Posted by: lavernewaddington | August 29, 2014

Backstrap Weaving – Fancy Footwork

I got distracted again this week. I  love getting distracted. It’s always good and it’s almost always related to weaving. Between the delightful distraction and a lot of warping, I did manage to find some time to spend at my loom…

ikat and brocade on backstrap loomI ended the brocaded part with seven little stepped peaks and will now weave the rest as seven separate brocaded tabs. I am doing this because I want this panel to match the central panel of my Shipibo-inspired piece which also ends with seven woven strips. The other end will have a weft-twined pattern, probably something that is based on those stepped peaks.

Now, about that distraction…

All of you who have Facebook accounts will know the feeling when you receive a friend request from someone whose name you do not recognize….do I actually know this person, are they a friend of friend, what is the possible connection, is this just someone who likes to collect friends? I take a look at their page to see if there’s any weaving or fibery content and look for mutual contacts. Very rarely, the person who sent the request will also send a message. In case you didn’t know, there is a message inbox entitled “other” in the message section of your account to which people who are not your Facebook friends can send messages. Facebook does not send notifications for these and you have to go and look for them yourself. When I was first told about this inbox, I found a pile-up of messages dating back to 2010!…ex-boyfriend, old neighbors, requests to meet and weave with me!

Anyway…Yen-Chi Sun sent me a message. Yen-Chi Sun tells me that he is Taiwanese and that he is working with others to revive, document, and re-learn traditional backstrap weaving techniques. He had found my blog and thought that I might be interested in what he is doing :-). He shared pictures which he has allowed me to show here.

10588723_1675462386011227_1421427335_nThe language barrier makes our communication brief and a little disjointed but, from what I gather, Yen-Chi Sun’s group has been studying textiles in museum collections as well as discussing and observing techiques with elderly people who are still weaving in the places where these practices originated.

What a fabulous sight to see in the picture above…all those young people learning to use the newly-built versions of the traditional loom with its unusual tipping footbrace box (what else am I to call that thing!) You can see how the man in the picture is relaxing tension on the warp so that he can open the heddle shed. He does so by moving his feet and allowing the box to tip forward.

This next picture shows warping in progress in what Yen-Chi Sun calls the “five columns warping method”. Heddles are applied, as they are in many places in Asia and Southeast Asia, while the warp is being wound.

10615873_1675462382677894_1084265123_nI love those sturdy forked sticks used as the cross posts and end stake. I am not sure why the end stake is also forked but I think it might have something to do with the placement of threads for the coil rod…just my guess. My Montagnard weaving teachers have a stake in their warping set-up that creates the space for the coil rod. You can see the coil rod as it sits in the warp behind the box on the red warp in the above picture.

supplemntary weft inlay cotton scarffI have created a few circular warps myself, like the one at left,  and was surprised while weaving on them to find that I had a definite urge to have my feet braced against something, much more so than when I weave a piece that has been warped in a single plane. I love how the foot brace in the traditional Atayal loom of Taiwan can be used not only to help the weaver apply tension the warp but also to allow the weaver to relax tension.

Yen-Chi Sun also sent me the following picture from a demonstration in which the parts of the loom have been labeled (unfortunately for us, in Chinese) and so I will have to keep using silly names of my own invention like “tipping footbrace box”.

The following video is wonderful. All the speaking is in Chinese but. honestly, it doesn’t matter. The observers are asking  questions about all the things that I would want to know and you can tell exactly what is going on. It is a delight! Watch that fancy footwork!

The webpage of Taiwan Pictures Digital Archives has many old images of weavers and spinners in Formosa at work like the one below:

taiwan formosa history aboriginal weavers taipics022

John G Kreifeldt, whom I met recently online because of his interest in Asian art, allowed me to show a picture he took of an Atayal woman weaving during one of his visits to Taiwan.

a_modern_atayal_woman_weaviHere you can very clearly see the shed rod (with which I am in love!) Those of you who use a pair of sticks or a forked stick  in a second cross in your backstrap warp which you  grasp and twist to help open the heddle shed, will understand immediately what is going on with that stick. I put together something similar in my ikat piece right now so that I could try it out. But, more about that next week…

As for the kinds of textiles that are produced by these weavers and their traditional uses, I am trying to gather information about that for a future blog post.

1526640_771375512876288_903590434_nAbout that fancy footwork…when I think about it, I have been using similar foot movements to operate warps that I attach to my big toe, that is, a movement which relaxes the tension on the warp. I found that while I was weaving with such a set-up, rather than moving forward to relax the tension on the warp, I would simply flex my foot. It was done unconsciously and was such a natural and logical movement.

Now, I am not saying that tipping and controlling that big and heavy looking box  with one’s feet is natural and easy. I imagine that the feet must go through a long period of training to get to the point where they can manage the moves well.

