finally managed to get their looms set up and foot braces in place. While I find a foot brace nice to work with, I am glad that I am not dependent on one and, therefore, have more freedom to set up my loom easily in different places.

H Ni is weaving two bands at once on her loom which will be straps for shoulder bags. Weaving two straps at once helps balances out the very wide loom.

H Ni’s set up was a bit awkward. We had to improvise adding books and bits to her bamboo poles in order to have her foot brace within reach.

I am thinking that one of those wonderful ergonomic benches designed by Synergo Arts with its built in foot rest/brace would be a solution to this problem. I wonder if they break down in pieces for transport.

A close up of H Ni’s two straps.

Ju was weaving a narrow pick up patterned piece which will be  a scarf – not one of her typical woven pieces but it has occured to her that scarves may be popular small items that visitors to her demonstrations may like to buy as opposed to skirts and blankets.

Ju and H Ni enjoyed seeing pictures of the designs from various Montagnard tribes in books that Betsy brought to the meeting.

The other purpose of the meeting was to give the weavers booklets which Betsy had put together with pictures and weaving vocabulary in English.

Khin attended the meeting to act as translator and it turns out that she too is a weaver. The problem is that many of the ladies in the community who have these weaving skills simply do not have the means to have looms made and buy thread to get started.

Betsy also made tapes for each weaver to go along with the booklets with the pronunciation of the English words for them to listen to and practice at home.

The idea is to have the weavers eventually feeling confident enough to be able to give presentations and demonstrations of their weaving to small groups in the future. I would love to return for the day when that happens and see these ladies enjoying sharing their skills with even more people with same good humor, generosity and enthusiasm that they showed me.


Back to what I like to call the World Wide Cyber Weaving Guild….

It seems that the cold weather has brought on a flurry of weaving activity and so I am able to show you some finished projects from online friends who have visited my blog.

Anna (who is cycling from Alaska to Ushuaia and who is currently in Santiago Chile) sent me this picture of her latest pebble weave bands and Kim, whom I met at Convergence wove the pebble weave keyfob on the right. Both used the instructions from my Andean Pebble Weave book.

These are more of Kim’s bands on the left, again in pebble weave with one in simple warp floats in the middle, and Lavitaaj made this amazing supplementary weft sampler on the right using the pattern charts from my blog. There is also a section with a yurt band design in simple warp floats.

And finally, here is Marsha Knox’s band made with simple warp floats using two color combinations in the same piece while Helena in Brazil has taken the Bedouin patterning one step further with a large strip of diamond pattern bordered by the classic triangle motif. I will definitely add a tutorial on this technique to the blog soon.

UPDATE: Marsha uploaded a picture of her finished band. She reversed the scrolls and did them in brown. It looks super!

Last Sunday I got to quickly pass through the Central Asian ikat exhibit, which was stunning, at the Textile Museum in DC before attending Ann Rowe’s talk on ikat rebozos and ponchos in Latin America.

I hope to return next Saturday to take the guided tour of the exhibit, use the library where I want to look at David Fraser’s book on weft twining, and maybe pick up a few more Textile Museum journals in the gift shop.

There is hardly a journal there that doesn’t have something of interest to me. I think that eventually I will own them all.

This week Claudia and I had  skills exchange. I taught her to make the tubular woven bands that I learned at the tinkuy and she introduced me to the wonderful Weavette. Yep, this was the first time I had ever seen one of these little marvels and Claudia even has an old Jiffy Loom in its original box and a plastic Weave-It. My eye was immediately caught by the cool long weaving needles that come in the kit. Aha…just the thing for weaving in the wefts for my four-selvedge warp faced pieces and so I ordered some online.

These would be just the thing for making little amulet bags…love them!

And speaking of learning new skills, here is DY, still in Peru, picking up some new techniques – drop spindling and backstrap weaving. I think she has been taking Spanish classes too.

Finally, a very happy Thanksgiving to all. I spent it Claudia and family and friends…only the third Thanksgiving I have ever had. We watched the Macy’s parade this morning and  I declare the sweet potato casserole with butter, brown sugar and pecan topping my favorite dish of the day.


  1. I simply cannot tell you how I look forward to these posts! Then when I am just getting all involved and loving the information, low and behold I get yet another surprise and see my own work pictured here. I am honored beyond words. Humbled actually, to be counted among those that are carrying on the handmade textile movement in our own small way. Thank you so much Laverne, I simply could not have succeeded with my warpface adventures on any level with out your help. Having been a self taught tapestry weaver, I struggled for many years. This adventure has been much easier with your help and guidance.

    As for Thanksgiving, I am thrilled that you are enjoying some of our customs and wish that someday I could experience some of yours, as well as other cultures. Strange as it may seem to hear, I actually wondered today when I posted my pictures if you celebrated anything like our Thanksgiving.

    Happy Turkey Day Laverne…I love the sweet potatoes myself.

  2. Thank you for all this knowledge that you share with such a great generosity. I am trying to weave wef twining and also andean peeble weave with your book.
    Before I lived in Cambodia and I know that in the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri there are hill tribes, Rhade, Bunong, Jarai… I send you a link of an article (in french) with the description of some patterns :


    • Thank you so much for your comments and that link Jannick. I have only just looked very quickly through it and already recognize some of the designs. Ngach speaks French and I am sure she will enjoy seeing it too. I, on the other hand, will have to get the google translator onto it!

  3. I tend to feel reduced to saying pointless things like “this just blows my MIND,” every single time I read your blog posts. That’s why I don’t comment much!
    But seriously, the amount of information, the quality of your research and the torrent of your enthusiasm make this blog a real boon to the world.
    Those videos are so great – thank you.

  4. Hi Laverne! Thanks so much for the videos – they answer so many questions! Happy Thanksgiving and tree decorating! Stay warm and safe travels to you.

  5. […] with the Montagnard (Vietnamese hilltribe) backstrap weavers a few weeks ago which I wrote about here and […]

  6. Lovely
    I am in NC from the Florida Keys and would like to reach Betsy Renfew and make contact. My lead has not been productive. Can you please offer contact info?
    Also do you have any Montagnard or Montagnard-inspired items for sale?
    Regards and appreciation
    Clarice Yentsch

    • I don’t sell my weavings but I have given your contact details to Betsy and asked her to email you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: