Backstrap weaving

For a long time I have been fascinated by the rich textural culture of the Andes. The simplicity of the tools together with the complex textiles you can make and the ubiquitous presence and history of textile making all warm my heart. In this post I share my learning process, my thoughts and my woven projects in the online course in backstrap weaving that I’m taking.

Backstrap weaving

Backstrap weaving is an ancient technique where the warp is attached in one end to a weaver and in the other to a solid object like a tree or a post. The weaver builds the loom for every new project.

Close-up of a backstrap loom. Wooden sticks and rods attached between blue warp threads. A hand is pulling a piece of yarn through the shed.
The building of a Backstrap Loom: On the far ends (which you can’t see) are the near and far loom bars. The near loom bar is attached to the backstrap around the weaver’s hips and the far loom bar around a tree or post. The two bars attached together with silicone bands are the rolling bars. These keep the cross in place and helps the weaver find both sheds. The heddle rod holds the heddles that lift the lower threads in the shed. The beater/sword/machete is used to beat the weft. The thin stick at the top with red silicone bands is a dovetail stick. I’m weaving a circular warp and the dovetail stick keeps the beginning and the end of the warp together.

The technique can be used with tablets, a rigid heddle or with string heddles and is still practiced in many parts of the world. In the Andes most backstrap weaving is done warp-faced.

A person weaving on a backstrap loom. In the picture you see the backstrap around the weaver's hips and the loom bar the backstrap is attached to in front of the weaver. Wooden sticks are stored in the side pockets of the weaver's trousers.
The weaver ties her- or himself into the loom between the near loom bar and the backstrap.

Simple and complex

A year ago I started spinning as close as I could to Andean spinning on Peruvian Pushkas. The fleece I started with was around 2 kilos and there is lots left of it. I still spin every night on my Pushkas before I go to sleep. I have many nights left of spinning before I’m out of fleece.

The Andean way of spinning and weaving fascinates me, as is the rich textile history and culture in the Andes. At first I didn’t plan to learn backstrap weaving, but when I saw that there were online courses available I realized that I really needed to learn this beautiful technique. The courses I have found are made and taught by Kimberly Hamill and Laverne Waddington. I chose Kimberly Hamill’s course and I will also try one of Laverne Waddington’s for some extra techniques. I bought a loom from Kimberly Hamill. She also has instructions on how to make your own backstrap loom.

Backstrap weaving with handspun

One important part of learning backstrap weaving was to use my handspun yarns and find out how to spin suitable yarns for weaving in general and backstrap weaving in particular. By trying different yarns I would be able to learn what works and what doesn’t work for a weaving technique where there is a lot of tension and abrasion on the warp threads.

A natural brown woven strap
My first finished project woven with my backstrap loom. I used a handspun 3-ply from a Härjedal/Åsen crossbred. The yarn was quite sticky and I didn’t have the flow I expect I would have had with less sticky yarn.

Earlier this year I had a band weaving period and there I realized how different levels of fuzz influence the weaving process. In weaving with my handspun yarns I could find what level of fuzziness I could tolerate. So learning backstrap weaving will essentially also teach me how to spin for weaving.

Happy heddles

When I got the loom in the mail I found all the things I needed – an array of sticks of different sizes, warping pegs, c-clamps and balls of string for different purposes. One of the balls of strings was truly hideous. And I’m not talking about the bright pink colour, flown in directly from the -80’s. No, I’m talking about the material: Nylon. The reason for the nylon material was that it was smooth and wouldn’t catch the warp yarn which would be good for a beginner like me. I accepted that and used the nylon for my heddles.

A person weaving on a Backstrap Loom. The warp yarn is natural brown. The heddle yarn is bright pink.
My first backstrap weaving project with the hideous nylon heddles.

Equal heddle and warp

Marie Ekstedt Bjersing is a weaving teacher at Sätergläntan center for craft education. She saw pictures of my first weaving project politely asked me if I had chosen the heddle yarn myself. I said no and asked if she had any thoughts about the heddle yarn. She encouraged me to use my own handspun, which I would never have thought of myself. Her advice was to use a 3-plied yarn with long fibers and high twist. The best yarn for the heddles would be slightly thinner than the warp yarn.

Marie also advised me to use the same material for the heddles as for the warp – wool heddles for wool yarn etc. She has a theory about using equal fibers, or at least fibers with equal properties, in heddles and warp. The strongest material will win and with abrasion the weakest will break. She works with floor looms and often the nylon string have made ugly marks in the beams of the looms – the nylon string is stronger than the wood in the beams. But the heddles are far easier to change than the loom beams. A heddle yarn that is thicker than the warp yarn may cause breakage in the warp threads. Warp and heddle yarns with different properties may cause abrasion in one of the yarns. A balance between the warp yarn and the heddle yarn will be an important part of the balance in the whole weaving process.

Thank you Marie for your wise thoughts!

Handspun heddles

Just as I needed to find out for myself what level of fuzziness I could tolerate in the warp, I needed to find out how I could use my handspun yarn for the heddles. So far it is working out and I take mental notes of how the heddles interact with the warp. I have not yet woven with warp or heddle yarn that I have spun specifically for weaving but I will eventually. This is only the beginning.

I’m surprised that I enjoyed the making the heddles as much as I did! Perhaps just because I used my handspun yarn for the heddles. When I build the heddles that control the warp threads I feel like I can do anything.

A backstrap loom hanging in a staircase.
My Backstrap Loom safely and neatly stored under the staircase. Warp, weft and heddles are my handspun yarn. The backstrap is woven on my backstrap loom.

