Posted by: lavernewaddington | July 25, 2022

Backstrap Weaving – Ikat Progress

Threads of Life in Ubud, Bali posted a video to Youtube some time ago in which you can read about the 56 steps taken by weavers in Indonesia to create a naturally-dyed and handwoven ikat hip cloth. 56 steps!! Imagine. (I have embedded the video for you at the end of this post).

My ikat projects are pathetically simple (not even pre-kinder level) compared to the intricate tying and color work carried out by the masters of this art in Indonesia. What goes into achieving the desired depth of just one of the many colors employed is mind boggling in itself.

I have been dabbling in ikat once again because I had decided that I wanted to sew a small bag. I had had so much fun creating the large shoulder bag, below, a couple of months ago. The weaving of all the parts was very satisfying as I was able to employ a variety of techniques from warp-faced to balanced plain weave, to intermesh, three-color pebble with my own designs, and woven tubular edgings. On top of that, there had been so much to learn about hand sewing….seams that curve, drop-in linings, pleats, interfacing…..

I decided that the small bag should be sewn from ikat fabric and I set about planning a simple motif. I wanted busy fabric with small repeating motifs. I would use 20/2 cotton and was grateful for having used this thread before for an ikat project in which I had created just one large motif, Fortunately, I had kept pretty good notes about that project.

A drawstring bag for my Kindle in 20/2 cotton with ikat and supplementary-weft patterns. There’s a tiny band of pebble weave around the mouth of the bag.

That meant that I didn’t need to sample….that’s just one step that I was able to skip. Add to that the fact that I wasn’t hand-spinning the cotton (after having grown, picked, ginned and prepared it for spinning). Plus, I wasn’t going out and picking plant matter and preparing it for the dye pot. I just walked down to my LYS, a mere three blocks away, and bought some cotton dye. I scoured the 20/2 cotton thread to ready it for dyeing.

Here’s the simple motif that I created:

This is the pattern I tied onto the two layers.

Once I had figured out the number of ends I would need and the length of cloth I would most likely need for my bag, I wound the warp with my scoured cotton. When it came to tying the pattern onto the warp threads, I folded the warp in half to halve its width so that I could tie onto two layers of threads at the same time. That way I only had to tie half the pattern and in doing so would automatically create its mirror image. I could have challenged myself further by also folding the warp to halve its length but that would have meant having upside-down motifs on one half of the cloth. That would limit my options for where to cut the cloth to make the bag. I am not an experienced sewer. I don’t yet have a pattern in mind for my small bag and so, who knows where I will need to cut?

I extend my ikat warps on one of these canvas stretcher frames and use turn buckles to adjust tension.

When planning the pattern, I decide the number of threads that I will wrap for each section. That in turn will determine the total number of warp ends that I use. I mark these sections with thread before I start wrapping.

Dividing the warp into bundles, as seen above, is done before the warp is folded in half. Before folding, I enclose each bundle in half-inch wraps of ikat tape at the far end of the warp. Those wraps stay in place throughout the entire process. Then I fold the warp in half and connect each bundle from the upper layer with its corresponding partner from the lower layer. When wrapping with tape, I wrap these two joined bundles as if they were one large bundle.

By the way, the Tour de Fleece ended today.

I enjoy every part of this process except this next one: measuring and measuring and measuring again to make sure that the warp is good and square on the frame as well as making sure that I start tying in a straight line. How my eyes play tricks on me and sometimes simply refuse to believe my tape measure! Once I get those first few wraps in place, I go back to enjoying myself (even though I have to confess that I often still don’t feel 100% sure of having got it all straightened out). I wrap a few bits here and there throughout the day and then do some more cotton spinning. I don’t like sitting at it for long sessions because I get sloppy. I wonder about the artists in Indonesia and whether they sit at it all day. I imagine having that kind of time on one’s hands to devote to just this one task might be a luxury.

One other reason for doing this in short sessions is that I have taken on a new challenge of spending more time on my feet and less time sitting. I have found a nice spot on which to place my spinning bowl which allows me to spin very comfortably on my takli while standing up and want to see if I can spend all my mornings from now on only doing things that involve being on my feet.

I mark the pattern with charcoal pencil and use the tape that my friend Betty gave me some years ago. I tie a knot in my tape that sits at the center of the wrap and have what I feel is a fast and efficient way of cutting the knot and unwrapping later. Some people don’t knot but I don’t feel secure not doing so! Placing the knot in the center of the wrap reduces the risk of accidently snipping a warp thread when unwrapping.

The placement of the knot is the only tip I have to share and this will only apply if you go with tying a knot. Many people don’t tie them. Otherwise, wrapping involves…well….. wrapping, that’s all. I wrap very tightly. I don’t know if this is the best way…it works for me. I get a callous on my left index finger from the tape constantly rubbing against its tip. In the following video clip I have started wrapping in the center of the section and am proceeding until the end of the section. Then I turn, (video clip stops a couple of wraps after the reverse of direction) and wrap over the top back to where I started, continue beyond that point to the other end of the section, return to the center, tie, and cut.

