Posted by: lavernewaddington | October 22, 2022

Backstrap Weaving – Cotton Tales

While scrolling through my Facebook feed last week I was surprised and excited to see an ad from the Museo ArteCampo here in Santa Cruz for a workshop being given by two Guaraní ladies on spinning cotton. There are three recognized groups of Guaraní people here in Bolivia living in the lowlands between the Chaco and the Andes. Artecampo has been working with people from the Isoseño group since 1984 helping them to recover and preserve dwindling knowledge of technique and motifs while providing a market for their handwoven hammocks, bags and wall hangings.

Examples of GuaranÍ textiles at the Museo ArteCampo.

The timing of this workshop couldn’t have been more perfect considering that I have only recently started to spend a serious amount of time spinning the stash of cotton sliver that I have accumulated in my closet…all generous gifts from my weaving friends. I haven’t seen anything like this being offered in all the years I have been here and who knows? I may not have considered taking the workshop if it had come along years ago.

Learning to spin cotton in Ecuador in 2007.

Two video classes on cotton spinning by Joan Ruane and Stephanie Gaustad as well as a short in-person demo with weaving friend Elizabeth in Australia (who had gifted me a takli spindle) had helped me to get started with using a takli. I am sure that some of what I had witnessed and tried during my stay with a family of cotton spinners and weavers in coastal Ecuador way back in 2007 also helped. I had really been way more focused on the weaving during that stay. Although I was curious and interested, cotton spinning at that point hadn’t captivated me. I just couldn’t see myself having the desire to do it or having a need for hand-spun cotton thread.

This was also true when I’d had the opportunity to study with Ju Nie, a Montagnard (Vietnamese hilltribe) weaver and spinner. She showed me how she first teased the cotton with a bow and then spun it on her spinning wheel. It was fascinating but I had considered that demonstration of such beautiful traditional skills and tools as just an interesting interlude during my studies of the beautiful patterned weft-twining that she was using on the fringes of her woven pieces. You can see the frame on which we were carrying out the twining work in the background. I recently learned that dear Ju Nie passed away last October.

And so, my time had finally come during the pandemic to focus more closely on cotton spinning. And then came this workshop. A miniature Guaraní loom sat on the table at the workshop with a piece of weaving in progress but I didn’t allow myself to get distracted!

Under a tree dripping with mangoes, fourteen of us gathered to learn how to spin cotton on the typical spindle used by the Guaraní ladies.

I already own a spindle that I had bought from my Guaraní weaving teacher many years ago. She only had a little cotton on hand and had given me a very brief demonstration. That had been enough to satisfy my curiosity as, again, I was much more interested in the weaving at that time. She did tell me at that time that cotton was being grown in the community of Isoso and that the inhabitants were not willing to give the seeds away to anyone….not that I had asked for any. I have nowhere to grow it. At the workshop, however, we were free to keep the seeds that we were removing from the cotton.

Angela back in 2010 giving me a short demonstration of how she spins cotton.

The spindle I bought from Angela as well as the ones we were given to use in the workshop, had thick pieces of rubber for whorls. The rubber pieces look like they have been cut from the soles of sandals. A simple groove is sliced into the end of the shaft.

The workshop spindle.
The spindle I bought from Angela in 2010 has a beautifully shaped end rather than just the simple cut groove.

We took the seeds out of the cotton and teased it apart with our fingers into a light airy sheet. Then we copied our teachers’ movements and rapidly lifted and dropped the sheets multiple times a few inches above the table before very gently forming them into loose rolls. One problem we faced was that Sabina, the teacher at my table, was left-handed. She loaded each spindle from scratch and then handed it off to us. As soon as we right-handed folks started turning the spindles, the thread was un-spun and subsequently broke. Not a big deal. We all laughed.

Sabina gets the spinning started while we prepare the cotton.

Although, I am very much used to the watch-and-copy style of teaching used by my teachers here, I had also had the benefit of lots of spinning explanations from my video and in-person experiences as well as lots of trial-and-error practice on my own. And so, I managed to get on just fine. I could understand very well the struggles of the other participants because it wasn’t so long ago that I was experiencing the same difficulties.

