Posted by: lavernewaddington | June 15, 2019

Backstrap Weaving – Order and Disorder

It all started a few years ago when my weaving friend Bhakti gave me a loom with a circular warp that she had been using to study with a group of Karen backstrap weavers. Her teachers had created the warp and set it up for her. It seems that they used the sticks that they would normally use for their much wider projects. The coil rod, heddle sticks and shed rod were clumsily long for this narrow warp. Because I was traveling, the first thing I did was leave behind the large piece of long pvc pipe that they had been using as the shed rod. It was way too bulky to pack. I saved the space it had been occupying with a sturdy piece of cord.

I loved the simple backstrap made from a piece of plastic Thai rice sack. A halved stick of bamboo fills the seam at the two sides so that the strap doesn’t fold in on itself. The sword was also wonderful as was the forked dowel rod that had been neatly split in two. The unwoven warp, and later the cloth itself, get clamped between the two pieces of that split rod and then rolled with the help of another rod to hold the circular warp in place. This stops the warp from slipping around the two end beams as the weaver beats. It was too precious a piece to leave behind even though it was heavy and bulky. The simple temple, which consisted of a flat stick with pins taped to ends, was also a treasure.

In case you are not familiar with what I mean by a circular warp, compare the two warps in this next picture….

The warp with the blue and yellow pattern is circular. You start weaving at one point and continue around the circle until you arrive back at the place where you started. The entire warp slides and rotates around its two end beams every time you advance the warp. This means that the weaver always stays more or less seated at the same distance from the end of the warp throughout the project.

The other warp is the one that I more typically use…a single-plane warp. You start weaving at one end and finish at the other end. The cloth is rolled up as the weaving advances. The weaver, therefore, moves closer and closer to the end beam as the weaving advances.

I learned about the use of circular warps on backstrap looms with the Montagnard (Vietnamese hilltribe) backstrap weavers with whom I studied some years ago and have used this kind of warp a few times in my own work. It is particularly handy when I want to weave a piece that is too long to fit in my weaving space on a single-plane set-up, like the purple scarf project below….

Here’s another long warp that I set up in circular fashion as a demonstration piece…

Above, you can clearly see the circular nature of the warp my Montagnard teacher, Ju Nie, is using.

One thing I have struggled with a little when using a circular warp is getting the warp well clamped and fixed in position in order to start the weaving. My aim has always been to clamp the warp so that I can start weaving as close to all the knots (where I changed colors in the warp) as possible. This creates the smallest amount of  loom waste. This has always involved a lot of fiddling and messing about, for me in my inexperience, with the threads slipping and sliding in their circle around the two end beams so that the knots eventually got very much misaligned. My warp that had come off the warping stakes in such good order would end up in complete disorder! Eventually I would get it clamped but there would be much more waste than I had anticipated because the knots had slipped so much out of alignment. Part of the problem is that I didn’t insert the coil rod while winding the warp. A coil rod in a circular warp has a very useful stabilizing effect even before you can actually start weaving.

I noticed that the Karen weavers set up their warp in a slightly different way which keeps the color changes in the warp perfectly aligned and in good order no matter how much messing about you do. They use two coil rods….one in the typical position beyond the shed rod and the other is positioned at the point in the warp where one would start weaving. This second one creates even more stability and locks everything at the color changes into position.

This is the way I would go about winding a warp if I wanted to replicate the set-up of the Karen warp I was given…

Of course, I can’t say that this is the way they did it themselves.

The two blackened circles are the two fixed stakes that hold the warp tension. Ca = the coil rod at the ”start” of the warp. Cb = the coil rod in its typical position beyond the shed rod. The stakes marked X hold the cross. I know that the Karen weavers use a hollow rod of large girth (H) to measure the length of the heddles that they create while they wind the warp. Later, a stick of much smaller girth is inserted in the tube. The tube is slid out from beneath the heddles and the thinner stick remains behind as the heddle rod.

I could see from examining the Ca coil rod in my Karen warp that the first and last ends of warp were tied directly to the rod. At a color change, the tail of the old color would be left on standby until it was later called into use again. The new color would be tied to the rod. It all looks a bit disorderly there in the picture below but, wow, what a difference it makes to getting the warp nicely clamped and positioned so that the start of the weaving can be as orderly as possible!

I placed a stiff cardboard strip in one of the sheds at the coil rod which gave me a nice straight and even base against which to beat and started weaving from there.

In the very first picture I showed of the warp you may have noticed that there were two shuttles. The warp had been set up for some continuous patterning with supplementary-weft. The green weft was used for the ground weave and the white weft was the supplemental patterning thread. The warp included two patterning rods that raised certain warp threads in order to form the simple repeating pattern. These were placed in the same way that my Guatemalan weaving teachers had shown me.

I wasn’t really in love with the pattern and I also didn’t care for the fact that the ground weave was more warp-dominant than warp-faced so, once I had decided that I was going to actually sit and weave this piece (about three years after having received it!), I removed the patterning sticks and un-wove the six inches or so of cloth that had been started.

I used a thick piece of dowel to replace the pvc shed rod that I had removed. And then I put sticks in the original cross to get an idea of how wide this warp would be if I wove it as warp-faced rather than warp-dominant.

I am in the habit of first weaving a sample with new-to-me yarn before taking on a major project like this so that I know exactly what width to expect. That wasn’t an option this time. By putting in cross sticks and gently sliding them back and forth along the warp until everything settles, I can then push the threads around and get a pretty good idea of the where these threads will want to sit in my hands when I am in the driver’s seat. It’s worth noting that ten different weavers could work on this warp and all create different widths of good warp-faced cloth. The threads will behave in different ways with different weavers at the loom according to how how much tension each places on the wrap, how they beat and how they handle the weft. Something that was a little unusual for me was the fact that the warp was made up of doubled threads.