I let the wrapped warp soak in water for a day and a half. I used a new-to-me dye and that always makes me nervous. However, I was really pleased with the color I got. I had added a little black to the blue to “dirty” it a bit.

It’s amazing how tidy this warp was when it emerged from the dye bath compared to the silk ones that I usually work with! From here it went back on the frame so that I could add more wraps. I wanted to reserve some of the blue before once again dyeing the warp a much darker blue. This first blue was so pretty. It seemed a terrible shame to now cover most of it with a darker blue. I kept dyeing notes in my book with its hand-woven cover so that I can hopefully replicate that blue for another project some day..

The cover I wove for my Dyer’s Notebook with words from a poem by Emily Dickinson.
The warp is stretched on the frame ready for the next wrapping and then a good soaking before being dyed again.
Here it is after the second dark blue dye bath. I almost thought that I had ruined it by adding too much black but, thankfully, it came out just the kind of inky dark blue that I had been hoping for.

I don’t get so nervous about removing the wrappings any more. I seem to be using a reliable wrapping technique and so I am not worried about dye having seeped between poor wraps or having bled into the ends of the wrapped sections. The part that makes me nervous is the weaving! How much will the threads shift? Some kinds of shift are attractive to my eye while others are not. The threads just have a mind of their own and from one project to the next I am never quite sure what to expect. As I always say….Will it be a mess or success? I try to keep my mind as open as possible because initial disappointment often fades and ends up with my being completely in love with the results. But that change in opinion can sometimes take a long time! It’s best not to have expectations.

So, what did you do on Saturday night? Oh, I sat about and cut dozens of knots and unraveled ikat tape while listening to podcasts. I remind myself that this is the stage at which the pattern is probably the best it will ever look. I am now releasing the threads from their bonds and they are free from now on to wander about as they please as I get them onto the loom, retrieve the cross, put sticks in place, and make heddles.

Normally, I would only remove 6-8″ of wraps and then prepare the warp for weaving. That would give me just enough space in which to set up heddles etc, create (small) sheds, and weave. I would only unwrap more tape when I had no more room in which to work. Working that way has helped to reduce shift in the threads and keep the pattern nice and sharp. However, because I folded the warp in half, I have no choice but to cut off all the wraps. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to unfold the warp. Peeling the two layers apart and opening up the warp to its full width is super fun. I take a few pictures because anything can happen to the pattern after this point!

You may remember that at this point I do still have some wraps still in place…those half-inch ones that I placed right at the end of the warp before I folded. They do help to some extent to reduce shift but not as much as you might think or hope.

The cross has been retrieved from where it had been saved on lengths of thread and in the wee hours of Sunday I started making the string heddles.
This is as far as I got before bed.

Later, on Sunday afternoon, I took all those heddles off as the #12 DMC thread I was using was too heavy. I ended up using the same 20/2 cotton….. of course. That’s what you get for starting something like this at midnight.

Ready to roll? Maybe just one more step before I throw the shuttle. I might install a coil rod. Do I really need it or am I just procrastinating? I do believe that it plays some role in locking the threads in position. As I said, the weaving step is for me the part during which I feel I have the least control over the pattern. Getting started makes me nervous!

Here’s the warp with the 20/2 cotton heddles in place.

I will leave you here with a picture as a teaser of things to come. This picture comes to you courtesy of my new online weaving acquaintance….someone about whom I have often wondered over the years. I shall tell you more in future posts.

Now, imagine me sitting here alone on my Saturday night carefully cutting knots and rolling off the ikat tape with BBC radio to keep me company….and then look at this picture which looks to me like a jolly ol’ unwrapping party with many hands at work.

Photo courtesy of my new online friend whose name I shall reveal in a future post!

This picture was taken back in the 1970s in Ecuador and my new friend struggles to recall exactly what had been going on but it seems that the warp has been anchored on one lady’s foot while bundles fan out in all directions so that each helper can be occupied removing the wraps along their particular bundle’s length. I love this photo and like to imagine lots of happy chatter and laughter accompanying this task.

And here’s the Threads of Life video that I mentioned at the start of this post. Make sure to view it in HD if you want to be able to read the text….

Until next time…..


  1. I am in awe, Laverne, of your vision, your meticulous process and the stunning result! It is beautiful, even before the weaving is in progress. It will be beautiful!

    • Thank you so much, Nancy. This will be a rare project in which the end result will actually closely resemble the initial idea. That’s the way it’s looking so far as long as I don’t mess up the cutting and sewing at the end!

  2. This was a fascinating post! I have never tried it at. It is so cool to see your design! I would be dancing in the streets if I did something like this and had it work out so well.

    Your dyed blues are beautiful. A couple of weeks ago I did my first dyeing on some cotton, it was a fun process but nothing like what you have done for the ikat. I am looking forward to seeing this weaving:-)


    • Thank you, Theresa. When it’s still a warp, I don’t dance because I know from experience that weird and unexpected things can happen once I start weaving! Well, I confess that I did a mini dance when the thread had dried and I saw the colors!

  3. Amazing!~!!

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