Posted by: lavernewaddington | May 27, 2019

Backstrap Weaving – The View from the Driver’s Seat

Twice during my recent trip away I got to sit in the ”driver’s seat” to experience what a weaver from another culture sees as they sit at their backstrap loom gazing down the length of their warp.

First, I got to spend the day with Yan Zhang, a woman from mainland China who went to study with backstrap weavers of the Li minority group who live on Hainan Island, China. She kindly brought her loom and warping frame and we, along with my good friend Deanna, talked about all things backstrappy for a good part of the day. You may remember Yan from a previous post of mine in which I embedded a beautiful video that she made of herself warping and  weaving with her teacher on Hainan Island. I had also written about a loom and patterning process from Hainan Island when I crossed paths with Megan in this post. some time ago.

Unrolling the warp and feeling excited as the beautiful cloth and tools are revealed.

Soaking up everything Yan has to tell me about the process…and hoping that I might have a chance to try!

Here’s my view as I sit at Yan’s foot-tensioned loom with its circular warp. While I have woven many a time using my big toe to tension my warp, this was the first time I had had the opportunity to sit at one of these awesome foot-tensioned backstrap looms. Yan’s legs are shorter than mine which meant that we needed to unroll the woven cloth from the beam and adjust length. We didn’t take the time to get it quite right and, as a result, I didn’t have the full range of movement in my feet that was necessary to be able to operate the loom comfortably. Nevertheless I got to use the loom and throw some shots of weft and it was thrilling!

The pattern structure is what I call ”simple warp-floats”. Floats form the patterns on one face of the cloth but not on the other. The loom was set up to create all the pattern sheds with heddle rods and other sticks in place and so no pick-up was required. I loved having my feet be part of the loom. I loved the feeling of curling my toes around the beams. Of course it requires lots of practice to make just the right amount of tension adjustments with movements of the feet. Quite often, I moved my feet too much and had the far beam slide down off the balls of my feet.

Look at Yan’s feet flexed toward her so that she can relax tension enough on the warp to enable her to raise a heddled shed.  She is adding the threads that are held on her pattern stick to the main heddled shed.

The tools that Yan used were all beautiful in their simplicity. She told us that some weavers on Hainan Island have introduced materials such as pvc pipe and I often see these also being used in the highlands here in Bolivia and Peru. Yan’s tools are all natural traditional materials.

Like backstrap weavers in many regions around the world, the shuttle is a simple stick. I  love the shape the yarn takes as it is wound onto the shuttle and Yan showed us how the Li weavers create that. Look at that gorgeous sword on the floor! The heddle rods are doubled pieces of bamboo and weavers look long and hard to find bamboo that grows in such a way. Once found, these pieces very much cherished. They are formed when a thin off-shoot of bamboo grows parallel to a piece of larger girth. The larger piece holds the heddles  while the thinner piece closes around them and secures them. Yan does not use a temple. When I asked her about that, she indicated that the coil rod is what is used to help maintain consistent width.

When we asked Yan about the thread she was using we all had a chuckle when she said it came from the craft chain store Joann! My Vietnamese weaving friends in the USA were never quite comfortable with the thread that they bought locally. Whenever a family member traveled back to Vietnam they were asked to bring back thread.

Yan showed us her handwoven skirt fabric and the way it is wrapped and pleated to fit the user.

Yan also learned how to spin cotton with her Li teachers and showed us a beautiful piece that she has woven using her own hand spun cotton. Here it is removed from the loom still in its uncut circle…

One of the other many fascinating things for me was the frame that Li weavers use to measure their warps. The loom can be set up anywhere and held between the body and the feet. In the same way, the warp can be measured anywhere on a simple hand-held device!

The particular warping path shown in my photo is what Yan calls ”four point” and creates the shortest possible warp. She showed me how to wind this shortest warp for what she says might be used to make a scarf. We separated the colors at the cross sticks in much the same way I was taught to do using my four warping stakes. The heddles are only made once the warp is off the frame and on the beams. However, the threads are turned in such a way as the warp is wound on the frame to allow the immediate insertion of the coil rod when the warp is removed. You can see the way the warp threads wrap around the upper right corner of the frame.

I shared some of my weaving with Yan and we compared warp-float techniques as well as the techniques used to create patterns using supplementary weft. She liked my wrist band with my leaf pattern in supplementary weft and I was happy that she accepted it as a gift. Here she is wearing it while warping.

She showed us some fabric that was woven by her teacher which is considered particularly precious because it is embedded with slivers of mica. You can see one sliver glinting in the light in the next picture. Follow that column down and you will clearly see the pieces of mica sitting under the red warp threads.

It was an absolute delight meeting and weaving with Yan. It was just a few months ago that I first saw her beautiful video on Youtube. I am grateful to my friend Deanna for opening up her home for this visit. Deanna is my backstrap weaving buddy and she of course was just as interested to meet Yan and spend the day with her.

A week or so later, I got to sit in the driver’s seat at another backstrap loom, this time from Guatemala. Susan had been to Guatemala and bought a loom with a couple of yards of cotton cloth already woven and wound onto its beam. She asked me to give her some tips on how to operate the loom so that she could finish off the weaving.

