Posted by: lavernewaddington | December 28, 2015

Backstrap Weaving – Silk, Stitches, Samples and Shed Rods.

I thought I would write a post between Christmas and New Year this week so that while everyone is relaxing between all the festivities, they might have time to go online and read.

Here are some sweet  handcrafted fiber decorations and ornaments that I have been seeing online…

arlene davisThese were made by Arlene Davis from a pattern by Heidi Bears. You can see more about this project on Arlene’s page Woollen Wonders. I was about to launch into a project using teal and was happy to have this confirmation that I was heading in the right direction by planning on combining purple with it. This really makes me want to pick up a crochet hook.

Jennifer Williams, aka Inkled Pink, came up with a way to fashion inkle bands into gorgeous Christmas decorations…

Jennifer Williams decorations inkled pinkAnd, she shared it by writing a tutorial for these on her blog.

As a testament to how well the tutorial has been written, Annamieke Ruijper, in the Netherlands, quickly followed the directions and made her own. What a great way to use those pretty patterned bands that we tend to accumulate.

annamieke ruijper

I don’t do Christmas. I was here at home on the 24th and 25th happily winding a new silk warp, stitching panels together and sampling for a new project. The weather has been kind these last days with lower temperatures than normal. It is awful working with silk when you have sweaty hands and fingers. Mango season is in full swing and the large rosy ones from the Yungas have arrived costing all of 12 cents a piece. Meanwhile the local smaller yellow ones are raked together in their hundreds to rot in huge, smelly, fly-infested heaps on the street. While people enjoy the shade that the mango trees provide, most people consider the abundance of fruit a curse.

gifts and purchasesI got out the tubes of 60/2 silk that Deanna had given me when I recently visited her. Beautiful tubes of teal and yellow…loads of it!..reminding me of the colors of mangoes and refreshing tropical seas.

You can see them there in the photo at left among other goodies I brought home. My pictures can’t quite capture the amount of green that is in that teal.

I was pretty excited about the silk. Although I have lots of colors in  60/2 silk that I had bought in the UK several years ago as well as some from Redfish Dyeworks, they were very small skeins and tubes…enough for use as supplementary-weft or for my small wrist cuff projects. I didn’t have enough to take on any kind of large project.

Speaking of silk wrist cuffs, I spent some time sewing plastic snaps to the ribbon necklace and cuff that I made to match the yurt pouch I showed last week. They are made from 60/2 silk in both warp and weft and these are the largest things I have made with this silk so far…

silk accessories backstrap weavingI was really keen to make something much larger with all the new silk I had to play with. But first….some sampling.

I had learned from past experience that not all my 60/2 silk was the same. The purple that I bought in the UK is finer than the turquoise, for example, which meant that letters that I had sampled in turquoise a long time ago had their proportions altered when I tried to weave them in purple. I gave up and just wove the ”real” piece in turquoise. I was not in the mood to re-chart my letters for the purple silk.

This is the silk bookmark I wove with the letters for my nephew, Ryan, the triathlete. The inspirational quote was his favorite at that time.

silk bookmark for ryan backstrap weavingIn another project, I found that the Redfish Dyeworks 60/2 silk did not behave the same way as the UK stuff when washed. I had used some of each as supplementary weft in a project and they shrank differently when wet. That was disappointing! As a result, I ended up with scalloped edges on the brown project below.

guatemalan cotton backstrap weavingSo, I wasn’t taking any chances with these tubes of yellow and teal 60/2 silk. I wanted to know exactly what I was getting…no surprises, thank you very much.

silk samplesI sampled with the yellow for width and a bit of weft inlay. And, it’s a good thing I did as I had very much underestimated the width I would get from 200 ends.

And then I decided that I couldn’t even trust the information for the yellow to be the same for the teal and I sampled again in teal. Fortunately, samples for backstrap weaving do not need to consume huge amounts of yarn. The samples are a bit lumpy and bumpy because I didn’t use a coil rod.

I messed about with some supplementary-weft motifs to see how many warps the wefts could span before becoming awkwardly long and impractical. I tried silk and embroidery floss as the supplementary weft and decided I liked the silk better.

You probably know by now that I am not product-driven. Its all about the process for me and so the very last thing I decided was exactly what I wanted to make. I really just wanted to weave something large with the fine silk in plain weave and see if I could manage it on my backstrap loom. I decided on a sort of bandanna, or neckerchief. I remember some time ago planning one of those in the Guatemalan cotton that I had. It had never materialized.

guatemalan loom and pick up sticksI planned for about 18 inches of width based on a cotton bandanna that I have, wound the 2000 ends that were required, and then realized that none of my loom bars were long enough to comfortably hold this width.

Fortunately, I have an old Guatemalan loom that Lorraine in California gave me years ago. It had been given to her by her weaving teachers in Guatemala in the 1970s and she passed it on to me.

