Posted by: lavernewaddington | January 21, 2011

Backstrap Weaving – Barefoot Weaving

As the Backstrap Weave Along progressed on Ravelry this week and I got on with my own projects here at home, I was once again reminded of all the reasons I love the backstrap loom. Two things stood out in my long backstrap loom-love list…

Number one: Minimal loom waste! One and a quarter inches in this case. I could have made it a four-selvedge piece and wasted nothing but that wasn’t necessary for this project. This is the back panel of my loom bag.

Number two: The ability to weave on tiny warps. I needed to sample a new design I was charting to check for scale so I was able to wind and weave on a ten and a half inch warp. In fact, I probably could have gone even smaller.

Which brings me to the title of this blog post:


When I was teaching English here we had a visit from an American teaching consultant who introduced us to the concept of what she called “barefoot teaching”. She had developed this after having spoken with many teachers, especially those living in the developing world, who had convinced themselves that they simply could not teach effectively without flashcards, computers, dvds, interactive boards and all other kinds of whiz-bang audio-visual aids. It basically involved setting yourself the challenge of leaving all the tools at home and going into class with nothing more than a lesson plan and a piece of chalk (as well as a lot of enthusiasm and creativity)…in other words “barefoot”.

Talk in the backstrap group during the weave along got me thinking back to my first Peruvian weaving teacher and what one really needs to get started in backstrap weaving…basically your back, some thread/yarn and a toe! (and a teacher or an example to follow). Real barefoot weaving!

Little Juan Miguel above has a stake driven into the ground to which his warp is attached – his only real piece of equipment. If it were a shorter warp, he could use his toe. A string passed through the end loops of his warp goes around his waist and acts as his “loom bar” and “backstrap”. He is using a string loop for one shed and string heddles for the other. He isn’t even using a beater or sword. His hands do the trick. After passing the weft he opens the other shed and pulls the upper layer of threads up while pushing the others down in  order to force the weft into place.

A warp can even be wound around a forefinger and toe.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be tossing out my loom bars. I like using them even for the tiniest of warps but it is nice to think back to how I got started. We used pencil-width sticks about five inches long for loom bars, slightly longer ones for cross sticks and we had a beater. My teacher tied a cord around my waist and lodged the stick under it. Cord was passed through the other end of the warp which was attached to a rose bush so we could weave tiny pebble weave bands.

Here is my first teacher with her set of small tools. Oh yes, long thumbnails help too for heddle making and separating warps. I am at home now and have let mine grow shamefully long!

So, that was what I was pondering while visiting the weave along forum. Others there have had cause to ponder their yarn and project choices…another week of successes with some frustration thrown in but the sense of humor permeates all…

Here are some results…

Jennifer has gotten started on her first double weave project and has found her ideal place to weave attached to the kitchen counter.

Tracy has left us to go to India for two weeks but posted pictures of her pebble weave bands before she took off.

Jennifer also extended her pebble weave skills to a pattern in Marjorie Cason and Adele Cahlander’s book. Bobbie moved on to fine number 10 crochet cotton and wove a pebble weave band too.

Fliegnepilz finished her pebble weave band. She took a classic design and added her own ‘twist’ by alternating the color of the diamonds. She named this project “Open Sesame!” when she posted it on Weavolution…I must ask her about that. She made this into a keyfob.

And then there’s Barry who recently joined the group and posted pictures of his warping and weaving set up…all his own handmade tools.

And the result of his work…his first backstrap woven band…

He is pointing out the fact that his band narrowed slightly toward the end, he knows why and knows how to prevent that for his next project.

I also got some pictures from blog reader, Linda who is weaving the practice band that I recommend in my WeaveZine article…

Basically everyone is sticking with narrow bands to learn and practice new techniques which is the best way to develop all those new skills. We have  come to the conclusion that going wider should be taken in baby steps. A couple of people have warped up for wider projects but have decided to stop and rethink as the leap was perhaps too great.

Jennifer has the brilliant plan of sewing several narrow bands together to make a small purse. Marsha has been doing that for some time with her simple warp float projects creating the purses and tote bags that I have shown here in past posts.

I decided to gather some sample bands and leftovers to show you here what one could do to make a simple piece wide enough for a tiny purse. I don’t have great variety of colors to show. These have been done in my thick demo yarn which does not come in many colors.

I have these two black off cuts from the loom bag I am making plus a pebble weave sample band I made ages ago. These three bands could be pieced together to make something. I have just placed them here together as an example.  A Van Dyke or other embroidery stitch could cover the joins if they are too obvious.