The first thing I had to come to terms with was the lack of order in the green strips. I am a bit nutty when it comes to symmetry. The green strips were all different widths. Well, the fact is that I didn’t come to terms with it and I cut and pulled out ends so that the two outer strips matched. I then made the two inner ones match too. They were slightly wider than the two outer ones. One white stripe was missing a couple of ends but I decided I would live with that!

ABOVE: In “jammies” on a wintry day trying to decide what to do about those uneven green bits!

From order to disorder….I then decided that the little supplementary-weft patterns that I planned to use, needed to be scattered randomly along the length of the piece. I don’t do random very well and every time I try, I find myself unconsciously slipping back into a pattern. I pushed ahead trying to be as little controlled by a need for symmetry and orderly patterning as I could.

There was plenty of warp to work with and so I decided the first part would just be about seeing if I had set the width correctly. Then I would decide on the motifs I would use, the material for the supplementary weft and the colors. The warp didn’t come with enough weft material to weave the complete project and so I used some white thread I have in my stash. You can see the turns of the white weft along the edges. A bit later I discovered that I did in fact have some green in my stash that almost perfectly matched the warp color.

Below you can see the fun moment when the ”starting coil rod” rounds the far beam and starts heading towards you rather than away from you. You finally get to catch just a glimpse of what you have woven so far….

The warp is in good order which is more than can be said about the contents of my cupboard!

And getting closer….and then closer….

In the picture above left you can see that I am using a shed rod attached with rubber bands to a second stick. These two form the system that I call the ”twisty sticks” and twisting them is what helps me to open a nice clean heddle shed without having the scrape the heddles along the warp. This way of operating the loom is one I learned from a backstrap weaver in Peru and is just one of many methods that I have seen backstrap weavers use.

In the picture on the right, you can see the flat stick (it’s actually a shuttle that I am re-purposing) that I kept permanently positioned in the ”back” shed at the shed rod. I would pull it down towards the heddle and then tilt it on its side to raise and clear that shed through the heddles. Then I would leave it lying flat once again within the shed when it wasn’t in use.

Getting veeeeery close….The two coil rods and the shed rod (I am using a two-stick shed rod aka ”twisty sticks”) are now so close together that if I wish to continue, I’ll need to change the large shed rod to a much slimmer one, which is what I did. With that, I was able to squeeze in another couple of inches.

And, this is where I called it quits….

All sticks have been removed and you can see the unwoven warp that connects the start of the woven cloth to the end. What a mess that is!

And here is the cloth straight off the loom….

One idea I have is to lay pieces of the cloth side by side, joining them with decorative stitching, and make a bag of some sort. I will let the cloth lie around for a while and see what other ideas come along.

Here are the simple sticks that went into this project from top to bottom…

far beam,

forked split rod (these are the ones that came with the warp but I ended up using the pair below them which I had bought from another backstrap weaver from Burma. They are much lighter in weight.),

shuttle (I didn’t use the stick shuttle that came with the warp as I am not fond of that kind of shuttle),

sword/beater (this is an old favorite of mine from back in 1995. It was originally a very long shuttle for my Navajo loom which was cut down and beveled to become a simple sword…love it!),

shed rod,

heddle rod and second heddle -”protection” rod,

starter coil rod (Ca)….interesting how it ended up a bit bowed!,

coil rod (Cb),

second shed stick which together with the shed rod formed the ”twisty sticks”.

Oh, and there was a second rod (not pictured) that was used together with the split rod to roll and secure the near end of the warp. I didn’t feel any need for a temple.

One other thing worth mentioning is that I have a new appreciation for the way my Guatemalan weaving teachers taught me to enclose the warp threads in heddles. This is the same method that the Karen weavers use and is also used by Yan, who brought her Li-style backstrap loom to show me, and Ju Nie my Montagnard teacher. I’ll expand on this in another post after I have done some experiments.

In the meantime, I must write to Bhakti and show her what became of her wonderful gift!









  1. Well done! That was quick weaving! It looks fabulous, and I see it as a big long cummerbund belt that can be wrapped around again & again…. but I’m partial to that kind of clothing 😉

  2. I’m looking forward to your observations about heddles. I’ve been noticing advantages to both methods too.

  3. I recently took a backstrap weaving class from a lady that taught the Karen approach to backstrap weaving … and this writeup in your Blog, Laverne, is an excellent capture of what we learned in the class. Thank you so much for writing this all down to succinctly! One thing … I would love a detailed description of how to do the “as you warp” string heddles set up. I was not able to grasp that concept as we made our warps and would love to know how to do that! Your rescued warp and embellished weaving is gorgeous, Laverne!

    • I can’t tell you how the Karen weavers do it as I received the warp with the heddles already made. I did, however, make a video explaining how Ju Nie, my Montagnard teacher, made her heddles as she wound the warp. The end result, if that is what interests you, is essentially the same. You might find that helpful.

  4. I love your energy for your weaving. Your detailed explanation makes for a really good read. I enjoy your emails. Keep up the good work.

  5. I have to chuckle when you talk about your aversion to “randomness” because that is so you! 😉 BUT – the most wonderful part of this installment, for ME anyway, happened in the first two photos. That awesome back strap belt!! I have a couple bird seed bags that I just could not throw away. Now I know why!! I have meant to weave myself one ever since the first workshop with you. For some reason I just wasn’t “feeling it.” The next time I see you I hope to show you my belt, inspired by this post!!

  6. I love seeing those supplementary weft designs here and there. Very beautiful.

  7. Amazing. Informative.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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