Posted by: lavernewaddington | February 28, 2020

Backstrap Weaving – Percolating

Ikat! I have been giving myself time to allow the abundance of images and information that I keep finding on ikat to slowly filter so that I can focus on the next project. Without this filtering, there is the tendency to want to try everything in the one project. Another thing that is driving that tendency is the fact that my supply of natural-color 60/2 silk is coming to an end. I had used much more than originally planned in the last ikat project. This project was supposed to be a “sample” which for me is typically pretty small. The project turned into something else all together and will end up hanging on a wall.

Here it is after having been pressed good and hard. That always brings out the sheen of the silk but it has been hard to capture it in a photo.

In a way I am being forced to stop and ponder and allow the ideas to percolate because I was surprised to find that the suppliers of alum that I have always used here in Santa Cruz suddenly don’t carry it any more. I had been planning to dye my next ikat project with cochineal and was depending on being able to find alum. I have yet to find a substitute for alum as the mordant. That brought the plans for the next project to a halt.

Getting cochineal here in the lowlands is usually the tricky bit, not the alum. Cochineal is not used for dyeing here but is sold instead by the ladies in the street markets who carry home remedies. They tell me that it is to be taken as a remedy for susto which I can only understand to mean “fright” or perhaps that could be stretched to mean “anxiety”? Finding cochineal was even trickier this time. The massive street market that lies just two blocks from my home was recently “cleaned up”. All the vendors who normally wander the streets or sit on the sidewalk were ordered to move on. This must have included some of the home remedy vendors.

Asking the wrong vendor brought on a cranky almost offended response. It seems to me that this attitude is somehow part of the Highland-versus-Lowland vibe that is quite strong here in lowland Santa Cruz where certain things associated with the highlands, such as the chewing of coca leaves, are rejected as inferior and “indio”. It appeared that only the vendors from the highlands would have cochineal in their home remedy stalls. In any case, you can see that I was successful in finding someone from whom to buy the little dried beetles.

One down, one to go – alum. I was told that the Mennonites use alum when canning their produce so I will be off to the Mennonite market to see if I can find it there. I have not been to that market before and look forward to it. I am told that it is a market of farming implements and supplies for raising livestock etc.

With those two items in hand, I can start to make some experiments. I wonder what kind of red I will get? I will be happy with pretty much anything except  pink. Here’s the color I got with cochineal on my hand spun llama fiber many years ago using an alum pre-mordant. I used it in small double weave, tubular band and complementary-warp pick-up projects.

My challenges for this next ikat project include using a natural dye and tying a much finer pattern. I was lucky to be shown a detailed image of a small section of an ikat textile from Indonesia in which I could actually count the warp threads. I could see that the weaver had tied around groups of six ends to create such a fine and detailed pattern. I could clearly see the three white  warp threads in the woven cloth against the morinda-dyed background. WOW.

I know that the hand spun cotton that weaver was using is most likely thicker than the 60/2 silk I have been using. That makes it hard to make a comparison. In my last piece I tied around sections of fourteen ends in the pattern area and around twenty eight ends where I had created broad bands of resist. I would love to know generally how fine the hand spun cotton used in the Indonesian ikat pieces is in terms of wpi.

The other challenge is creating a new pattern to use with the finer tying. That hasn’t been easy….I have been looking around a lot for ideas and there’s just way too much input!

I have sketched out something very loosely based on leaves. Leaves have become one of my signature patterns and so I figured it would be appropriate to do something with stylized leaves. What I have drawn has ended up being so stylized that it may not be recognizable as leaves, but that’s okay. Whether I can transfer my sketch to the warp remains to be seen.

So far, I have worked with steps of fixed height and width to form the diagonal lines in the patterns, all carefully plotted and measured out. All the angles have been the same. The pattern I have sketched will involve a lot more free-form tying. Oh my goodness, what have I done?! I can often get very carried away creating these challenges right up until the moment I see the warp stretched out before me. Then some hasty adjustments are made. I remind myself every time I think I have become ridiculously over ambitious with this new pattern I have sketched that I did, after all, manage to tie a a couple of fairly nice circles some years ago. Let’s wait and see what happens.

The other benefit of taking time-out is that I have had much more time to spend on the book. I still can’t quite see the end in sight but I have made really good progress. 

Now, I have something wonderful to show from a weaving friend, Emily Robison. I can’t remember exactly how Emily and I connected but she contacted me online and we were able to meet up on one of my trips away and weave double weave bands together. You can see her already weaving a pattern of her own creation at left.

