Posted by: lavernewaddington | April 19, 2021

Backstrap Weaving – Come Fly With Me

Let’s do a little armchair traveling.

I have been enjoying talking to my weaving friends in the USA via Zoom and hearing about the little freedoms that they are now experiencing in their small post-vaccination worlds. Bubbles seem to be expanding to allow some people to feel comfortable in gatherings of vaccinated friends. Here in Bolivia as in many countries around the world, some of which are deemed wealthy, poor or somewhere in-between, we are still waiting. Thankfully, the internet allows us to travel to far off places from the safety of our homes.

First stop: the Tibetan Plateau. Daniel Miller allowed me to share this photo that he took of a backstrap weaver who is part of a nomadic group of people that lives on the high Tibetan plateau. The tent has been constructed from panels of woven yak fiber that are woven on a ground loom. The piece that the lady is weaving in this picture is more likely destined to be a saddle bag. She has found the perfect rock against which to brace her feet and make the operation of the loom a little easier on her back. The rock seems to be deeply embedded in the ground. However, I have to wonder if a rock of such perfect shape and size is a favorite that she transports on the back of a yak from from place to place so that she can quickly set up and weave more comfortably. Cheese made from yak and goat milk lies on the surrounding sheets of cloth.

I like to stare at this picture and imagine the sounds that might accompany this weaver…a gust of wind passing across the plain that causes the panels of the tent to billow and flap, the gentle clacking of the sticks as she changes sheds, the rasping sound of the sword against the handspun wool, perhaps the snorting, stamping or sighing of the yaks or a burst of bleating from the goats. I have a recently-formed habit of thinking sounds into pictures.

Tent panels of woven yak yarn. Photo: Daniel Miller

I have been listening to a BBC Radio program called Ramblings in which Clare Balding walks paths in urban and rural Britain while chatting with friends and other personalities. As beautiful as all that countryside must be, there’s something very special about only being able to listen to the sounds of Clare’s ramblings and her descriptions rather than being able to see it all. There’s the squelching sound of her feet on wet turf, the patter of hooves along a bridle path, the gurgling of a stream….

On a recent episode she walked with a sound recordist who introduced me to the words “geophony”, which covers sounds that are made by wind and water, for example; “biophony” which covers the sounds of animal life; and “anthropophony”, the sounds that we humans produce. It made me think of roughly this time last year when we were in our very tight lockdown and the way I had suddenly become aware for the first time of the sounds of our fall season in the form of the rustling leaves traveling over the cobbled yard as well as the birds that sounded like party whistles. It was weird and just a little difficult to adjust to at first.

Enjoying the sounds of lockdown from my third-floor window.

Sadly, one year later, that has all been drowned out now by the typical sounds we humans make as we go about our daily lives. Some are not necessarily unpleasant. Others are disturbing on many levels.

Just this morning I became aware of a new and unusual sound…a strange grinding metallic scraping followed by a heavy thump which was repeated at least twenty times. Leaning out the window, I came to discover that it was the sound of one man struggling to transport a large green oxygen bottle down four flights of stairs and into a truck. Apparently someone in one of the downstairs apartments has been suffering with Covid. The fact that the bottle was being removed and not replaced by another is hopefully a good sign.

But, back to the backstrap weaver seated at her loom far away on the Tibetan plateau. I would like to share a link of more of Daniel Miller’s spectacular photos that accompany an article that he wrote about these nomadic peoples. He has also published several books that are available on Blurb.

From the Himalaya, a video of a backstrap weaver preparing her warp and weaving her cloth has been making the rounds in the various online forums. Here we get to enjoy the sounds and don’t need to imagine them. The clacking of the sticks is my favorite part and makes me smile every time I watch this precious video. I like hearing her whispered mutterings to herself as she works and try to imagine from my own experience with warping what she might be saying. I love listening to her counting her threads while roosters crow and chickens fuss.

How wonderful that she separates the threads into the various sheds that she needs to weave her houndstooth pattern right there on the warping stakes. I marvel at the weaver’s confidence as she removes the warp from the stakes with her shed rods floating in the warp. I would have them all tied off with additional safety strings in place and still feel nervous about losing one!

And now, let’s fly over to the Outer Islands of Micronesia. Unfortunately, this very low-resolution map image is the only one that I could find. I hope that it gives you some idea of the location of Yap which is written in red on the map.

From visityap.com

I met Emily Robison when she came to weave with me on one of my visits to the USA. She told me about her experience learning to weave with backstrap weavers when she was living In Micronesia and allowed me to share some of her pictures in a blog post I published some time ago. This is the loom that Emily built and set up for her own use in the style that she was taught by the weavers of the Outer Islands of Yap state.

This and the following three photos are from the website of weavingconnections.org

An organization called Habele found Emily via my blog post and contacted her for help on one of their projects called “Weaving Connections. Habele describes itself as…

a 501c3 nonprofit promoting educational access and accomplishment among Micronesian communities.

