Posted by: lavernewaddington | September 23, 2022

Backstrap Weaving – My Favorite Things

I have been trying to gather my favorite things so that I can think about what needs throwing or giving away. I felt the weight of possessions most during the worst of the pandemic knowing how impossible it would be to just pick up and leave at those times when family felt so far away. And so I have been de-cluttering yet again and hopefully there won’t be too many regrets at some later point. I managed to find a school that was more than happy to take the hundreds of handmade flashcards that I had created and accumulated during the sixteen years I taught English over here, eleven of which were at this place, the Centro Boliviano Americano. We would earn US$19/day for a six-hour day in the classroom and that gave me a fairly decent living.

I have fond memories of fun and enthusiastic students (well, mostly), chalkboards, squeaky ceiling fans and cassette tapes.

Those were simpler times. During some of those eleven years I lived here, renting two of several rooms that surrounded an inner courtyard. On nights when it was intolerably hot, we would turn the tv around to face out the window and sit in the courtyard to watch. We could look up at the stars through the leaves of the palm tree that grew in the center of the yard.

I took a chance and left English teaching in 2009, a year after the school celebrated its 50th anniversary, to see if I could do something with my weaving. It seemed that as soon as I left, a whole bunch of funds was pumped into the place and it was modernized beyond belief! It became way too modern with its interactive boards and air conditioning to be interested in my old flashcards. However, there are still some of those humble low-budget institutions around which have no choice but to use what we used to call “barefoot” teaching materials. I am glad that they found a new home.

As It turns out, teaching was so much in my heart and soul that it wasn’t something from which I could just walk away in 2009. I am lucky in that I have been able to combine two of my favorite things…teaching and weaving… over these last ten years or so.

Here are some of the other favorite things that I have been pondering. They may not look like much but each has a story to tell. You might wonder, for example, why I am so attached to that basket. It has its story.

For fun, I wrote three verses to the song from The Sound of Music:

Intricate patterns on bamboo and gourd,
A beater, a shuttle, a small weaving sword,
Plant fibers twisted and woven like string,
These are a few of my favorite things.

These books are the ones that I made by hand to record new techniques that I had learned from my various indigenous teachers. They are filled with diagrams, drawings, small woven samples, miniature warps, charts, and photos. I made eight of them.

Bone tools and wooden ones shaped just for picking,
Others to strum across threads that are sticking,
Laid out before me the pleasure they bring,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Books that tell stories of teachers I’ve known,
Covered with fabric and carefully sewn,
They hold the memories to which I will cling,
These are a few of my favorite things.

And then came the other books…all the ones I have bought and collected in my travels over the years here in South America… from way back in 1993 when I had first started playing with sewing thread strung between nails on a wooden frame I had knocked together. I ordered books looking for pattern ideas. I have books from that trip in 1995 to Utah and Colorado where I had crashed my mountain bike and, due to being on crutches, had learned Navajo-style weaving instead of taking the hiking trips I had planned. I returned to Chile armed with books on Navajo weaving. I will eventually go back to Australia and I can’t possibly take all these books back with me. So, which are my favorites? Which ones can I bear to part with? Many, while not all that special in themselves, have special stories associated with their purchase.

There’s this one, for example. It doesn’t happen to have any special story behind its purchase. In fact, I don’t remember how it came into my hands but I have always been so impressed with what I call a gem of self-publishing. It was published in 1974 and originally sold for $4.00. I wrote in a blog post many years ago about how this little booklet had given me the courage to self-publish books of my own. It is a beautiful documentation of the set-up and operation of backstrap looms in northern Ecuador which became all the more meaningful to me after I went to that part of Ecuador myself in 2005 and witnessed the process. I had always wondered about the author, simply noted as Redwood. Male or female? First name or last? There was an address inside…Santa Cruz, California…a place which I have visited many times as I have several backstrap weaving friends there. What was their story?…what took them to Ecuador? The guild in Santa Cruz had a loom from Ecuador in storage that they had been given.. Had this perhaps been a gift from the mysterious Redwood?

Anyway, long story short, a Mr Redwood Kardon suddenly showed up on Facebook asking to join the Backstrap Loom Weaving Group for which I am the administrator. I read his answers to the membership request questions and put two and two together. I couldn’t believe that he had suddenly shown up after my having loved this book all these years. We have corresponded and he has shared among other things some of the photos of the ikat process that he was able to observe in the Cuenca area of Ecuador from back in the 70s. Now this has become one of favorite ikat pictures…

This is how to turn the rather tedious part of the process in which the wrappings are removed from the dyed warp into a more tolerable activity…sit about in a family group, distribute sections and unwrap together enjoying each other’s company.