Clara worked with a group of participants at another table.

I really wanted to use this workshop as an opportunity to see how the Guaraní ladies manage to spin much heavier thread than I do. They weave hammocks with their plied thread and it is thick and sturdy and so I spent the workshop time trying to focus on that. I created thread that was just a bit thicker than what I have been creating at home but it was nowhere near as thick as Sabina’s and I wasn’t able to keep it consistent. Sabina kept laughing at my fine thread but also told me, with what seemed to me to be pride, that her grandmother had been able to spin very fine thread. My other interest in the workshop was to chat with the teachers about their experiences learning to spin and weave as children. Plus, I wanted to see if I could manage to spin decent thread from cotton I had prepared myself in such a basic way rather than with the beautifully prepared sliver that I had been given.

Cards had been placed on a table so that we could see the Guaraní words used for describing what we were doing. Our attempts to correctly pronounce the phrases brought on more laughter.

GuaranÍ spinning vocabulary and Spanish translation.

As for my cotton spinning at home, I am still working my way through the color labeled Cinnamon. I boiled the color labeled Mahogany and was astonished to see how much it changed its tone. I love it. Either some of the brown comes off in the water, or this cotton was particularly dirty…the water became a mucky, murky mess!

The boiled Mahogany in the center with the original color below right. Above is the original Cinnamon color with the boiled and not-boiled greens on the left.

Now for the latest ikat project using my hand-spun cotton. I might try this particular idea again some time, but not with my hand-spun cotton. It turned into quite a business! I wanted to have a white ikat pattern on a background of various tones of blue. You might remember a project I did a couple of years ago in which I used a multi-colored warp for ikat. This was industrially-spun and naturally-dyed silk and the project was relatively simple: tie the ikat tape on the multi-colored silk…the dyeing of the warp thread had already been done by someone else…and then dye the whole thing one solid color, in this case, black. I loved the result.

I am able to get quite sharp images when using using uniformly spun thread.
The color-inspiration picture.

The current project is more or less the opposite in that I wanted the ikat to be a single solid color, in this case, white, with a multi-colored background. I wanted the change in the blue tones to be fairly subtle. And so I had to tie the pattern and then split the warp into sections and dye two sections at a time separately so that the outer sections were very dark, gradually lightening toward the center. The very center section was dyed grey (which I now regret doing…I should have just gone with light blue) as I was using a picture of my choosing for color inspiration as part of a group weave-along and grey was part of it.

What a task it became! I was using my hand-spun cotton singles. The small individual sections totally twisted up on themselves in the dye bath and so the dye was not able to fully penetrate some parts. I had to repeatedly remove the thread from the bath and try to separate the individual threads and then poke and prod and pick at them in the water. The poor things took quite a beating. And then they would dry and I would find them to be too light and the contrast between the strips of blue too great and so back into the dye bath they would go. Yes, so next time I try this particular ikat idea, it will not be carried out with hand-spun singles. There was way too much picking and pulling and wrangling of the thread going on. I just knew that I was going to have a lot of shift in the pattern as a result. So much fuss over such a small piece. I had been planning to weave it after adding natural green cotton to the sides to make a piece wide enough for a pouch but I decided not to risk my precious green on a project that seemed doomed to fail. Perhaps it could be a wrist cuff instead.

Another goal of this project was to arrange the angle of the diagonals in the pattern so that the diamond shape was more curve-like. That part seemed to have worked out quite well. As always, I really enjoyed unwrapping the plastic ties to reveal the pattern and then sitting down to finally weave it. One of the center threads broke. That’s a problem when it’s ikat unless you have another tie-dyed thread to replace it. But everything else went smoothly. There was a lot of shift in the pattern but that was expected and I was happily weaving away at this point.

After looking at the finished piece for a few days, I decided that it wasn’t so bad after all. I decided to go ahead and weave the green sides separately so that I could piece together a useful item. Yes, another pouch. After all that work, the ikat piece really deserved to be made into something. I planned the layout combining the darker boiled and not-boiled green with a little blue that I had already dyed for a previous project.