“Weaving Connections” an initiative of Habele established in 2020 to support Remathau women in the mainland United States. “Weaving Connections” helps in sustaining and continuing their distinctive weaving traditions that keep and maintain cultural identities and can provide means for economic support.

On their website you can find detailed instructions with plenty of step-by-step photos on how to build one of the typical looms as well as tutorials on constructing a warping board and making a sword.

An interesting feature of these looms which I find quite unusual is the use of a board as the cloth beam. Instead of a rod, a broad board is used as the near beam and it is to this piece of shaped wood that the backstrap is attached. I can see the advantage of this in that it raises the top layer of the circular warp high above the lower layer. I have often found the closeness of the cloth to the unwoven warp ends in the lower layer of a circular warp to be distracting, particularly when I am using supplementary weft.

You wll find more pictures of this broad beam in use on the loom on the website.

Emily writes:

I’m super excited to share a project I’ve been working on to support the preservation of indigenous Outer Island Yapese backstrap weaving. One of our major goals is to help young Micronesian women living in the US get access to the tools they need to learn their craft while going to school and such, but this website is a great resource for any backstrap weaver interested in Pacific Island technique, including plans for building tools.

Other articles on the website talk about the lavalava which is the typical garment that is made from the cloth woven on the backstrap loom. You can also read about what weaving means to the women who live on these Outer Islands.

When thinking about sounds, I like to add those of the ocean, tropical birdlife and breezes blowing through tropical vegetation as I imagine these women seated at their backstrap looms.

In my next post, I’ll take you to visit the Boruca people of Costa Rica via the pictures that Constance Lee generously shared with me. Constance traveled to Costa Rica from her home in the USA to stay with a family in a Boruca village in the Talamanca Mountains. She was shown the process of preparing, spinning and dyeing cotton with natural plant dyes so that it could be woven into cloth on a backstrap loom. I had no idea that backstrap loom weaving was still practiced in Costa Rica and was so grateful that Constance organized an invitation for me to attend a program that she gave on her experience via Zoom. Here’s a taster…

As for my own backstrap loom, it currently sits as a pile of sticks on my bedroom floor while I plan Panel 4 in the Within These Walls series. Yes, I have decided that a fourth panel is a must and I would like this one to represent what I imagine my post-pandemic world will look like. I am skipping the post-vaccination stage as I have absolutely no idea what that world might look like. Does anyone?

The panel that I just finished is the transition between the chaos of Panel 1 and the relative harmony of my new normal within the walls of Panel 3.

The hummingbirds will unravel the lines of chaos from the first panel and help build a space of safety and harmony.

I won’t explain this in detail. Everyone has had their own pandemic experience and I have actually been enjoying hearing how others are interpreting this series. As I have said before, it is a combination of literal story-telling and symbolism. You can make of it what you will. 🙂 Yes, I am still struggling to get decent photos of it.

So, I see a definite need to weave a fourth panel so that I can end the story on a note of hope as well as create a match for Panel 1 in terms of layout.

I would like to include several weaving figures in the fourth panel and have been working on designing another backstrap weaver in the Andean Pebble Weave structure. This one is viewed from the back rather than in profile. That way I can place several weavers sitting around a tree weaving together.

This is my fourth attempt on this sample band to get this weaver right and I am pretty pleased with. It does include some floats that are longer than ones that I would normally tolerate in this structure but I think that I can get away with them in 60/2 silk. I just need to add a heddle rod and shed rod to the warp. That part is easy. The stick that is currently in the warp is a sword sitting within a shed. The hard part was creating a weaver in the same scale as the other weaver figure that I have been using in the other panels so that they can happily sit side by side.

So, launching into another warp of doubled 140/2 silk that needs to be tied and dyed before I can even begin weaving gives me a lot more time to spin yarn for the projects that will follow this Within These Walls series. There won’t be a fifth panel! I have been devoting all my Zoom time to spinning and that’s coming along nicely.

As I type these final lines, the sounds I hear are those of the birds raucously finishing their day with the setting of the sun. And then one of them gives a signal, or so it seems, and they all stop at once. There’s a moment of hush.

Until next time…..


Responses

  1. It is such a pleasure to hear about your world – and your project is simply extraordinary!

  2. Greetings from Canada!

    Thank you for sharing your stunning work and travel stories. I’ve been thinking about landscape and the sounds of language too.

    Have a gentle day.

    Evelyn

    On Sun, Apr 18, 2021 at 9:09 PM Backstrap Weaving wrote:

    > lavernewaddington posted: ” Let’s do a little arm-chair traveling. I have > been enjoying talking to my weaving friends in the USA via Zoom and hearing > about the little freedoms that they are now experiencing in their small > post-vaccination worlds. Bubbles seem to be expanding to” >

    • Thank you so much for visiting and for taking a moment to leave a comment. It means a lot.

  3. Thank you for this journey Laverne. Your pandemic panels are intricate and beautiful. Stay well

  4. I love the woven weaver! Also, your hair looks amazing!

    Berna


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