I have Dennis Penley’s book on ikat, Paños of Gualaceo (a small town outside Cuenca), published in 1988 which helps me to better understand how the weavers in this area set up their ikat warps. I am still not quite sure about this but it seems that instead of folding the warp in order to tie repeated sections of pattern, they simply gather and bundle all the sections that require the same wrap position, and there might be as many as four or five of these across the width of the warp, and tie the resist material around them together. I am sure that the way these sections are gathered together and wrapped as one large bundle must produce a natural attractive shift in the patterns, in the same way that gathering all the hair in one’s bangs into the center and cutting a straight line will not give you bangs with a perfect horizontal line. I am still struggling a bit to make sense of the descriptions. I also have a piece of video that I was given by the director of the museum in Gualaceo which shows parts of the process. I collect and keep these things for years, not paying them much attention at all and then suddenly they come into focus and are of prime importance to me. This is my big fear about having to abandon books when I eventually make my move….things that aren’t my favorites now could well be needed later and not all of them are replaceable. Sigh.

Old weavings have also surfaced as I pick through almost thirty years of stuff. I found the very first piece that I wove when I returned to Chile after my first trip to Peru in 1996.

In Peru in 1996 with one of my teacher’s woven pieces draped on my shoulder.

And here’s the piece I wove with my newly acquired backstrap loom skills on my return. I wove a little sampler of all the figures I had been taught, arranging them in three columns just as my teacher had done. There’s a puma, a dog, llamas, a person on horseback, and several kinds of birds, all motifs from the Ayacucho area of Peru. Later, I cut the band and sewed two pieces together to make a photo album cover. I used the album to carry photos with me when I went on other weaving adventures. My teachers loved to see pictures of where I live, family etc and I also liked to show my weavings as a way to break the ice. Sometimes they would even ask me to teach them motifs or techniques that they saw in the pictures. This piece is definitely one of my current favorite things.

But back to the present and my latest adventures with weaving ikat using my own hand-spun cotton thread. Before the pandemic I had started asking contacts if they knew of any place in Indonesia where I could study ikat. I wasn’t interested in studying with weavers who used hand-spun cotton because I knew that I would never consider doing that myself. I figured that there would surely be special methods used for the particular challenges associated with using hand-spun rather than industrially spun thread and that I would never have to deal with that. But, here I am just a few years later doing ikat with hand-spun cotton. Never say never! The pandemic is responsible for my finally getting the cotton sliver out of the closet and trying to learn to spin decent thread from it.

Sea Island cotton singles

In my last post, I showed you some of the process pictures for this newest ikat adventure. Here’s the design idea I came up with which I tied onto the warp once I had folded it in half….

Here is the warp after its two dyeing sessions, unwrapped, opened to its full width, mounted on my backstrap loom, heddled, and ready to go. I always spend quite some time admiring it at this stage because it is by no means a done deal at this point. Any number of things can happen. Just because it looks quite orderly here, doesn’t mean it will remain so. Threads can break and there’s a greater possibility of this happening because I am using hand- spun singles….threads that have been spun by someone who is not very far into learning how to spin good thread.

I was so pleased with the colors!

It behaved itself surprisingly well. There was just enough shift to create an attractive blur. I like my figures to be sharp but fully appreciate that this is a big ask from thread that has not been spun with a uniform amount of twist. There was some curl at the corners of the finished cloth which sorted itself out once the fabric was folded and sewn into the little zippered purse. That eliminated the need to edge it with a tubular band.

This is now one of my favorite things!

I felt confident enough after this project to try another a little bit longer and wider. I don’t think that I pushed things too far in terms of width and length but I do believe that I was over ambitious in my choice of pattern.

I was very much inspired by a design I had seen on a scarf on the Threads of Life website….a lovely ikat piece in black, grey and white that backstrap loom weavers in Indonesia had created. I only had enough space to create a very short and modified version of it but it was still too much for my level of experience.

I folded the warp to halve its width so that I would only have to tie half the pattern on the two layers of warp threads. That would give me an automatic mirror image of the pattern I had tied once the warp was opened out to its full width. The pattern also had a halfway point at which it reversed lengthwise. This is the part with which I had difficulty.

My paper pattern and the warp after its first dye bath.

I have created designs in the past on warps that I have folded to halve the length as well as others where I have folded the warp to halve the width…but not both at the same time. And so, with this warp, I was taking on the task of tying the first half of the pattern and then being able to perfectly replicate it on the second half. That turned out to be beyond me! I was tying tiny one-centimeter sections. If sections were out by even a millimeter here and there, those variations would go accumulating until the pattern lines were noticeably off track. It was possible to make modifications and compensate for that to a certain extent but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate all that in the second half. So there it ended at the halfway point and I re-designed the pattern to suit.

The next time I feel like taking on something like this, I will measure and mark the basic layout of the entire pattern at the start with the charcoal pencil, perhaps dividing into halves, quarters and eighths. The other option would be to try folding the warp in both directions so that any modifications made in the first half are automatically replicated in the second. The whole thing should then look balanced.

The unwrapped warp on the loom after its grey and then black dye baths. My LYS friends told me to combine two parts of the blue dye that I have with one part black to make grey. I was skeptical. But it worked…although on its own it looks quite blue. Together with the black it takes on a more grey appearance.