That loom is old and well used and full of character. The loom bars were just long enough but I still felt uncomfortable with the warp ends sitting so very near the end of the rods. The wonderful shed rod that came with the loom was longer and did the trick for the near beam. The shed rod is a thick piece of wood that is amazingly light for its size…just what you want in a shed rod. I wonder what kind of wood it is.

You can see above, the shed rod that I am using as the front beam and one of the other beams that I will use as the roll-up stick. And there’s my favorite Guatemalan pick-up stick. Below you can see the complete set of sticks and a spindle that Lorraine gave me. Those swords get a lot of use. This is the first time I will be using the shed rod.

Lorraine's loomI so wish my camera would capture the green in the teal silk…Anyway, here is the warp stretched ready for heddles. I haven’t found a long stick for the back beam yet and have the threads crammed onto one of my regular loom bars for now.

2000 ends 60/2 silk backstrap weavingNow to make 1000 string heddles. I love making heddles and used some size 60 tatting thread for them (thank you, Sharon).

making heddles silk warpTaking a break to go look for more tatting thread….

And here it is underway…

sik o silk supplementary weft motifsBefore I could start weaving, there was the coil rod to install and the cross to flip. As usual, I spent an entire morning sliding threads around trying to get them evenly spaced before I could throw the first shot of silk weft.

I LOVE wide warps! I am having so much fun with this…using the big swords, strumming the silk threads with the blunt end of my pick-up stick, snapping the back shed through the heddles, having my legs completely disappear beneath the width…so much fun!

motifs in discontinuous supplementary weft

I am using a discontinuous supplementary-weft technique which has the weft-turns shadowing the outline of the pattern. You can barely see the turns because of the fineness of the silk. I did not want to carry the gold supplementary weft from one edge of the fabric to the other or even as far as the gold stripe as I didn’t want the fabric to be ”thickened” by the extra weft sandwiched between the layers of threads.

You can see that I chose, as I generally do, to use a fairly slim shed rod and that I have it secured to a second stick. There are so many different ways that I have seen to set up and operate what I will call the ”back shed”. This happens to be my current preferred way. Anyone who has spent some time backstrap weaving will soon realize that it is the back shed that is the trickiest to operate. Clearing the threads through the heddles and to the front of the loom can be difficult if the yarn you are using is sticky. Forget the common description ”smooth as silk”…this spun silk is surprisingly sticky. There is a lot of strumming involved while sitting back and and applying as much tension to the warp as I can. I insert my sword next to the shed rod and then tip it on its side next to the heddles while strumming in front of the heddles with my pointed stick. My llama bone tool would be a little too rough on the silk.

Many weavers prefer to use a shed rod with a very large girth. This can add a lot of weight to the warp and I have seen weavers here in Bolivia and Peru use pvc pipe to give them the girth without excessive weight…

pvc pipe shed rodThey simply draw the shed rod down to the heddles and strum in front of the heddles to clear the shed while applying tension to the warp. If the yarn is not sticky, those threads will snap right through the heddles effortlessly. The drawback  for me is that a  very thick shed rod requires the weaver to use more effort to raise the heddles. There are many different ways to operate these simple looms!

miguel-andrango-loomWeavers in Ecuador with a load of heavy-ish sticky hand spun wool on their looms use two shed rods, as you can see above. The number of warp ends are halved and distributed over the two rods and the rods are rolled so that one set of threads is first raised and then the other.

two brown panels backsrap weavingWhat I will need to eventually find is another long rod for my back beam. Right now, the coil rod is keeping everything nicely spread at the far end. I can usually count on going up onto the terrace of my building and finding an abandoned broom or mop to cut down. The place at which I used to buy my dowel rods stopped carrying them over a year ago. Well, I can always just buy a broom, right?

As I started a brand new project, I decided that it was also time to finish off an old one. You may remember that just before I left on my last trip, I had woven two brown panels which I had been hoping to join using one of the kinds of decorative stitches that weavers here in Bolivia use. I had been disappointed to find that the nice straight edges that I had been hoping to butt together and connect had come out scalloped after the wet-finishing process.

You can see the two panels, at left, before they got washed.

Well, I just went ahead and tried to connect them anyway…and, it worked!…far better than I ever could have hoped. I had anticipated everything that could possibly go wrong and none of those things eventuated.

finished joining stitch on two panels backstrap weavingI was inspired, as I have been so many times before, by my teacher, Maxima. You can see her below joining the two panels of one of her new carrying cloths with a different stitch to the one I used. Hers look like staggered triangles.

Picture courtesy of Dorinda Dutcher and PAZA Bolivia.

Picture courtesy of Dorinda Dutcher and PAZA Bolivia.

And speaking of Maxima and the weavers and spinners of Cochabamba, a new product has been developed by the co-operative. Maxima has been teaching the teenagers to weave and put together yoga mat straps. Aren’t they great?

