BACKSTRAP BASICS Laverne Waddington (An article originally writtten for the online magazine WeaveZine. It has been edited and extended for inclusion in this blog).
Basic, crude, primitive – these are all words that may spring to mind when one thinks of the humble backstrap loom – a description that obscures the fact that some of history’s most beautiful and complex textiles have been woven on this simple arrangement of sticks.
A simple loom, yet mysterious…the most frequent comment I hear when I pull out my backstrap rods is…“All those sticks! Where do they go and what in the world do they do?” The puzzling collection of sticks and tangle of yarn miraculously springs to life and transforms itself into a loom when the weaver herself dons the backstrap, attaches herself to the loom bar, tensions the warps and starts to weave.
Small, portable and inexpensive – the backstrap loom is ideal for those who lack the space for a table or floor loom, would like to be able to take their weaving “on the road’’ with them, or simply don’t have the means to invest in more sophisticated equipment.
I am fortunate to be currently living in a part of the world where this loom is still very much in use today. Many of its secrets have been revealed to me in the homes, hearts and hands of my weaving teachers – homes at the ends of dusty village paths on the cold, harsh, and colorless Bolivian high plains – an environment which starkly contrasts with the warmth of my teachers’ welcomes, their overwhelming generosity, and the rich, intricate and colorful designs that they weave into their cloth.
In this article, I show you the basics of backstrap weaving while teaching you to create one of the fundamental parts of the loom: the backstrap.
After many years of backstrap weaving which began back in 1996, I have found that a broad and sturdily constructed backstrap, well positioned down around the hips, (rather than the waist), allows me to comfortably weave at my loom for hours.
I based the dimensions of this project on a beautiful braided-straw backstrap that was made for me in Peru in 1997. I use this special backstrap at home. When I travel, a strap I’ve woven rolls up beautifully and goes into my backpack along with my loom sticks.
This project is woven in plain weave using a medium weight cotton yarn, and weaves up very fast. It is a simple and practical project which allows you to become familiar with the workings of your loom without having to think about complicated patterning.
I give instructions first for setting up and weaving on a narrow warp – as an introduction to backstrap weaving techniques – before moving on to the wider warp required for making the backstrap itself.
Below is the equipment used in backstrap weaving. Yes, here is the puzzling collection of sticks and string! But bear with me….this jumble is about to turn into a loom.
Forget the fancy labels. A backstrap loom is basically two sticks between which you stretch your warp. Two more sticks strategically placed in the middle allow you to manipulate the warps to create sheds. Finally, the weft, which holds everything together, is carried and beaten into place with two additional implements. And what about that ‘’roll-up stick’’? Don’t worry, all will be revealed.
Now, what’s missing from this picture….? Oh yes, that would be you. Picture yourself there between the loom bar and the backstrap.
So it seems that a trip to the hardware store is in order – not necessarily. Take a look at some home-made options.
While you are weaving this project and making your own backstrap, an improvised one can be made from a pillow case. Broom handles make excellent loom bars – cut pieces 18-21 inches long. A wooden ruler can be used as a beater, pencils can replace dowels as cross sticks and heddle sticks, and simple shuttles can be cut from cardboard.
WARP AND WEFT YARN
I use 8/2 crochet cotton for a lot of my projects but, in order to make a firm and sturdy fabric suitable for a backstrap, I have chosen a worsted-weight, (about 13 wraps per inch, wpi)) mercerized cotton yarn for both the warp and weft. Choose yarn that is not loosely spun or fluffy. Mercerized cotton works best. In the USA, Plymouth Yarn Fantasy Naturale is a mercerized cotton yarn that is ideal. You will need two skeins of it.
As I am in Bolivia, I am using a local brand and my yarn comes in balls of 219 yds (200 meters). I used almost one ball for this project.
This is a warp-faced weave. This means that your warps will be placed very close to each other and will completely cover the weft. My 13-wpi warp yarn yields approximately 1 inch of width per 20 ends. That is, 10 complete revolutions of warp will produce a one-inch-wide band.
I find that measuring like this, when my warps are on the cross sticks, is the easiest way to judge approximately how wide my piece will be.
WARPING FOR THE BACKSTRAP PROJECT
You could clamp stakes to a board to measure the warp but clamp them firmly. They must not be able to move at all while you are warping. I have wound a short warp above as an example.
Wind a warp of 92 ends that is 1 yard long (approx 90cm). In other words, you will wind 46 complete revolutions around your warping stakes in a figure-of-eight path. Your warping stakes will be 1 yard apart. This will result in a finished backstrap 25-1/2 inches (65cm) long, including the braided ends, and approximately 4-1/2 inches (11.5cm) wide.
