Posted by: lavernewaddington | November 12, 2011

Backstrap Weaving – “You look, you know”

“You look, you know”…..These are the four little words that my teacher Ngach, with her limited English, would say to me over and over as we sat twirling the weft threads on their bobbins and twining the border of her woven blanket panel.

And she was right…there was no need for explanation. Mind you, I had already been making my own experiments in twining based on the Maori method and even charted and twined some Montagnard designs before this class so it wasn’t too hard then to pick up Nagch’s bobbin-twirling method.

And so I looked and listened to the clacking sound of the bobbins smacking together as they carried the wefts, twining their way across the multitude of fine warp ends. Ngach would stop and count the number of warp ends now and then when she lost her place in the pattern and slowly I learned what to do…how to hold the warp ends under the right amount of tension, how to twirl the bobbins well so they didn’t become hopelessly entangled on the back side of the cloth and how to snap the warp ends and nudge the twined wefts up snugly against the cloth.

I am currently on one of my safaris, which involves weaving with lots of my online friends, and it is always interesting to me to experience the different ways that people react to backstrap weaving.

Backstrap weaving with the group in Santa Cruz California.

Bands from the Santa Cruz weaving days

As an English teacher I have always been aware of different learning styles but, unfortunately, in the structured environment of the institute in which I taught, I was always racing against the clock trying to cover a seemingly impossible amount of material before the next exam. More often than not I had to limit myself to catering to the learning style shared by the majority.

Joan following a pattern chart.

Now I have more freedom to do my own thing, and develop my  way of showing people about backstrap weaving in a way that hopefully addresses a variety of learning styles.

Some people like to be shown a series of steps uncluttered by explanation and discover the logic in what they are doing for themselves as they weave, others find it impossible to absorb steps without straight away knowing the “why” behind each one.

Some people need to use charts while others find them a hindrance…a confusing mass of squares or ovals that in no way relate to what they see on the cloth and they do very well just “winging it”.

There are those who like their instructions to be backed up in writing while others have more success just listening to them. And there are yet others who like to watch in silence and do it…”you look, you know”.

But, hopefully, the end result is the same…some woven  bands to show at the end of a day but, more importantly, a satisfying experience with new skills learned, mistakes made leading to self-taught lessons, the development of the ability to analyse and trouble-shoot and the creation of the desire to explore further.

Kristi used a pillow case as an improvised backstrap to weave her own backstrap using the warp float technique. Jayne continued with some pebble weave bands after our get together. She wove a series of what we were calling “eyes” on the band on the right and then invented a wove a pair of eyeglasses just for fun.

After weaving with friends in Massachusetts, I headed off to second visit there with Ron and Carol. I was excited as snow had been forecast for Saturday, the first day of my visit. While I am no stranger to snow, I hadn’t really seen lots of the stuff since 1992 and we got enough of it to make me very happy!

I know that for most of you in the north eastern US states this was an ugly, wet, slushy, heavy and unwelcome weather event and I apologize for my enthusiasm here!

I was even still smiling, and so were the other weavers, when the power went off fifteen minutes before the end of our day together. I am a little weird like that…I know that the power cuts were very inconvenient for the hundreds of thousands of people who experienced them but I welcome these little ”adventures” which spice up my travels and it was all good fun to me.

Really we weren’t too badly off with lots of wood to make a fire in Ron and Carol’s living room, kersoene lamps placed about for warm light and dinners cooked in a motorhome with its own generator.

Sunday was gorgeously sunny….still no power but light streamed in through the windows of the room in which we wove. The sun also allowed me to take some pretty pictures in the morning and evening light.

Bundled up but happy (I was wearing five layers!), we were able to weave all day Sunday and yes, Judith was there both days in short sleeves and with bare feet taking my term “barefoot weaving” (which I coined to mean weaving with little or no tools) a little too literally. That’s Elene next to her. Roxanne and Joan came well dressed for the power outage the second day when we wove bands with patterns in simple warp floats.

Weaving, warping, shopping, weaving, browsing.

I spent the evenings ploughing through piles of Handwoven magazines warm and cosy in the motor home. Ron and Carol did their best to make things as comfortable as possible and I was really enjoying the unusual situation. As I said it was all a big adventure for me. That couldn’t believe that I was actually enjoying this!

While flicking through the pages of the weaving magazines I realized that there were quite a few years there where it was all about rep rep rep. I have never paid much attention to this structure but there it was again and again in the magazine pages and ideas started to come to mind. There was one rug the colors of which I really liked. It turned out that it had been woven by Tom Knisely and was right there in The Mannings….And how about the piece on the cover of the Jan/Feb 2011 issue…oh yes, that’s Tom’s too.

So, I am adding rep weave to the list of things to tackle when I get home.

The power came back on late on Monday night and I was off headed west the next morning. I was shocked to hear that many places were still without power. Pam in Massachusetts didn’t get hers on until Thursday while many others had to do without for even longer while I settled among the sea and sandscapes with my friend Annie in Santa Cruz California. We visited the frolicking seals at the wharf , hoardes of Monarch butterflies wintering over in groves of eucalyptus trees and humpback whales stopping off in the bay as they migrate along the coast.

 I visited with Annie, the “Queen of Sashes” aka ASpinnerWeaver on my trip to Santa Cruz last spring and she wove with me again. This time I got to stay with her for days…what a treat… tour Santa Cruz and its wild places and wildlife pictured above, chat with a group of local artisans with whom she meets monthly and talk and talk and talk about something that is near to both our hearts…band weaving.

Annie’s living room/studio has at least seven inkle looms parked in it.

She can grab one and sit and weave on it at any moment. Baskets of yarn and woven samples are here and there along with a fabulous collection of books on weaving around the world.

