Posted by: lavernewaddington | February 8, 2013

Backstrap Weaving – Time

finished baackstrap woven wall hangingsA question I am very often asked when I show my woven work is….. “How long did it take to weave that?”

I am trying very hard to think back to a time before I started weaving to see if perhaps I would have asked this question myself to a craftsperson and what might have motivated me to do so. Would it be because I was thinking of trying to make the object myself and needed to see if the time involved was worth my effort? Or perhaps I would want to know if the asking price for the object reflected the amount of time that had gone into creating it.

In any case, I find it a very difficult question to answer. How long does it take?…As long as it takes! I honestly don’t keep track. I don’t sell my work and so I need not consider time in order to fairly price an item. I am not weaving to a deadline. There is no exhibit for which the work has to be completed. I would probably have to go back to my blog posts if I wanted to give an accurate answer in terms of the number of weeks on which I worked on a project. However, I would be at a complete loss when it came to the total number of hours.

I met a craftsperson last year and witnessed his response to the question…

“How long did it take to make that?”

His response:

A    l  i  f  e  t  i  m  e

I can only imagine that he very rightly considers that a lifetime of his accumulated knowledge, experience, skill and inspiration went into this and every piece that he has completed. I love his response.

So, I am willing to pour as much time and effort as is required into every piece I weave. What I don’t like, is making silly mistakes and wasting time. Okay, I will admit that a mistake is always a learning experience and valuable for that reason but sometimes you just turn around and do the same old thing again!

Like… breaking my coil rod on my latest piece. I did it once…I learned. I did it a second time…I cursed…but then I learned some more.

purple sacrf project backstrap loom

You can see the coil rod in the above picture. The stick is rather thin but it looks about the same size as coil rods that I have seen in use by weavers that I have observed.  In the above picture the coil rod is a fair distance from the shed rod and cross stick. As weaving progresses and the cloth gets rolled under the loom bar, the shed rod and cross sticks just naturally work their way up  the loom so that they are always at a comfortable distance from my body. The string heddles also follow along. Eventually, the shed rod and cross stick will have wriggled their way all the way up to the position of the coil rod and further progress will be blocked unless the coil rod is also moved.

coil rod and other tools

Above you can see how the distance between the cross and the coil rod is closing.

backstrap loom BhutanThe problem is that it is a heck of a job trying to move the coil rod! I moved it a couple of times sucessfully. Saying that it “inched” its way up the warp is being extremely generous.I could only move it the tiniest fraction of an inch at a time.

As far as I am concerned, the main purpose of the coil rod is to clamp the warps in place and maintain consistent warp tension between it and the weaver. This very characteristic of the coil rod is what makes it so insanely difficult to move! I wouldn’t want to be able to just smoothly and easily roll it up and down the warp. Its very purpose would be defeated if that were so.

It was the third time that I came to move the rod that I got over-confident and forced it too much. Then came a sound that you don’t want to hear when you are weaving…a sharp “snap!” The warps that were so tightly coiled and bunched on the rod leaped to freedom and went cascading into space. I didn’t stop to take pictures.

Fortunately, the stick broke about an inch from one end of the warps and, as the stick is much wider than the weaving, I was able to carefully pick up all the fallen loops and get them back on the now shorter stick. Hmmm….should I replace this with a heavier stick? No, it will be okay. I learned my lesson. I will just be more gentle from now on.

Yeah, right….A day after….”snap!” And this time right in the middle. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? The more I tried to retrieve the coils on one side, the more the coils on the other side would tumble off.

Out came the stick. I am still not quite sure where it landed when I flung it.

Ikat patterned shawl weaver of Ecudor setting up his backstrap loom. Picture courtesy of Agaath Theiken.

Ikat patterned shawl weaver of Ecuador setting up his backstrap loom. Picture courtesy of Agaath Theiken.

Actually, I did learn things as a result of the second accident. I wove on without the coil rod and found that I much preferred having one in the warps. After all, this was actually supposed to be part of the coil rod experiment.  Without the coil rod in place I found that I was having to hitch up certain loose warps with every single weft pass and I didn’t think that was good use of my time.

From there I went on to learn how to insert the coil rod when the warp is already off the warping stakes. Dennis Penley reports that this is how the weavers of the ikat paños in Ecuador put the rod in place.

So, I picked up each and every one of the 772 ends, twisted them one by one (rather than in groups of ten as the weavers in Ecuador do) and placed them on the new thicker rod. How long did that take? I don’t know! Don’t ask.

Maybe this is something that we don’t consider when we ask the craftsperson how long it took to complete the project. Do we want them to include the time used to fix “oopsies”? After all, the fixing of the oopsies adds to that lifetime of experience about which my craftsman friend was speaking.