Have two thin dowel sticks ready to preserve the cross, with thread handy to tie them together. If you don’t have grooves in your cross sticks to hold the thread, they can be bound together with adhesive tape. Use a length of cotton to secure the end loops as shown above.
Your warp will have two sheds: one controlled by continuous string heddles, and the other by a shed rod or shed loop.
- Leave the first 6 inches (15cm) of warp unwoven for braids.
- Weave until there are 6 inches of warp remaining.
- Leave the last 6 inches unwoven for a second set of braids.
The entire length of the warp will be used so there is no waste. Cords are passed through the braided ends which serve to attach the backstrap to the loom bars.
SETTING UP THE LOOM
Look at this narrow sample warp. The warp is placed on the loom bars as shown above. The loom bar that has the end of the warp with the knots (where the warp started and ended) will be attached to a fixed object.
There are several ways to do this. Experiment and find the way that is most comfortable for you.
Weavers in Guatemala have their warps angled quite steeply upwards. In Bolivia, women weave a narrow warp stretched between their waist and big toe, with the warp angled downwards. I prefer to work on a warp that is slightly angled upwards and I find the option at bottom left the most stable set-up.
The other loom bar will be attached to you by way of the backstrap. I feel most comfortable with the backstrap positioned around my hips.
Weavers come in all shapes and sizes. You can see in the photo how the strap should sit on the body. Bearing in mind that the woven area in this picture is 17-1/2 (45cm) in length, you can make the necessary adjustments to the length of your project to suit your shape and size. Measure the distance from the side of one hip, around your back to the side of your other hip. Add 20% to this measurement for take-up. Add 12 inches (30 cm) to this measurement for the braids at the ends of the strap (6 inches, 15 cm, at each end). However, I would like to add that I have woven eight backstraps for use in my classes. All were made with 36” warps and have been used by people of all sizes. The cords that extend from the ends of the backstrap are long enough to allow people to tie knots and therefore adjust the length for a good fit. A good fit means that your loom bar is not touching your body when placed within the backstrap straps, nor is it so far away from your body that you need to lean forward to reach your heddle stick. You should be able to sit straight- backed and have the heddles and shed rod within easy reach.
I feel comfortable with the front loom bar positioned 2-3 inches away from my body.
(Note: In the videos accompanying this article, you will see my loom bar is farther than that from my body – this is to provide an unobstructed view, and is not how I normally weave).
Remember in backstrap weaving you are part of the loom itself and there are some basic moves and techniques with which you need to become familiar:
1. Increasing and relaxing tension on the warps with your body, which allows you to efficiently open the sheds.
2. Smoothly opening a shed with string heddles so that there is not excessive abrasion and, therefore, pilling of the yarn.
3. Keeping your edges neat and straight.
PRACTICE PROJECT: WEAVING A NARROW BAND
I recommend weaving a narrow sample band of around 28 ends (14 revolutions on the stakes) to become familiar with your loom before attempting the wider piece which will be used to make your backstrap. At the end of this article, I have provided suggestions for how to use narrow bands for small gift projects.
I will be showing you, through a short video, these basic techniques on a narrow sample warp, but first, your continuous string heddles and shed loop need to be made. My weaving teachers in Bolivia use their warp yarn for heddle string and I do likewise. However, in Guatemala all the weavers I saw used nylon thread for their heddles as it is smooth and slippery and does not abrade the warps. While nylon definitely has its advantages, I personally don’t like it all as it slides around too much and doesn’t hold knots well.
MAKING CONTINUOUS STRING HEDDLES FOR A NARROW WARP
1. Pass your heddle string under the warps that are passing over the lower cross stick.
2. Anchor the string with your left thumb while pulling up more string from between the 1st and 2nd warps.
3. Draw this string up and over your hand. The first warp is now enclosed in its heddle.
4. While anchoring the string with your left thumb, pull up more string from between the 2nd and 3rd warps.
5. Once again, pass the string up and over your hand.
6. Continue like this across the warp.
7. Pass another ‘’tie up’’ piece of yarn through all the loops that were wound over your left hand and tie an overhand knot.
8. Cut your heddle string and take up the start and end tails, add them to the ‘’tie up’’ yarn and tie two more overhand knots.
9. Make your shed loop by passing a short length of yarn under the warps that are passing over the upper cross stick.
10. Tie this length of yarn in a knot. Remove the cross sticks. Your continuous string heddles and shed loop are now finished.
Now you are ready to start weaving! Is one end of your loom tied up to a sturdy fixed object? Is your backstrap around your hips and connected to the other end of the loom? Ok, let’s get started!
You can have a smooth start to your woven piece, rather than leaving warps for a fringe or braids as shown in the video, by passing a steel needle through the warp ends. The needle is then lashed very tightly to your loom bar. When your piece is finished, just withdraw the needle and pass the starting weft tail through the loops with a sewing needle and cut. You can use a length of sturdy coat hanger wire , a bicycle spoke, or cut down piano wire instead of a steel knitting needle. This, of course, is not the way that weavers in South America start their weaving. They use a header cord within a shed which is then lashed all the way across the width of the warp to the loom bar. You can see this in practice in Bolivia in the video here on the right hand side of the page.
THE BACKSTRAP PROJECT
So, you have been weaving your narrow band. Your edges were probably more than a little wobbly at the beginning but they eventually settled down to give you an even and consistent width. I would guess that your attempts to open the heddles now feel less like you are wrestling with the warp and more like a gentle coaxing. All the movements are progressively better coordinated and feel more natural.
Now you can confidently move on to the wider piece intended for the backstrap project warped with 92 ends.
The methods used to set up your loom and weave with a wider warp differ from those used for a narrow warp in the following ways –
- You will be winding your continuous string heddles on a stick rather than having them tied in a bunch;
- You will be using a shed stick/rod rather than a shed loop;
- You will be employing a different method for opening your heddle shed.
In the following short video, you will see how to make heddles on a stick and install the shed stick.
You will be starting your wide piece in the same way as your narrow sample; that is, by inserting a piece of cardboard into the shed. For the backstrap project, this piece of cardboard should measure 6 ‘’ (±15 cm). These unwoven 6 inches of warp will be later braided. The 92 ends will make a width of 4 ½ ‘’ (± 11.5cm). Keep a ruler handy and check the width of your piece every now and then so that tendencies to narrow or widen can be immediately corrected.
Now you can remove the cross sticks and start weaving. The next video shows how to open the sheds when working on a wide warp.
With this last piece of video you will learn about adding a new weft as well as the adjustments that need to be made as you near the end of your warp.
FINISHING THE PIECE
Here you can see two finished backstraps. I used 4 warp threads per strand to make 3-strand braids on one backstrap and 4-strand braids on another. Through the end loops I passed 3 and 4-strand braided cords made with my warp yarn. The 3-strand braid (the typical braid used on hair) makes a flat braid. The 4-strand version is a round braid. Both are attractive braids and work well in this situation. You can find instructions for the 4-strand braid here.
Above, on Gwendolyn’s backstrap, you can see 3-strand braids in progress. The warp threads end in loops where they passed around the loom bar. Remove a group of threads from the loom bar and braid them as far as you can, leaving just enough space at the end through which to pass some kind of cord. Have the cord ready to pass through the loops as soon as you stop braiding. Then braid the next group of warp threads, pass the cord through the loops and so on until you have all the warp ends braided and threaded onto the cord. This is the cord that will attach the backstrap to the loom bar.
The ends of the cords can be –
1. sewn together to make a complete circle with the join wrapped and then hidden within the end loops, or
2. secured by knotting or wrapping but not joined together. This will allow you to tie them around the loom bars and adjust their length when necessary.
Your first project has been completed and you have your own hand-woven backstrap. Now what? Keep practicing those skills! Perfect them while weaving more bands and wide pieces with this worsted weight yarn. Put your pieces together to make bags, belts and straps. Then move on to progressively finer yarns. Get creative – play with stripes. You can find instructions on how to prepare your warp with combinations of stripes and horizontal bars, as seen below here.
With these basic skills under your belt, and your collection of familiar sticks and string, you are now well prepared to learn about pick-up weaves and other patterning techniques employed by indigenous weavers around the world.
Since writing this article, I have made two short video segments showing warping and setting up the loom for a narrow band project:
Laverne Waddington has been learning to weave on simple looms with indigenous teachers in South America since 1996. In her home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, she draws on ethnic design influences from around the world to create pieces on a backstrap loom using the various techniques and structures she has studied in South America.
In 2010 she published her first book on one of her favorite warp-faced patterning techniques, Andean Pebble Weave, which was followed by More Adventures in Warp-faced Pick-up Patterns, in 2012.
She has shared her skills and experiences with many visitors to Bolivia over the years and now reaches a global audience with her weaving tutorials and travel tales on her blog. She provides online advice and support to weavers through forums such as Ravelry.com and teaches and speaks at guilds and textile conferences around the world.
Buy her e-book “Andean Pebble Weave” at Patternfish.com.
Buy the follow-up book to Andean Pebble Weave: “More Adventures with Warp-faced Pick-up Patterns” at Patternfish.com.
Photos and video by Laverne Waddington and Jorge Beyer.