Picture courtesy of PAZA Bolivia.

Picture courtesy of PAZA Bolivia.

Picture courtesy of PAZA Bolivia.

Picture courtesy of PAZA Bolivia.

Here are some projects from my weaving friends…

moniek derooMoniek Deroo has been using my Andean Pebble Weave books and weaves her bands on an inkle loom. She is even designing her own original motifs.

julia wall hangingJulia has added another wall hanging to a beautiful series that she has been creating. This one has a pattern from my second book. It is a motif that I translated to the Andean Pebble Weave structure from a tablet woven design by Louise Ström. In the chart in the book, I left a large blank space between the repeats and challenged readers to design their own ”filler”. Julia did just that and created something that so perfectly matches the rest of the pattern. She is using Knit Picks Curio cotton which has beautiful sheen. It is a 2-ply cotton and I imagine it to be similar to the Circulo Clea that I use. I do prefer 2-ply to the more ”round” 3-ply crochet cotton thread.

poncho bethanBethan sent me a picture of the first of two panels that she will sew into a poncho. She is using her own hand spun wool. She mentioned some struggles with the back shed and that is to be expected, especially when using wool. I have seen Bolivian and Peruvian weavers strum away patiently for quite some time trying to coax those sticky wool threads to break their grip on each other and behave.

Lily at the loomFinally, I will show you one of Lily’s Christmas presents from her mom, Lori. You may remember Lily weaving pick-up patterns in my ”Wee Fingers” post not so long ago. Lori wove a small backstrap for her. It’s adorable!

lilys backstrap

Back to my silk bandanna project and the hunt for a long back beam for my loom….











  1. Hi Laverne – ¡Felíz Navidad! y un Prosper Año Nuevo!!
    I love reading all your newsletters. You mentioned that you needed a longer rod for your back beam- I don’t know if I showed you the 2 big Peruvian half finished backstrap weavings that I got back in 1980 – Would one of the sticks from those work for you? They’re both up at the lake so I can’t measure them now. But if you think any of the rods/beams or beaters might work, I’ll measure them when I get there in May. Of the 2 there’s one that I really don’t like and would be fine dismantling it for you. Just let me know and then we can check your calendar and figure out how to get it to you. hugs, Virginia

    • Hi Virginia. So nice to hear from you and thank you so much for your generous offer. I will email you. I am pretty sure I know the weaving you are talking about as I photographed many of them last time I visited you. There’s one unfinished one with some pretty jarring colors!

  2. Mangos for 12 cents?! Wow. I wish! Double Wow with your new silk project! I can’t stop looking at it. Isn’t it wonderful that fabric can be so flexible and forgiving to allow you to sew your two brown panels together so successfully! Absolutely beautiful. Yoga straps woven in Bolivia – brilliant! And Lilly’s backstrap (with Lilly weaving) is completely adorable.

  3. Hi Laverne,

    Just a thought… the silk may be behaving differently because of the way in which the fiber takes to the color of the dye. I realized this when I was weaving using local wool for rugs. The lighter color dyed wool was not as dense and easy to use and the darker colored wool was a much easier to use. I also confirmed this with my weaving mentor. So, unless the spinning is finer or the silk is of a different grade, it is probably the color it was dyed.

    • Thanks. Yes, I have come across what you describe with various materials. The dye color certainly does seem to to affect the behavior.It makes it necessary to sample with the color I intend using although, sometimes I don’t want to for fear of running out of thread for the main project.

  4. It’s interesting how you have learned to make do over there and yet many of us focus on having the perfect gear and equipment for everything (speaking as a beginner rigid heddle loom weaver, sewer, etc plus hiker/camper). I am always buying equipment for my crafts and hiking/camping. My one invention was to get a wooden ruler fashioned into a pick up stick that works really well (my father did it on his lathe). I also asked him to do a large pick up stick from some spare lumber. He did it beautifully but it is too heavy! So I ended up ordering one from Ashford.

    • Hi Melanie. Yes, some of my favorite tools are the home made make-do type ones. I now have four broomsticks and am ready for anything!

  5. That teal project of yours is absolutely stunningly beautiful. There was so much I learned from this blog – two shed rods for sticky warps, tatting cotton for heddles, beautiful embroidery stitching for joining panels… thank you! You know, though, I still don’t really get the “coil rod” so if you could one day take some more photos of this bit or direct me to where I might learn a bit more about exactly what it looks like and how to put it in there, I would be so grateful.
    I loved the idea for yoga mats and inkle place mats, and that little wee backstrap is so cute, isn’t it?

    • Hi Julia. Thanks so much for your comments. There is a list of FAQs on the side bar of the blog. The very last one is about the coil rod. I have never done a tutorial on this but if you follow the links to the various posts I have written about it, you should be able to see how it works. There is a drawing and many photos. I hope this helps until the day when I can write more specific instructions.

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