Obviously there is a technique for moving the coil rod that I have yet to learn. I turned to Maria Christou’s paper on the Sa’dan Toraja weavers of To’barana’. She describes how the coil rod is loosened so that it can be replaced with a thinner stick as weaving progresses and the space within which to open the sheds becomes increasingly smaller. I imagine that the movements she describes are the same as those that are used to move the rod along the warp.

She writes…


Christou explains earlier in the paper that the sorong gesture is the act of leaning forward to release tension on the warp and is used when the weaver wishes to open the heddle shed. I am wondering if the word sorong simply translates to “lean forward” or whether it is a word specific to backstrap weaving that describes the entire motion and how it relates to the operation of the loom.

There is still warp left to weave on my scarf project and so I will try what Christou describes the next time I need to move the rod. I am not sure I quite get it, but I will experiment.

While the amount of time needed to weave a piece is not important to me, I am always interested in learning about techniques that weavers have developed to help make the whole process more efficient.

For example, the use of backstrap weavers in San Ignacio de Loyola of multiple sets of string heddles so that patterned weaving can be carried out without having to do any pick-up. Of course the pattern threads need to be picked up once, but only once, before they can be placed within the heddles.

First Araceli has to make the twenty-four sets of heddles on this fresh warp. The pattern has alreday been picked up and saved on sticks.

Araceli is making the twenty-four sets of heddles on this fresh warp. The pattern has already been picked up and saved on sticks.

I did this myself once (with only four sets of heddles) when I was making a pebble weave guitar strap. I was on a deadline for that project as it was a birthday gift and so, speed was important.

four sets of string heddles

In Manabí province in coastal Ecuador, weavers on vertical looms also use multiple sets of string heddles to program the pattern so weaving can proceed without having to do pick-up. This means that that a weaving elder who knows the pattern can set up the loom while younger, more able-bodied weavers, who haven’t thoroughly learned the pattern, can carry out the more strenuous task of weaving the cloth.

coastal Ecuador use of multple string hedddles


In Bajo Urubamba, Peru, backstrap weavers place multiple patterning sticks in the warp which hold the warps which will float and create the patterns.


Adding heddles while warping adds time to the warping process. However, it is almost impossible to cross warps and make mistakes while installing heddles this way. This saves the weaver from having to fix the heddle-making errors that can so easily occur when making heddles while seated at the loom.

The Montagnard way of installing the coil rod while warping seems to me to be a wonderful time-saving technique. Having had the experience of installing the coil rod both ways now….on the warping stakes and off…I can tell you which way I prefer!

coil rod cross on loom

Even little things like the pattern warp loops that I installed on my current weaving can make a big difference.


I can simply pull on a loop which draws forward a certain group of heddles which I can then raise to lift the warps needed for my pattern. My leaf pattern is very simple and requires only five sheds…three in the shed rod shed and two in the heddle shed. I have one loop in the heddles which raises warps from which I select the ones needed for that particular shed. It was more eye strain than time that I was trying to save in this case as the warps are so fine.

This little system is simple enough and I got the basic idea from a visit with weaver Deb McClintock in Texas last year. Deb has spent a lot of time studying with weavers of Laos and she showed me the pattern storage system that is used by Tay Dam weavers on floor looms. The weavers create complex patterns with supplementary wefts using this system. Deb has adapted the system to a floor loom in her studio. She is writitng an article for the Complex Weavers Journal on the method and how she uses it on her loom.

deb mcclintock adapted pattern storage system

Basically….Those vertical strings are really long heddles. The horizontal strings will be used to pull forward certain heddle strings which in turn will raise the warps needed for that pattern shed. The patterns are very complex as you can see by the large number of strings in place. This is a wonderful pattern storage system!

In this video, Deb shows her adaptation of the Laos system to her loom. She explains how each pattern string is stored below the warp until it is next called into use. This enables her to freely pull forward the next string in the sequence…

In future posts I hope to show you some of Deb’s work that has been influenced by her experiences learning about Lao weaving techniques.


Here’s what some of my online weaving buddies have been up to….


CindyQ has created some pretty bands while working her way through the lessons in my first book Andean Pebble Weave and it looks like she has it down.

cindyQ and helena

On the left is CindyQ’s current project in which she is using a pattern from the follow-up book More Adventures with Warp-faced Pick-up Patterns

On the right Helena has made a band using two-color simple warp floats with a motif from Iran. My intermediate-level tutorial on this technique is here which includes the chart for the “s” motif along the edges of Helena’s band.


Ghedrain has been following tutorials here and made her own backstrap and is currently exploring simple warp floats. She has picked this up really fast.


Betsy wove fabric on a floor loom using her own handpsun wool yarn which she will use to make bags. She just completed the straps for the bags on her backstrap loom.

supplemntary weft inlay cotton scarffAnd I am on the final stretch on my scarf project. I am just about to start weaving the last motif along the edge.

