Posted by: lavernewaddington | April 1, 2022

Backstrap Weaving – The Simple and the Complex

Every now and then when I am sitting at my loom, I am reminded of the years that I spent teaching English here in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The institute had received a visit from a teaching consultant from the U.S State Department who introduced us to the concept of what she called “barefoot teaching”. She had developed this after having spoken with many teachers, especially those living in countries of the developing world like Bolivia,  who had convinced themselves that they simply could not teach effectively without flashcards, computers, interactive boards and all other kinds of audio-visual aids. The barefoot teaching idea basically involved setting yourself the challenge of leaving all the tools at home and going into class with nothing more than a lesson plan and a piece of chalk (as well as a lot of enthusiasm and creativity)…in other words “barefoot”.

Then I get to thinking about Maxima, my favorite weaving teacher in the Bolivian highlands, and what simple tools one really needs to get started in backstrap weaving…basically your back, some thread/yarn and a toe! (and instruction or guidance, be that in person, or virtually via books, blogs, video or a multitude of other ways to connect online). Real barefoot weaving! Maxima doesn’t even use a backstrap.

Maxima has made a picking cross and is selecting the warps from each side of the cross for her design. Her warp is attached to her toe and for a while so was mine. Then I also attached my warp to her toe when mine had had enough! Finally we moved to the post to tie my warp up and later Maxima did the same.

There’s not a single stick in use.

Ten-year-old Peruvian weaver Juan Miguel, above, has a stake driven into the ground to which his warp is attached – his only real piece of equipment. If it were a shorter warp, he could use his toe. (Maxima deals with longer warps by wrapping the warp once around her toe to securely grip and tension it. A string passed through the end loops of Juan Miguel’s warp goes around his waist and acts as his “loom bar” and “backstrap”. He is using a string loop for one shed and string heddles for the other. He isn’t even using a beater or sword. His hands do the trick. After passing the weft, he opens the other shed and pulls the upper layer of threads up while pulling the other down in order to squeeze the last weft shot into place.

A warp can be wound in a figure-eight around a finger and a toe. The thumb and a finger of the free hand are used to gather up the cross when the warp is complete while the weaver uses the other hand to tuck one end of the warp into the waist-band of her skirt. The other end stays on the big toe. A length of yarn is inserted to hold the cross leaving two hands free to make string heddles.

My weaving friends in the Bolivian highlands were excited about the opportunity to try out cotton that had been donated by Cotton Clouds.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be tossing out my loom bars. I like using them even for the tiniest of warps but it is nice to think back to how I got started. We used pencil-width sticks about five inches long for loom bars, slightly longer ones for cross sticks and we had a beater. My teacher tied a cord around my waist and lodged the stick under it. Cord was passed through the other end of the warp which was attached to a bush so we could weave tiny pebble weave bands.

Twenty-six years ago, I sat on that pillow between my mother-and-daughter teachers to take my very first “watch and do as I do” lessons in weaving on a backstrap loom. They were lessons not only about the pebble weave structure, but also about how to use your body to operate the loom. Most importantly of all, they were lessons in how to learn by simply watching.

Last year was the twenty-fifth anniversary of that very first experience and I wove a piece as a representation not only of my vision of a post-pandemic world, but also as a recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the happy scene above. The very first pattern that these ladies showed me was a hummingbird (although it took me several years to recognize it as one!). Hummingbirds, therefore, also became a part of the piece that I wove. In it, we are together again. The bush has grown into a tree with strong and extensive roots and although our warps have widened, the simplicity of the tools remains the same.

Panel 4 from the Within These Walls series.

Even something as simple as long thumb nails can be very useful. I appreciate them most when I am making string heddles. Sometimes I am unaware of the part they play in other stages of the process and only realize when I have had to cut them. Then I really miss them.

I love the simplicity in this picture….one’s entire weaving kit rolled up and neatly stored away.

And I wish that I could be organized enough to create a simple, clear weaving space like this…

My teacher Felicia’s weaving space…sticks, a bone tool, a bit of plastic-wrapped wire, and a sheep skin on which to sit. Simple tools don’t necessarily need to be made from natural materials. Hat and cat are optional. She was weaving for a museum’s gift shop and needed to adhere to precise pre-agreed measurements…hence the measuring tape.

I have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way of operating and so my weaving space is strewn with things that serve to remind me of ideas for future projects as well as samples and works in progress. Yes, I now have a lovely weaving journal in which to jot down those ideas but it’s not the same as being constantly reminded of them when I have to step over and around them every day..

The thing that really motivated me to write this post was the completion of the simple fabric with which I will, hopefully, construct a bag….a simple blue bag to go with the highly decorated and comparatively complex reversible three-color strap. I even opted out of adding a motif to the cloth here and there using supplementary weft. One of the joys of supplementary weft is that you can treat your base cloth as a blank canvas and just add pattern wherever you please. The cloth can be covered with pattern from edge to edge or just show a few scattered motifs here and there. I used both options in this scarf…

60/2 silk fabric for a scarf on the loom with the simple tools that were used to create it.

One of the other many joys of using supplementary weft is that if you decide that you don’t like the motif you have woven, you can simply cut it out. Your base cloth will remain intact. I started adding a motif to the cloth for my bag, decided it was too much, and removed it. I actually unwove to remove it rather than cut it out.

Having got the urge to decorate the cloth out of my system, I sailed along enjoying the simplicity of the “dance” of just rhythmically operating the two basic sheds on the loom and passing my shuttle. Well, “sailed along” might not quite be the right way to describe it. It was a sticky wool warp and required a slower pace, stopping to advance the warp more frequently and performing strumming and other operations a lot more gently than I normally would….but I so enjoyed weaving it!

A wool warp of 776 ends.

And here’s the contrast between the simple and the complex in the finished cloth and strap….

The cloth is in industrially-spun wool and the strap is in my own spindle-spun wool.

I am showing the string heddles because they are almost perfectly clean despite the stickiness of the wool warp. There is the faintest film of blue fluff on their tips which makes it look like the tips have been dyed.

I will leave you now with this lovely hummingbird piece that showed up in my Facebook feed from the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. I visited that museum many a time when I was living in Chile but haven’t been there since its major renovation some years ago. They were even selling my woven bookmarks in their gift shop at one point…wow, that was so long ago!


  1. Very impressive!!! I weave but have never done this technique! Totally Beautiful!!!

  2. Dear Laverne! I’m so interested in learning the three-color reversible pebble weave structure. Please, could you post a tutorial. It is certainly interesting for many followers.

  3. The rich blue fabric of the bag makes those hummingbirds fairly sing! A wonderful example of how less becomes more . Your handspun wool singles must be fine, smooth and strong indeed to produce such a clear design. You are an inspiration to drop spinners and backstrap alike!

    • Lausanne, your comments are always so uplifting! Thank you.

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