I asked Emily if she would like to write a couple of paragraphs to share with you about her woven work and her experience learning to weave on a backstrap loom in Micronesia  and I will leave the rest of the story for you in her own words….

To my knowledge, the type of weaving that I do is found only in the outer islands of Yap state, in the Federated States of Micronesia — migratory origins unknown. They are a collection of about 16 tiny inhabited low-lying coral islands (possibly all less than one square mile). The culture practiced in the outer islands is very distinct from the main island of Yap — the two cultures have languages of unrelated origins — but they are very intertwined. The islands practice a caste system, and the main island considers outer island people and culture to be either very low caste or other caste, meaning that a main islander wouldn’t go to the homes or eat the food of an outer islander, and main islanders do not weave lava lava.

Photo supplied by Emily Robison of her own non-traditional use of some of the patterning elements she learned with the weavers of the outer islands.

The backstrap woven fabric called lava lava is used in certain patterns as the only form of outer island female dress — a type of wraparound skirt — and in other patterns it is used as part of the traditional male main island dress. It is also used in main islander funeral ceremonies. Therefore it’s an important trade item from the outer islands to the main islands, but main islanders consider it taboo to participate in any part of the manufacture.

Photo supplied by Emily Robison of her current work which she says is a reproduction of one of her teacher’s pieces except for the supplementary-weft pattern.

Traditionally, lava lavas were woven of banana and hibiscus bark fibers and naturally dyed in reds and blacks (maybe other colors, but I haven’t seen them), but this practice has shifted in favor of commercially available thread from China. This transition is less than 50 years old. The traditional fabrics weren’t warp-faced, I don’t think — at least the few I’ve seen weren’t — but today’s lava lavas are.

Silk is too expensive, wool too hot, and cotton doesn’t hold up to the production, so they exclusively used polyester (but I’ve heard rumors of people incorporating more cotton in the past 10 years). Their patterns are pretty distinct and uniform. People can use many colors (reds are off limits unless used as an accent color or on the edges), but the two types of patterns are the lava lavas with large fields of solid color and accents on the edges and in the middle. These are the ones that have a supplemental weft, and an example is the one that I am currently weaving. (Emily tells me that the supplementary-weft patterning technique shows pattern on both faces of the cloth. Here is a view of the back of the cloth of her current piece showing the black supplementary-weft pattern.)

Another example is the style with 6 or 7 contrasting stripes (I don’t know when one would be chosen over the other — 6 is more common) on a colorful background. The stripes are made of two complementary colors and some patterning. 

The ones for men are just black and white, 6 or 7 striped. 

Image of a Yapese man’s lava lava taken by Laverne from the website of

Single-thread floats in the green section on the upper face of the cloth.

Much to the chagrin of my Yapese host family, I studied with outer islanders and wove in secret for about 18 months. It was a real taboo thing to do and it didn’t make me any friends… so I don’t know as much as I could have learned if I’d been living with an outer island family.

The patterns are made with two sticks that control the floats — one for the right face, and one for the reverse face. The warp is always continuous, and the tension rod loop, string heddles, and pattern floats are all created in the warping process.

(Note from Laverne: I just love that extra heddle peg sitting there so neatly like that. If you are curious about how heddles are made during the warping process, I can show you how my Montagnard (Vietnames hilltribe) backstrap weaving teachers do it. It’s probably not exactly the same way as the Yapese weavers do it but it will give you an idea for now. There’s a video showing how Ju Nie does it embedded in this blog post  followed by a video I made slowing the process down so that you can more easily see how it works.)

Lava lavas must be long enough to cover a woman from upper hips to knees (it is taboo to show off any thigh). and so they are usually about 26 inches wide and 60 inches long. Once cut, the strings of the fringe are kept long to create a kind of modesty curtain between the legs. They’re worn by wrapping them in half around the body, and then pinching the two sides together at the right hip and folding the fringe inward to sit between the legs. They’re usually tied on with a belt, but some ladies just tuck them in.

Emily wearing a lava lava.

You can follow Emily’s work via her Instagram account: @thewovenworld. She is hoping to create a website soon too.

To finish, I have a few things to show you from my online weaving friends….

Kathleen Frtiz recently received a Guatemalan backstrap loom and has taken off on her backstrap weaving adventure as if she had been born for it. This is only her third piece as far as I can tell. It is woven in fine cotton and she is pleased with how surprisingly pliant it is even before it has been wet finished. She used this piece to experiment with patterning with supplementary weft using the patterning sticks and techniques that I describe in this tutorial.