Single-layer warps are used in Guatemala rather than the circular ones that the Li weavers use. This one is made up of lively cotton stripes. Two colors have been used to create horizontal bars on one half of the warp. There is even some variegated thread in use on one edge.  Variegated thread was also used to make the colorful heddles. Susan did not know for what this piece of cloth was intended but I think the sturdy cotton fabric could be made into tote bags.

Unlike the Li weavers, Guatemalan weavers use a simple temple which is made up of a length of bamboo with open ends that spans the width of the cloth and two small nails. The piece of bamboo sits below the fabric. The nails are pushed through the edges of the fabric from top to bottom and then turned into the open ends of the bamboo.

The loom came with a good ol’ hefty sword…not as smooth and polished with use as the sword Yan was using but it certainly does its job in propping open the sheds and beating the weft firmly into place. I used the two cross sticks that are typical in Guatemalan backstrap looms as ”twisty sticks” to help raise the heddle shed.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the way the weaver had settled the far end of her warp. This is the second time I have seen this. My Guatemalan teachers taught me to start out by weaving an inch or so at the far end of the loom before turning it around and starting from the other end. The inch of weaving at the far end locks the two layers of threads together around the far beam and also sets the width at the far end of the loom. I noticed that the weaver who was using the loom that Susan bought had simply placed a metal rod in the second cross, lodged it up against the far beam and firmly lashed it into place. This is a quicker and far less fiddly way of achieving the same result, although perhaps not quite as pretty!

Yes, I had a very nice time sitting in the driver’s seat of these two looms and am so grateful for these opportunities. I think both Yan and I show it in our faces…the joy of weaving on a backstrap loom! The wonder of “being the loom”!

Right now, I am happily weaving on a 180-inch-long narrow warp, creating the straps for my blue pocket bag. I bought the wool yarn I needed to finish the project while I was away. It’s just a plain blue strap in the sturdy intermesh structure and it is a nice way to get back into the loom with an easy task which gives me head space to plan out my next project while I weave. I will get to use my shoulder bag with its quirky pocket on my next trip away in late July.

Oh, and if you happen to subscribe to Spin Off magazine, the summer issue has an article by Devin Helman to which I was excited to be invited to contribute.

You will also see Sara Lamb’s contribution to Devin’s article, Honest Cloth, as well as words of spinning wisdom from Kristin Merritt whose work I often show here on my blog.

And…here’s the ten-month grey hair update.

DON’T FORGET: While Patternfish sales will cease on May 31st, you still have until June 30 to download and save your purchases to a safe place. I’ll be announcing the new home for my ebooks in my next post.









  1. What a wonderful day with Yan! I’m so glad you got to do that. Thanks for showing all the details. Those heddle sticks!!

    • Yes, those heddle sticks are pretty cool but look quite delicate. Surely bamboo must grow somewhere in this tropical place I live in!

  2. Your blog is so interesting and your passion for weaving such a joy to read about.

  3. Laverne, thank you for an interesting post. Would you be able to explain the warping method? I identify the cross sticks, but the interlacing at the top right corner has me questioning how to keep that cross when removing the warp.

    • The cross is being held on a pair of cross sticks. The placement of the threads at the top right corner is for insertion of the coil rod. The coil rod sits between the cross and the far end of the warp. If you know what a coil rod is and where it sits in the warp, you will understand how it does not have any effect on the cross once the warp is removed from the frame. Take a look at my FAQ page on the coil rod.

  4. I really enjoyed meeting you. Thanks for sharing your knowledge

    • Thanks for bringing along your Guatemalan loom. That was fun!

  5. This was a wonderful post – great pictures and information. Thank you for sharing!

  6. How wonderful, I loved this article! I look forward to the day I can travel and maybe take a class from you someplace. Your hair is fabulous! I let mine grow out last year. I am natural born blond but I did use a blond colorant to make it look better, last year I decided to let my hair grow out and I found that the top front and front sides have a mixture of white streaks blond but when I put my hair up in ponytail I discovered that all of the back of my hair is still dark blond! I like not having to use the chemical colorant; my hair and scalp seem much healthier and hair seems to be getting thicker and forehead line where it had been thinning. I think the colorant I had been using wasn’t healthy for my scalp.

  7. What a delightful post, Laverne! I love the warping frame from the Li. I learned a little about their cotton culture when I studied cotton spindles for a PLY article, but I didn’t know they were backstrap weavers until I saw Yan’s video! A new tool to try and make 🙂 Backstrap weaving is endlessly fascinating.

  8. Great post, and lovely memories!

  9. Fantastic article. I am printing this so I don’t lose it. I want to reread and refer to this. Thank you so very much!

  10. Laverne, you take us to so many wonderful places and introduce us to friends and experiences most of us can only dream of. Thankyou!
    It is interesting how these ladies have such dexterous feet when operating their looms, especially the Chinese. Imagine how difficult this would have been in the days when Chinese girls all had their feet bound so that they were deformed and useless! Perhaps that was the female equivalent of the Emperor’s fingernails which were allowed to grow into grotesque great curled talons to show how they were above the necessity for doing any manual task!
    Maybe the village women who did all the work were exempt from that horrible foot-binding custom, and their lives were so much more fulfilled and interesting and filled with beauty and creativity as well.

  11. Thank you for a wonderful post. It’s a great privilege to see travel the weaving world through your posts.

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