However, I am a bit disappointed because I could have made the scarf longer and made better use of the warp length. It was hard to figure out how long this would turn out as it is the first time I am using a circular warp for a full project and I didn’t know how far I would be able to weave before it got too difficult to open the sheds. I had to make a decision about when to start weaving the final design so that the overall pattern would be symmetric.

Now I see that I could easily add a couple of inches to this end as well as to the beginning and still have a nice long fringe. That, of course, would mean turning the loom around, swapping the position of the shed rod and heddle stick, planning a bit of extra pattern….sounds all very time consuming, doesn’t it. Worth it? Well, yes! I am not in any hurry and I have the TIME.


  1. Love this!


  2. I love the “lifetime” response! Lifetime indeed, it’s perfect.
    Will you bring your purple scarf to ANWG, please? Would love to see it.
    I have an interesting picture that my friend took of a weaver in Thailand. Shows another way to save what looks like it could be pattern sheds. I’ll post it in the Ravelry thread with the cloth she brought back for me.

  3. Really loved this blog post Laverne!

  4. I get asked that all the time with all the different crafts I do and I never have an answer. 🙂 I would so love to sit at your feet and learn this skill. I do Cherokee living history and I believe something very similar was done for weaving. Weaving literally had a major contribution in the reversal of the roles of men and women in the Cherokee nation when the spinning wheel and weaving loom was introduced in the early 1800’s. THANKS so much for the pictures and guidance.. I wish I could see it all better so I could follow you. I’m going to try it anyway.. 🙂

  5. The Huni Kuin indigenous people in Northern Brazil also use sticks to make their patterned weavings. You can see images of their stick system at

  6. Wonderful, Laverne. I heard a similar response one time. When the artist was asked, “How long did that take you to make?” she paused, considered, then replied, “My whole life.” In a similar vein, a comment that seems to come up often is “It must take a lot of patience to do that”. Seems that if you love and enjoy something, then patience isn’t required. One is eager to engage in the activity. It is just fascinating to see all the different techniques people come up with to create beautiful textiles. Your blog posts are a highlight of the week and a constant source of inspiration. Thank you.

  7. Another thumbs up for the “lifetime” quote. As a painter, I find that what makes it even funnier is that as my skill has increased, my speed has increased – from two years to five days!!! per painting. How to explain this to people who want to be sure that it all took a lot of work? Right, a lifetime. Speed, spontaneity and skill often go together – and, of course, the tenacity to fix those disasters you knew were coming… Thanks for posting your experience.

  8. The Coil Rod. I keep wondering about it. Is there any way to insert several coil rods when warping, spaced periodically along the warp? So that when the weaving progresses up close to the first one, instead of needing to move it forward, it can be removed when the warp is off tension? Then another coil rod is already up ahead doing the job of the first one. Of course this question comes from zero experience and little understanding.

    Weaving Time. On my current project, I actually did time myself to see how long it took me to weave one repeat of the pattern. I wanted to know how long it took so that I would know if a block of undisturbed time in my day was enough to weave one pattern repeat. For some reason, being able to complete a full pattern repeat is very satisfying. (it took me 1 1/2 hours = 1 inch)

    • Hi Julia. That’s an interesting idea about the multiple coil rods. I have never seen a bacstrap weaver using more than one. My aim is to coax the creature into moving for me nicely. It is just a matter of combining and coordinating the right moves. Tell me about your weaving project. Are you doing pick-up on a backstrap loom?

      • Hi Laverne, I am doing pickup – Andean Pebble Weave – but not on a backstrap loom. I’m doing it on my four harness loom. I charted a pebble weave version of a traditional Sashiko stitching pattern. I’m using 8/2 cotton, a bit too fine for my current experience level. As a result I’ve made lots of mistakes. I thought I had corrected them all, but I spotted THREE that I missed. Rats!

      • Four-harness loom is good too! Well you have hit on one of the advantages of the backstrap loom…the ability to use that saver cord.

  9. I hear “You must have a lot of patience!” a lot more than “How long did it take?” at craft shows, though I get both … But you know, I still get the urge to ask other crafters how long something took. In my case, I know I’m usually asking purely because I’m curious about the process. For me it’s about understanding the world, not about weighing a thing’s value or making a personal decision directly related to the information I get. I ask similar questions about a lot of things. ;D

    So I’m interested in knowing how long it takes a machine to make the commercial fabric I’m wearing right now … and who invented the machine, and how they came up with it, and how long it takes to manufacture the parts and put one together, and how much human intervention it takes to run the machine, and how much electricity it uses … Yeah. It’s allll about the curiosity for me!

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