Here are the same two off cuts with another simple sample band that I have made in finer yarn.  Join them , add a zip and voila! a small coin purse or credit card case. You can see another even simpler red and white pebble band below.

Turn over the raw edges and sew in the zip…

You can see on the inside of this bag that the raw edge gets hidden and protected by the zip. I hand sew and it took me a few attempts to get the knack of correctly placing the zip.

Speaking of zips and hand sewing, the loom bag is coming together…

You can see the front and back panels and sides on the left and there it is pieced together on the right. What is missing is two narrow bands to go up the side around the top and back down between which the zip will sit.

There they are. Just for the fun of it I decided that, rather than weave one long band and cut it in half, I would weave two side by side on the loom. Montagnard weavers often weave bands like this as it helps balance their really long loom bars which have been designed for wide pieces. I didn’t find any particular advantage in terms of speed or efficiency in doing it this way. On the right the bands are in place and the zip has been sewn in too. Thanks to that marvelous market stall called Buckle Land I can buy zips by the meter. They measure out your zip and then add the “pull ”. (What in the world do you call that thing?)

The zipper pull will have a woven tab…I just put that band in there for this photo.

The strap will, of course, be the twined band I have been working on for the last couple of weeks.

I only got one letter twined this week! – the ”s” of the Gaelic version of the word ‘weave’.

I am happy to say that I now have the Navajo, Ladahki  and Finnish words to add to my collection.

And then to decide…to edge or not to edge the bag.

The other thing I was up to was charting the Guarani design from my cell phone pouch and seeing how it looked in double weave. As both double weave and the Moisy technique give a solid color background I was interested in comparing them. Even though I made a sample and then made adjustments to my chart, I didn’t quite get the scale right. It is elongated, but I did find out in the process that it is possible to weave a pretty good looking circle in double weave.

I am up to the head of the nettle (this is what someone on Ravelry called what I had thought was a flower and I think she is right) and have made a warp long enough to make two cell phone pouches.

Here is the same design in the Moisy technique. The design is “softer” this way and I prefer it.

I am reposting this picture because someone asked me about the fabric on which I have posed the woven bag and I wanted to tell you all a little about it. We often forget that apart from the better-known highlands, the countries of the central part of South America also have their tropical lowland areas. In Peru around the city of Pucallpa, (which is, according to Wikipedia a sister city of Miami) in the central eastern part of the country, live the Shipibo people who paint these designs on cotton fabric with vegetable dyes. I am told that rubbing the cloth with a certain kind of mud is also part of the process.

The Shipibo people are also well known for their pottery which is decorated with similar designs. I remember making fabulous plans when I lived in Chile to visit this area which included a three-day river boat trip…don’t know what happened to that itinerary…but I ended up buying pieces of the Shipibo cloth in Quito of all places…

There are two nine-minute long YouTube videos that show the painting process here and here.

And there is something else that I found on Youtube about which I am really excited. It is in Paraguay. I have to tell you that even though Paraguay is a neighbor to Bolivia, it does not make it to my list of places to visit. I would consider flying to Asunción in order to go to Iguasu Falls but that is about it. Well, all that has changed.

I was looking around for information about the Guarani people and their weaving and came across images of what is called the “poncho de sesenta listas” or ”para i” in the Guarani language, the sixty-stripe poncho made by Guarani weavers in the area around Piribebuy in Paraguay. They are basically, as the name suggests, striped, but with a broad patterned woven band sewn around the four edges. They are made from cotton and considered a lightweight summer garment.

I have a couple of books on ponchos, and although a page is dedicated to the sixty-stripe poncho, the information is mostly historical with barely a mention of the looms used (Creole, it says) or the process.

Thank goodness for the internet. If you use your google translator you can read about them and see a really nice image of one here and it is here that I found out that they are woven on backstrap looms.

How strange, I thought, considering that the Guarani weavers here do not use this type of loom and do everything on vertical looms. Could this be a mistake? I was dying to find out more and then came across this wonderful video…It is lightweight and loads very fast.

The first minute shows scenery of Paraguay and then we get to meet the weaver and see her warping her loom. She warps it end-to-end rather than using a circular or dovetailed warp (which I will tell you about a little further on). Imagine the distance she walks during the three hours it takes to warp. Then see the warp stretched out. I wonder how difficult it is to maintain good tension on such a long warp.

The loom is actually attached to a beam that is fixed to the back of her chair rather than to the weaver herself. It looks like the chair can rock and at one point you can just make out how she rocks forward to take a little tension off the warp to help open the heddles.