Sashes adorn her walls…her own pieces and those collected from around the world….many Guatemalan hair sashes and belts and she has now added a Bolivian double weave belt from Potosi that I brought to the collection.

Annie decided to wear something handwoven everyday during my visit. Here she is wearing a huipil from Guatemala while weaving her latest guitar strap.

Later that day she packaged up to mail one of the straps that had just sold on her Etsy site. Annie has such a wonderful sense of color and design and it is little wonder that her guitar straps are snapped up not long after they appear on her site. 

We wove for three days in Martha’s studio away in the woods with a lovely fire in the stove and smoke curling from the chimney to greet us each day.


On the third day, at Yonat’s urging, Martha brought out an amazing rug that she had woven which is a reproduction of a piece of fabric that was found wrapped around a mummy from the Anasazi culture dating back to approximately 1134 AD. The rug is woven in a diamond twill and she explained to us her path to successfully recreating the pattern and the method she used to record and chart the design.

Here Martha is standing in front of the design which she plotted on diamond graph paper.

And here is the rug. Yonat and Annie look on as Martha points out some of the details. What I liked was seeing Martha’s progress markers. She sewed a zig zag in red thread along one edge, each “zig” representing a day’s work…most often less than an inch… while white thread would mark the distance she had managed to weave in a week.

And yet again I got to take a look at her reproductions of Anasazi sandals. Thank goodness, as last spring when I had seen these it was all a bit over my head and a case of too-much-information. This time I saw them with new eyes and understood what was going on.

On the left you can see the weft-twined upper part of the sandal sole or the part that would be against the wearer’s foot.  A relief pattern is created on the underside by placing added extra twist to the twined wefts between warps in the positions where the pattern was to appear. This is going on my list of things to try too!

As for all of us, the backstrap weavers, we did our own simple weft twining and created some fun patterns with colors rather than texture. Here are some pictures of the gang including Martha and some of the weft twining, warp substitution and double weave pieces…

Above are Ingrid (Ingrid Crickmore the loop braider), Annie, Sawyer and Dorothy weaving. Below, Yonat chooses colors alongside Annie and Barbara while Anne and Dorothy warp.

Last spring when I was weaving with this group in Martha’s studio, Martha showed me a collection of woven wristlets and a loom with one in progress which was part of the collection of the late Anne Blinks.

The loom with wristlet in progress is from the Shipibo people of tropical lowland Peru and the completed wristlets are Anne Blinks’s reproductions.

On my visit this fall I found a box in Martha’s studio with my name on it which contained some works-in-progress by the late Nora Rogers, a member of this guild who, among other things, wove with a backstrap loom and studied the structures of these kinds of little-known textiles and attempted to reproduce them.

One was a piece of sprang fabric, still on the loom, where Nora was studying the structure used to create the traditional Hopi wedding sash. Another appears to be Nora’s study of the Shipibo wristlets. I am certainly hoping that that is true. I need to look at these more carefully when I get home.

So, it was a whirlwind visit to the west coast, a chance to catch up with my springtime weaving friends and meet an online friend, Anne Dunham, who joined the group for the first time. We have already set the date for the next visit in spring next year!

Now I find myself back on the east coast in Maryland with friends.

And in the living room in Claudia’s home I see this….everywhere I go there’s twining!

This is the twined edge on a rug that one of Claudia’s sons who is in the Marine Corps had sent back to her from Afghanistan. And take a look at the rest of it…

So, I really need to do some soumak myself and see if this is the technique that has been used on this rug. The picture above left shows detail of the Afghan rug and, yes, I have taken pictures of the other side to take home and study.

The rug on the right is a silk one from Uzbekistan in my friend Pam’s collection which she tells me is soumak. The surface of this silk rug looks the same as that of the Afghan one. And I am still wondering about the technique used in the Bunong textiles that I saw when I was with the Montagnard weavers in North Carolina…

One of the Bunong ladies had this textile in her possession but had not woven it and did not know how it had been made. I aim to pin this down!…soumak, warp wrapping, weft twining or a combination of all of them?! Yet another thing to add to the list. 🙂

This is the last stop on my trip and I guess I will be back to steamy mango season in Santa Cruz Bolivia this time next week leaving the US as it moves into winter. But before I leave the DC area I will make a trip to the Textile Museum and see the current exhibit, Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa. And there is a rumor that Mapuche weavers are exhibiting at the National Museum of the American Indian and who knows what else I will find!


  1. When I returned to work on Monday after our gathering and folks asked about my weekend, I told them that we had so much fun that I’m sure it was over the legal limit! It was great to share some of our Santa Cruz treasures with you. Although I go to the park with the Monarchs several times a week, I never take the time to go down into the grove and enjoy them. Thanks for showing me my own town! It was a pleasure having you and we are all looking forward to our next weaving reunion in the Spring.

  2. been planning my next project that will include everything we played with…
    that was just an awesome Weaving get together. Thanks Lavern. cant wait till spring.
    safe travels 🙂

  3. So much fun for so many talented weavers! What accomplishments! All the bands look really nice! Any your to-do list just keeps on growing…. looking forward to hearing about (and learning from) your explorations. Safe and speedy travels next week!

  4. I love the “you look, you know”.. Wish I could have been there weaving with you guys. Hope to see you in the spring. I can’t quite fathom that rug of Martha’s, but it looks wonderful!

  5. Hi Laverne!

    Interesting that you should post about soumak, warp wrapping etc, it’s on my to-attempt list for today! I must find my copy of Backstrap Weaving by Taber and Anderson, it’s these techniques they explain step by step instead of the warp faced techniques we all know and love! I’m sure you already have that book in your collection, but if not I’d be happy to share what I can!

    Another inspiring post! Thank you so much!

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