Nancy Ayton made sweet hanging ornaments from her Andean Pebble Weave bands. The deer head motif is her own creation. I love it when people start designing their own patterns. The owl and bird motif is from my Complementary-warp Pattern Book and the knot-work pattern is from More Andean Pebble Weave Patterns.

Nora Dereli is using her inkle loom to weave one of several knot-work patterns that are charted in More Andean Pebble Weave Patterns. This is a motif that  Louise Ström weaves in one of the structures that are woven using tablets. I translated the motif to the Andean Pebble Weave structure.

Susan Bratt finished weaving a guitar strap on her backstrap loom using the Andean Pebble Weave structure. The pattern is from the Complementary-warp Pattern Book.

Wendy Garrity completed what she tells me is her first silk-on-silk wrist band using the supplementary-weft patterning technique known as sampa in Bhutan. The multi-color spots of color that appear between the floats of supplementary weft are so pretty. Wendy studied weaving on a backstrap loom and various traditional patterning techniques while living and working in Bhutan and leads textile tours there every year. Her website is Textile Trails.

Gregory W and I wove double weave bands together and she came up with this lovely band with her own original design shortly after. Her guild had challenged members to use these colors in a project and this was Gregory’s contribution.


Marilyn Albright and I have never met but I feel that we are bound to one of these days in her movements between Alaska and Mexico. She has been experimenting with Bedouin al’ouerjan patterns using my tutorials here on this blog and adding her own twist to the traditional pattern .

And here’s one more from Priscilla Bradburn who wove this band after learning Andean Pebble Weave from my book Andean Pebble Weave on Inkle Looms. She has taken flat-top S hooks, hearts, diamonds and other basic shapes and combined them in her own unique way to create a new pattern of her own. This and her creative use of color has produced a beautiful band! 

Let’s hope my hunt for alum is successful otherwise it will be back to the synthetic dyes for me. I wonder what other interesting things I will see at the Mennonite farmers’ market.

Until next time…









  1. Very interesting post, Laverne

    • I am glad you enjoyed Kathleen and it’s nice to hear from you.

  2. Hi Laverne – I never cease to be amazed by your skill. I’ve just checked through some of the balls of handspun cotton I have brought back from Indonesia – I think mainly from Lembata. The wpi ranged from 20 to 24 on the 4 balls I tested. Obviously it all depends on the skill of the weaver. Don’t forget that in many places (such as Sumba) they now use machine spun cotton. Hope that helps, Sue.

    • Thank you so much. Sue! I hadn’t realized that machine-spun cotton is used in many places, including Sumba. Would you say that the machine spun thread they choose to use is finer than the hand spun?

  3. Dear Laverne, When I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, susto meant “soul loss”. It could be brought on by fright or other misfortunes. This is something for which you could seek treatment from a curandero/a. Graceanne

    • What a great piece of information, Graceanne. Thank you so much. Soul loss sounds pretty serious. I wonder what the lady who sold me the cochineal thought about the quantity I bought. She didn’t ask and I didn’t tell what I the intended use was.

  4. Your ikat piece is positively stunning! Ikat is such a mystery to me, and I’m sure it always will be! Fortunately cochineal is relatively easy to get in Oaxaca.
    I enjoyed the sections written by your friend Emily Robison – it’s truly mind-boggling the variety of techniques that are used throughout the world. Seeing other weaver’s designs and color choices is so inspiring, and I was quite surprised to see my Bedouin sample!
    I am making a little sample of the double weave from your tutorial, but had to put it on hold so I could finish a bigger project before leaving. I look forward to your double weave book, as I like the process of that weaving.
    Thanks for all you do!

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post, Marilyn. Thank you for the feedback. I imagine cochineal is abundant and relatively inexpensive in Oaxaca. Fortunately, I can get enough for my needs here although it is quite pricey. The vendors here are used to selling it by the teaspoonful.

  5. Your first image of lavender/blue/green/ecru is just wonderful! I could ship you some alum but I don’t think that is what you want to happen. If you get desperate let me know.

    • the piece you mentioned was woven by Emily. Thanks for the offer to ship alum. Both incoming and outgoing mail has become horribly unreliable here but thank you for the offer.

  6. Laverne, each post is such treat! Thank you

  7. Sensory overload. It’s all gorgeous.

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