As usual, I took time to enjoy this sight before heading into the great unknown! The threads shifted quite a lot this time in very irregular ways. I noted some spots of lazy spinning. One time as I was raising the heddles, I watched in dismay as an unintentional slub in one of the threads self-drafted with the effect of smoothing and lengthening the thread! Well, that was very nice of it to do so but not welcome at this particular point in the process. In any other weaving, I would just take up the resulting slack, but when it is a tie-dyed warp thread, it’s not so easy to do so while keeping the various color sections properly lined up.

I broke four warp threads but I had tie-dyed replacements on hand! Why? How? Well, that’s another story that is too long to tell here. Even so, it was hard to perfectly align the colors along the entire length of the warp. I was lucky in that only one of the four replacements created a very noticeable blip.

Now all that remains is to figure out the best way to turn this into a pouch.

One idea is a long pouch like this but I will probably end up folding the cloth so that half the pattern shows on each face.

That’s natural green cotton on my takli. I spun one coil of the natural brown and am not pleased with it. I need more practice before tackling the other brown ones. I am finding the green much easier to spin. I hope to be able to create some narrow columns of ikat on white to place within expanses of the natural green.

I don’t need any woven products! I am just having a whole lot of fun with how much I am learning about cotton spinning and the ikat process and if all of my favorite things end up being housed in hand-woven pouches and bags, that’s an added bonus 🙂


Responses

  1. I love your latest ikat piece. I really enjoy following you as you stretch your knowledge and skills.

    As for you books, can you start slowly sending them to Australia now? I would guess that you have folks that would be happy to keep them for you, that way you do not have to make those hard decisions of what to keep and what needs to go. Just the decision of what you can do without for now, which will be hard enough:-)

    I have spent a lot of time putting my fiber library together, it would be difficult to try to cull it.

    • Thanks, Theresa. My brother is happy to hold onto books for me but mail from here is so terribly unreliable. I am hoping to go to Australia to visit next year and might take just one change of clothes and fill my bags with books!

      • Who needs clothes when you have books! LOL

  2. Oh Laverne what a glorious trip through your life! Amazing stories and favorite things as well as your phenomenal weaving. I was reading and thinking maybe somebody in Santa Cruz group would know who Redwood was, but then miraculously you’ve already found him! I hope the world is safe for you to start traveling soon. Grandes abrazos Kate

    • Thank you, Kate. I turned 60 and suddenly thoughts about eventually returning to Australia became real. That makes me look back and remember and also see things around me with new eyes. I am glad that I can share some of it with friends who find it interesting.

  3. I’ve always wondered about Redwood, too. The library of the Thousand Islands Art Center – Handweaving Museum in Clayton, NY has a copy of the book.

    • Thank you, Jayne. I am sure that he will be delighted to know that.

  4. Laverne, you say in this post, “But back to the present and my latest adventures with weaving ikat using my own hand-spun cotton thread”. As you know ikat is a pattern dyeing technique and not a weaving technique to produce patterns. When you say “weaving ikat” it seems to confuse the distinction between the two. Would it perhaps be clearer to say “adventures with weaving ikat dyed textiles using my own—–“? Just a suggestion.

    • Thank you. That’s an interesting point and your suggested alternative is simple and doesn’t involve the addition of a clumsy amount of words. I don’t feel that my blog readers will confuse the distinction because I have always included lots of photos of the process but I do agree that without those visual aids it could be confusing.

  5. Great article. I really enjoyed this. books are my weakness….I don’t know how I could part with any of them

    • Thank you. After writing this post, I am re-thinking the pile of books-to-be-abandoned. I guess I just feel suffocated by possessions sometimes and feel the need to make things disappear, right now! and there really isn’t any urgency (unless we have another crisis like the pandemic any time soon. I am not sure that I can deal with another here alone). I asked a friend if she would be interested in giving them a home but I won’t be hasty and will wait and see if there is some other solution.

  6. Murphy’s law states any book you rehome will be needed next year….
    As always, wonderful weaving and stories.

  7. Thanks for the lovely story about Redwood and the booklet on Ecuador. I have this book also. It was hard to come by, so I treasure it. I’m glad to know the author is still interested in this type of weaving. I don’t know what I will do when I have to give up my books. They are almost more precious to me than my looms.

  8. Thanks for a great post. I was able to visit a weaving house in Gualaceo in 2018 and was mesmerized by how they dyed and wove the amazing patterns in their fabrics. Also impressed with the knotting they did with the fringe! Reading your inspirations reminded me of that wonderful experience. Thanks for teaching and inspiring me through all your posts!

    • Thank you do much for taking the time to leave a comment for me You’re very welcome. I might show examples of those amazing knotted fringes in my next post.

  9. I’ve been enjoying watching YOU enjoy working with handspun cotton and the results are marvelous. One day, perhaps, I will weave with my handspun cotton singles (as warp) on the backstrap loom, but you can be sure that starch will be involved, lol!

    • Hi Kristin. Thanks for writing. When one day I have enough handspun cotton to work on something large, I will definitely use starch. I am put off by the whole “ickiness” of it, lol, but do need to try it one of these days and get over that.


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