Backstrap weaving a backstrap

While the first project in the course was a plain strap, the second project was all about backstrap weaving a backstrap. I was thrilled with the idea.

Close-up of a tight warp-faced weaving in natural and turquoise flax yarn.
Backstrap weaving with flax yarn. Second backstrap project.

For this project I chose a commercial flax yarn, though. I figured that I would weave outdoors in the summer and I imagined a linen backstrap would be lovely to weave with.

Close-up of a tight warp-faced weaving in natural and turquoise flax yarn. Heddles in flax yarn. The sun shines through the heddles and leaves shadows on the warp.
Weaving a backstrap with my backstrap loom. Warp, weft and heddles in flax yarn from Växbo lin.

You know when you do something quite seldom, and when you do it again you remember why you don’t do it more often? That is the case for me and weaving with flax yarn. I love flax, but as soon as I weave with it I remember why I don’t do it very much. Flax yarn is not forgiving like wool and it takes lots of patience and focus to work with. I had this realization when I had finished warping. But this time it actually worked like a charm! The weave was a bit crooked in the beginning, but after a while I got a really nice and even looking fabric.

A finished backstrap on the ground. The end is braided.

I now love weaving with my backstrap woven linen backstrap. It fits perfectly and I burst with pride everytime I wrap myself in it.

Problems with pebbles

The third project was quite a challenge. We were weaving a band with pebble weave. The technique involves pick-up patterns. The first assignment was to design the pattern, which proved to be surprisingly difficult. After a while I came up with a wavy sort of pattern that I liked.

For this project I definitely chose the wrong handspun yarn. It was too loosely spun and too fuzzy. Several warp threads thinned out and broke. Also, the colours were too close to each other in hue. I actually didn’t finish the project, but it was still a valuable lesson in the most important qualities in a yarn.

Close-up of a person manipulating warp threads on a backstrap loom.
The third project was pebble weaving. Very thin, too loosely spun yarn in colours in hues too close to each other. The fiber comes from a merino/silk commercially combed top I had received as a gift. I spun the yarn on a supported spindle. If you squint you can see a vague wave pattern. Heddle yarn in Värmland outercoat wool.

I will get back to this technique with more suitable yarn and colours.

Balanced weave

While most backstrap weaving, at least in the Andes is done warp-faced, the fourth project was all about balanced weave. It was quite a challenge to find the right tension to weave loose enough.

A backstrap loom with a balanced weave in greens.
Balanced weave on a backstrap loom.

The yarn I chose was not one of my proudest moments. A while ago I received beautiful commercially combed and blended tops as a gift. I am not keen on spinning these. I don’t really know how to and I find neither flow nor mindfulness in the process. But I figured the yarn would be good for something and why not weaving. So I spun them quick and dirty and had myself some weaving yarn.

A green scarf hanging on a clothes line.
The fourth project was dedicated to balanced weave.

The assignment was to weave a scarf, but I did some miscalculation on the amount of warp threads and ended up with a 10 cm wide scarf instead of 20 cm. So I’m not really sure how to use this scarf. But it was still lovely weaving!

A bag to dye for

The final project of the course was to weave a bag with most of the components from previous projects. I had a lovely yarn that would be perfect for the bag, but I didn’t think the natural white would be very suitable for a bag. So I decided to dye it. I am not a very good dyer, but for some reason I did things right this time and ended up with exactly the colour I wanted. It was even even!

A ball of blue yarn on a tree trunk.
My proudest dyeing moment. The yarn is my handspun from a Norwegian whole-year NKS crossbred spun worsted and 2-plied.

I started weaving a warp faced strap for the bag. This was the first time I really felt I had control of all the aspects of the weaving. I knew what to do, but first and foremost I understood why I did it and how I could fix things that went wrong.

Last night I warped and lashed on for the bag part of the bag, which will be in balanced weave. You may see the finished bag in a future blog post.

A weaving sample over a book. A sheep's head on the cover of the book.
I’m doing sett tests for balanced weave on a book.

A bag with a purpose

Most pictures and videos I have seen of backstrap weaving have been with sitting weavers. I like to stand and so I stand when I backstrap weave. While starting out sitting I have realized that I have a better control of the tension when I stand. I also feel that I can get a stronger tension if I need to. The problem with standing, though, arises when I drop things – usually the sword. During this process I have become a master of picking things up with my toes!

At first I didn’t really know what to use the bag for, but when I realized that I would keep my weaving supplies in it when weaving instead of dropping them I could start weaving the bag with a purpose.

Weaving with the trees

The course started in March when it was way too cold to weave outdoors. But at the fifth module it had started to get warm enough to weave outdoors. I almost cried when I attached my loom to a young linden tree in the pale afternoon sun.

A person weaving outdoors on a backstrap loom. The loom is attached at the far end to a tree. An old house in the background.
Outdoor weaving at last.

Standing there, weaving on a loom that I had built myself (although I haven’t made the loom parts) and actually understood, and with warp, weft and heddles that I had spun myself was truly a magic feeling. Last year’s leaves were rustling under my feet and the spring birds were singing. I could feel the wind in my face. The trunk before me felt strong and safe as I worked with it to control the warp between us. We were both essential parts of the loom. I was finally weaving with the trees.

A Backstrap Loom attached to a tree.
I’m finally weaving with the trees.

Happy weaving!

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3 Replies to “Backstrap weaving”

  1. Thank you! I have been eyeing my back strap loom with a bit of anxiety. I think it’s time to get it out and carry on!!!

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