Note the stick in the warp attached to rope that she is holding with her foot. I have never seen this before here in South America. The weft is on a little spool which she deftly passes through the sheds. She doesn’t seem to beat very hard either. She must have her cloth somehow clamped and then pulls it through the clamps as the work advances and she seems to be quite comfortable leaning far forward to weave.

And, finally, check out the way the two ladies are making the fringe at the end!

So, when am I going to Paraguay? It is probably as hot and horribly humid there as it is here at this time of year. I might wait for cooler months. I am also waiting for responses from some people I am trying to contact about it.

The weaver in the video is warping “end-to-end’ , as I call it…like this:

The warp threads are passed around one stake and then travel to and around the other in a figure-of-eight path crossing themselves in the middle. The length of the woven piece will be approximately what you see in the picture (discounting length lost in take-up of course).

W= warp stake   C= cross stick

Montagnard weavers halve the space necessary in which to weave very long pieces by winding circular warps. This is particularly important to them as they like to use bamboo lengths against which they brace their feet which must be supported against a wall or other immovable object.  This means that they cannot be seated too far away from a wall or other convenient object. Their warps basically look like this:

Trini winds a circular warp on her vertical loom to weave her saddlebags. Pieces woven this way must be cut in order to be opened out to their full length when finished.

Another option which also halves the space needed to accommodate the warp length is the dovetail method:

Instead of forming a complete circle, the warp threads pass around a third element marked ”D”  – the “dovetail” stick (this is the name that Ann Rowe has applied to it in her writings), which is sometimes replaced by a cord once the warp is on the loom. Once the piece is finished, the cord or stick is simply removed and the piece can be opened out to its full length. In this way, the warp does not need to be cut.

Here in Salasaca, Ecuador, Felipe is teaching me to warp for a backstrap woven belt making a mini warp as an example. The stick nearest his left hand is the dovetail stick. His cross sticks are immediately to the left (our left) of the dovetail stick rather than positioned as in my diagram.

To finish off, here is a video of a woman in Paraguay spinning cotton which will be woven into fine cotton clothing known as ao po’i. Paraguay and its textile arts…so much to learn!

For those of you in the UK, check out the FAQ page on yarns here. Members in the backstrap groups on Weavolution and Ravelry have given me links to yarn sources.


  1. Thanks for the mention Laverne.
    Great instalment and very educational to, thanks.
    The loom back is looking great, can’t wait to see it finished with that fantastic strap.
    Take care,
    Barry 😉

  2. “Note the stick in the warp attached to rope that she is holding with her foot.”

    I thought that was quite slick. Is it attached to the alternate shed from the heddles? That is what it looks like to me. Would make getting the opposite shed quite easily, don’t you think?

    • That is what it looks like to me too Kathleen. That heddle shed certainly pops open very cleanly and easily for her. I am going to try it somehow on my loom and I’ll let you know what happens!

  3. so very instructive as usual ! I like very much the idea of tying the loom to the chair (thanks for our poor back !)
    as for the warping, I note that the sticks she uses are quite irregular, which I think gives a warp diversely tensioned, so I suppose she has to tighten each thread when putting them on the loom ! I’d like to see a process of this… a lot of work no ? or do I misunderstand something somewhere ??
    thanks a lot, as usual

    • I was wondering about that too as she has the warp ends just piled one on top of the other on the stakes. That made me shudder but she obviously knows what she is doing!

  4. I will have to go and look at your Ravelry group, now I have read this interesting blog post!

    Another excellent source of all different kinds of weaving yarns in the UK is William Hall & Co., of Cheadle, Cheshire. They don’t have a website, however contact details are given on the Braid Society website suppliers list I especially like the mercerised cottons.

    • Thank you so much, Dot for the UK sources. We have been having quite a time finding suitable thread.

  5. Where did you get the drafts for the lettering you are doing? Looks like a few variations in style. I’d love to try them as well. Thanks!

    • Hi Cheryl,

      I am using Linda Hendrickson’s book Please Weave a Message which has charts for weaving letters in card woven bands. I have adapted and changed them for the width of my band and they have gotten a bit munched in the process. I almost owe Linda an apology because her letters are far prettier than the ones on my band. The style for the last word is one I just made up…you can probably tell! Linda’s book has many different fonts and the pictures of the bands she has made are just lovely. Go to her website and take a look.

  6. I have that book. I’ll have to look at it again. What technique did you use to do the letters since you are not using cards?


    • I am doing the letters in weft twining. My involvement in the weft twining is kind of a long story which I have been writing about on this blog for some time since my contact with a group of Montagnard backstrap weavers. Weft twining is not actually classified as weaving.

  7. my name is stefan from trinidad & tobago your information is great on dove tail warping and everything else.

  8. Your blog is fantastic!

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: