Basic, crude, primitive—these are all words that 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 dons the backstrap, attaches the loom bar, tensions the warp, 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 Bolivia, 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 end 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 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 fourteen years of backstrap weaving, I have found that a broad and sturdily constructed backstrap, well positioned 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 14-19 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 medium-weight (DK-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.
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
Clamp stakes to a board to measure the warp. Clamp them firmly. They must not be able to move at all while you are warping. I have wound a short warp below as an example.
Wind a 1-yard (90 cm) warp of 92 ends. In other words, 46 complete revolutions around your warping stakes in a figure-of-eight path. This will result in a backstrap 25-1/2 inches (65 cm) long, including the braided ends, and approximately 4-1/2 inches (11.5 cm) 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.
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
The warp is placed on the loom bars as shown below. 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 weave with their warps angled 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 Option 3, above, 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 inches (45 cm) in length, you can make the necessary adjustments to the length of your project to suit your shape and size.
I feel comfortable weaving with the front loom bar posititoned about 4-1/2 inches (11.5 cm) 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 and there are some basic moves and techniques with which you need to become familiar:
- Increasing and relaxing tension on the warp with your body, which allows you to efficiently open the sheds.
- Smoothly opening a shed with string heddles so that there is not excessive abrasion and, therefore, pilling of the yarn.
- 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 to make small gift projects.
Making Continuous String Heddles
Before you begin to weave, you must make continuous string heddles and a shed loop. My weaving teachers in Bolivia use their warp yarn for heddle string and I do likewise. However, in Guatemala the weavers use nylon thread for their heddles as it is smooth and slippery and does not abrade the warp. While nylon definitely has its advantages, I personally don't like it, as it slides around too much and doesn't hold knots well.
Create your heddles and shed loop as follows:
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 (shown in black) through all the loops that were wound over your left hand and tie an overhand knot.
8. Cut your heddle string. Pull up the starting and ending tails of the heddle string and add them to the "tie up" yarn. 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 tightly to your loom bar.
When your piece is finished, withdraw the needle, pass the starting weft tail through the loops with a sewing needle, and cut. You can use a length of sturdy coat hanger wire or cut down piano wire instead of a steel knitting needle.
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 are ready to move on to the wider cloth that will become the backstrap for your loom!
Warp this project 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 rather than a shed loop.
- You will be employing a different method for opening your heddle shed.
In the following video, you will see how to make heddles on a stick and install the shed stick.
Start 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 inches (15 cm). These unwoven 6 inches of warp will be later braided. The 92 ends will make a width of 4-1/2 inches (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 following video shows how to open the sheds when working on a wide warp.
In this final video, you will learn about joining on a new weft as well as the adjustments that need to be made as you near the end of your warp.
Here you can see two finished backstraps. I used 4 warps per strand to make 3-strand braids on one backstrap (upper) and 4-strand braids on another (lower). Through the end loops I passed 3- and 4-strand braided cords made with my warp yarn.
The ends of the cords (in white) can be either:
- Sewn together and wrapped with the join
hidden within the end loops. (Shown in the bottom backstrap.)
- Knotted or wrapped and left loose. This will allow you to tie them around the loom bars and adjust their length when necessary. (Shown in the top backstrap.)
Your first project has been completed and you now have your own hand-woven backstrap!
Now what? Keep practicing those skills! Perfect them by weaving more bands and wide pieces with medium-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 in Laverne's Backstrap Warping Tutorial.
With these basic skills under your belt, and your collection of familiar sticks and string, you are also ready to learn about pick-up weaves and other patterning techniques employed by indigenous weavers around the world.
[Editor's Note: to learn how to do beautiful pick-up designs like the ones shown below, take a look at Laverne's new eMonograph: Andean Pebble Weave.)
Laverne Waddington has been both learning to weave and documenting spinning, weaving and braiding techniques in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Guatemala for the last 16 years.
She has shared her skills and experiences with many visitors to Bolivia in informal one-on-one classes over the last 10 years. She runs the Backstrap Weaving Groups on Weavolution and Ravelry and has a gallery of her work on Flickr. She also blogs at Backstrap Weaving, where she shares her latest projects and her experiences with indigenous teachers. She is the author of Andean Pebble Weave, a mongraph on how to create pick-up designs in warp-faced fabrics.
Photos and video: Laverne Waddington and Jorge Beyer