Which is precisely what Tracy Hudson told me when I asked her to describe her experience weaving in Laos with looms that require some fancy footwork.

tracy hudson

In Tracy’s words:

I encountered this weaving method at the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR in 2013, where I spent six weeks on an internship, working with the traditional textile collection.
Katu weaver LaosOne photo shows me using Keo’s loom. My feet are flexed to release tension as I open the heddle shed, holding a bar wrapped behind the other shed sticks to assist the process.
The other photo is Keo, a Katu weaver from Salavan Province, my teacher & friend. You can see how all her toes are involved in the adjustment of tension. This complex use of the whole foot & toes was the most inaccessible part, since my feet are completely untrained!
When releasing tension, Keo can hold the bars high in her toes while flexing back with her feet. When I do this, there is a danger of losing my grip on the loom bar and it pops over my toes toward my body. So I tend to bend my knees a bit to loosen tension. But the bar still has to be propped high on the toes, so that it doesn’t drop to the ground beyond the feet.
Tracy has made a video available on Youtube of a Katu weaver at work which includes their beadwork and you can read more about her experience in Laos on her blog.
The pieces that make up the backstrap looms used by the Li weavers of Hainan Island are beautifully constructed and include bars with decorated paddle-like ends against which to place the feet…
A Li weaver demonstarting at the Santa Fe International Folk At Market. Picture by Pam Najdowski.

A Li weaver demonstrating at the Santa Fe International Folk At Market. Picture by Pam Najdowski.

I love seeing experienced toes and feet in action with the dexterity of hands and fingers. I found that my pathetic gringa big toe got sore and chafed with the rubbing of the tightly twisted handspun wool when I was weaving with my teacher Maxima in Cochabamba, Bolivia. After a couple of hours I transferred my warp to her big toe and we both wove attached to hers!
Toes can be used to tension the warp while making heddles or weaving or even to tension the heddle string. Below you can see my teacher Hilda using toes to hold her kinking overspun yarn taut as she makes heddles…
hilda making heddles
A big toe makes a fine warping stake but toes can  be employed in other ways during the warping process…
Dennis Penley collection C Philip Willet
This picture of a gentleman in Ecuador winding a circular warp was taken by Dennis Penley in the early 1960s and is used with the permission of C Philip Willett.
The first time I got to use a foot brace with a circular warp was when I was visiting with Ju Nie, a Montagnard backstrap weaver, in North Carolina. When you don’t have the traditional items on hand, like a nice hefty piece of bamboo, you have to improvise. Here Ju Nie is using a cardboard roll. The ability to brace the feet is so essential that Ju Nie and her fellow weavers would be unwilling to demonstrate their backstrap weaving if a foot brace could not be set-up at the venue.
cardboard foot brace
Here is another Montagnard backstrap weaver with an improvised set-up outside her home…
From Betsy Renfrew's webpage

From Betsy Renfrew’s webpage

A Burmese weaver that I visited  in Massachusetts had not yet found a way to set up a foot bracing bar in her home. She had her circular warp placed around a rod that was fixed to the window frame and sat at a distance away from the wall that did not allow her to push against anything. As I watched her weave, I noticed her idle feet stretch and flex as she unconsciously worked them against a non-existent foot brace. Such is the training and the muscle memory.
Backstrap weavers in Ecuador can weave indoors all year round if they please. They use circular warps which take up little space within the home compared to the amount of space needed for a warp created on a single plane at full stretch. Weavers that I spent time with in San Roque have a permanent weaving area in the home, in fact they had two, with blocks of wood stacked against the wall to accommodate the varying leg lengths of the different weavers in the family. This meant that each person could sit and comfortably brace their feet.
fluffing the woven fabric with thistles Ecuador
And just for fun…
Sometimes backstrap weaving doesn’t involve the feet at all. It is just about kicking back, putting the feet up and relaxing. Here’s one of my weaving friends in Texas…
austin class
Enough about feet. Next week I want to talk more about the Atayal shed rod and nifty ways for opening heddle sheds.
I’ll finish with some great projects from Ravelry and Facebook friends and students…
Emerald has put together a gorgeous warp with three sections for Andean Pebble Weave. This will be a Christmas gift pouch for her sister.
Julia is practicing motifs from the Peruvian highlands that I have charted in my second book…this is simply beautiful weaving…
And Marsha is back at the loom, this time with an adjustable vertical frame loom that she built herself. She is using the intermesh technique that I teach in my second book and cleverly combining it with plain weave. The frame is fixed to a piano stool so that it can be raised or lowered as needed.
image_medium (1)
Back to the loom, back to the warping board, and here’s hoping for another week of weaving distractions.


  1. Thank you, Laverne, for another wonderful account. I look forward to your blog popping into my inbox on Fridays, so informative and interesting.

  2. Very interesting article, Laverne, as always. Something new to try…..

  3. Nuestros pies, benditos pies…y para tí, un abrazo fuerte por permitirnos ver tanta belleza dispersa en el mundo.

  4. So fascinating. I love learning about different backstrap set-ups. Would love to have some building plans for the Japanese/ Korean style backstrap loom! Look forward to your next post on the Atayal shed rod…

  5. I love the tipping foot brace box. It looks very comfortable, if that’s the right word. It looks like it would feel good on the feet and stretching the calves. It even looks like it has storage inside for keep the loom parts when not in use.

  6. Mon, another Katu weaver at Ock Pop Tok, flips the 2 bamboo poles over each other from time to time. I thought I had a video of this to share with you, but have found that none of the ones I have uploaded to Youtube include this. I think I remember that she did this after she had changed the shed. Maybe it was a way to tighten any warp threads that were loosening slightly? I must ask her next time I see her.

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