I wove the two strips separately but at the same time…if that makes sense. It fit better in my weaving space if I wove it this way rather than as one long strip cut in two. Besides, I could keep a better eye on matching width this way. Again, it was just lovely to be at the loom doing simple plain weave and enjoying the look and feel of the hand-spun cotton. Three broken threads were easily replaced…no tie-dye to worry about this time. The broken ones happened to be the not-boiled green…coincidence, or does that say something about a change that takes place during the boiling process? The threads broke when I was moving the coil rod. Note to self again…set up the coil rod right at the end of the warp and leave it there.

A first look. The sewing isn’t finished yet. I’ll just use a large snap at the mouth of the pouch. I am very happy with the curviness of the pattern.

Here’s the gang of hand-spun ikat projects all together.. The pattern of the latest one repeats on the back as I had folded the warp to halve its length and was therefore able to tie once and get two patterns.

I have another ikat idea developing using my 30/2 silk and reds…maybe cochineal? In the meantime, I will keep spinning cotton. I want to boil small amounts of the new Cinnamon color for different lengths of time to see if that produces different tones. Right now I have some 60/2 silk on the loom and am using double weave to create some jewelry pieces….experiments. I already have a nice ikat pouch in which to keep them…lol. I am thinking ahead to my eventual move back to Australia and considering the eye-wateringly high cost of living (compared with Bolivia). It will be helpful if I can perhaps sell some woven items at craft fairs.

One other thought that just popped into my head is to once again dye sections of pre-warped (but not ikat treated) hand-spun singles allowing them to twist on themselves. Perhaps the differences in dye penetration along the length and breadth will create interesting patterns. It’s hard to believe that this is me writing this….the one who likes everything to be controlled!

Until next time….


Responses

  1. These are exquisite, Laverne! So beautifully dyed and woven! ❤️

  2. Wow! So inspiring and amazing!

  3. Your pouches are all so wonderful! I have enjoyed your cotton spinning adventure, how fun for you to take a workshop locally. That was great timing.

    • Thanks, Theresa. I had so much fun at the workshop and am keeping my fingers crossed for more. It was nice to hang out with others who are interested in this kind of thing. It’s been hard to find them here.

  4. Your posts are inspirational, thank you for sharing.
    Chris

    • You’re very welcome and thank you for taking a moment to leave a comment for me.

  5. Amazing and inspiring as always! I’ve been spinning some local cotton and loving it. I do miss your visits here in San Diego!!
    Margaret

    • I also very much miss being with Deanna and weaving with you guys! Thanks for your comment, Margaret.

  6. Very cool! And as at, inspirational.

  7. Fascinating, Laverne! Cotton spinning boggles my mind! I tend to spin very thin singles with wool. I tried cotton with a takli and gave up (for now!).
    Your bags are super gorgeous! As always, I learn so much from your posts. I’m also so very sorry to learn of the death of your dear friend Ju Nie. ❤️

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Joan Ruane’s video class on the takli helped me enormously. There’s a class you can buy but I think that she might also have a very condensed version on YouTube. I’ve been spending so much time with cotton lately I hope it doesn’t ruin me for spinning wool in the future!

  8. Hi Laverne, I enjoy your thoughts on spinning cotton. Cotton is not a favorite spinning experience. But, it is a wonderful experience that I return to every year or 2…3..5.. years. I will say that when you have spent a considerable amount of time spinning cotton; returning to wool or silk is a bump in the road. Your finger memory will fight with your brain for a while 2 to 3 sessions. But, wool spinning will be easy very quickly. Again, beacuse you have had a good experience spinning cotton, do return to it offen as the skills are files correctly in your brain. I do try to return to spinning cotton on a regular basis because it can be delightful. I have left the drop spindle and now use the wheel (Lendrum) with a high speed whorl and with time the cotton can be tamed again.

    • Hi. I don’t know why I didn’t get a notification for your comment and am only just seeing it. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on cotton spinning. Yes, I do imagine having to take some time to adjust when I return to other fibers. I don’t have any wool left to spin but I do have some alpaca. And I wouldn’t want to lose the cotton spinning skills I am developing. Hopefully, I’ll be able to switch between the two regularly.

  9. Such a great blog;)

    Best

    Denis


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