Today, on one of the darkest days in my hemisphere I give you a new video from the other side of the year: Weaving with the trees. I shot the video in the northernmost part of Swedish Lappland in the beginning of July when the sun never set.
This video is my season’s gift to you: Weaving with the trees, with love from me. May it bring you light, space and peace.
Turning the train around
We had plans to take the train to Austria this year. But in March we realized that it wouldn’t be possible. Instead we turned the rails 180 degrees and went 18 hours north, to Abisko, 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Situated by the foot of mount Nuolja it is the perfect starting point for hikers southward on the 400 kilometer Kungsleden trail. We chose to stay at the tourist station and take day trips, though. I packed my backpack with the essentials – emergency snack (Notnüsse, a family tradition of mixed nuts and seeds for energy dips), hat, hiking boots, loom and spindles.
Before I dive into the wool and the weaving I need to give you at least the chance to understand the vastness of this landscape. This is so far north from where I live – when the train made a short stop in Boden, at the top of the Bothnian Bay, there were still 5 hours left to go!
You can start your hike straight off the platform at Abisko Tourist station train station. During that whole week we traveled by rail and hiking boots only – we walked from our house to the metro, took the metro to Stockholm Central Station and the train to Abisko.
When you get to Abisko all you see is the vast mountain landscape to the south, lake Torneträsk to the north and more mountains in Sweden and Norway to the northwest. The river Abiskojåkka runs lively from the mountains down to the lake. A bit south-east the U-shaped Lapporten (The Lapponian gate) rises like a queen in the valley.
So, now that you have some idea of the set you may get a feeling of what spinning and weaving with simple tools with endless opportunities this close to nature can feel like. For me, crafting in nature brings me closer to the tools, the craft and the people who craft before, beside and after me.
The tourist station is situated on the leeway side of mount Nuolja with its rich summer flora. This means that the wind comes from the windward side in the west and the mountain stops the rain from falling on the Abisko side. The phenomenon is called rain shadows and is the reason why Abisko has very few rain days per year (around 300 mm of rain per year while Riksgränsen, 30 km to the west, has roughly 1600).
In the valleys and up to the tree limit there is basically one kind of tree – the Fjällbjörk, Arctic downy birch. The black and white stems grow in groups of low, gnarly, windswept stems, showcasing their crispy green leaves under the blue sky. The mass effect of these humble fjällbjörk forests is just mesmerizing. There is an enchanted touch to this black-white-green mass and I keep looking for signs of forest beings peeping out from behind one of the stems.
Above the tree limit there are still birches, but not really trees. The mountain is covered in a rich flora, mixed with dwarf birch, dvärgbjörk. The Dwarf birch doesn’t look like a tree or even a bush. Just twigs on the ground, sprinkled with the tiniest green wave-edged leaves. Where the arctic downy birch can’t stand against the arctic winds, the dwarf birch and the flowers can. I love those low, fiercely strong plants that are designed to endure the most extreme elements. I guess you can see their relatives on any mountain.
I started spinning this yarn a couple of years ago. The wool comes from a Norwegian crossbred, NKS. I have teased the wool by hand and spun it on Andean pushkas straight off the hand teased rovings. To the best of my ability I tried to spin and ply the way Andean spinners spin their yarn. I have watched Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez teach Linda Ligon how to spin the Andean way in the video Andean spinning.
I wanted to play with different colours and spinning directions in the yarn. Also, I figured that spinning with both hands would decrease the risk of straining my neck and shoulders. Therefore I alternated between S-plied and Z-plied yarn: I did all clockwise spinning with my right hand and all counter-clockwise spinning with my left hand to always pull the spindle. You can read my thoughts about pushing and pulling the spindle and spinning direction in this blog post. You can also check out my webinar Spindle ergonomics to see what I mean.
So, when I had spun the skeins in two different directions I dyed the yarn and planned the weave. I played with opposing twist directions throughout the striped sequence until I found something I liked. Warping was a challenge, but well worth the time and effort.
Sticking to it
Since I have hand-teased this wool as the only preparation the fibers aren’t as neatly arranged as if I would have processed it with tools. Ends are sticking out here and there. When I weave on a warp-faced weave the warp threads are naturally very close to each other. Using this yarn for such a tight sett led to a very sticky warp. Even if I try to do the process as closely as I can to how I understand Andean spinners do it, some things can’t be the same, especially when I use my local wool. I just had to deal with the sticky warp, spend many hours unsticking warp layers and stick (!) to my plan. To my surprise only one warp thread broke during the entire weaving process.
What yo see in the video are the short sections where I just insert the batten after having manually unstuck the warp threads. I saw no point of showing you the endless fiddling with my shortcomings.
To get closer to the technique and the textile traditions of the Andes, I bought the beautiful book Secrets of spinning, weaving and knitting in the Peruvian highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. The book has excellent tutorials of some of the techniques. The eye-pattern tubular bands and borders is one example. As I mentioned I also took the class Andean spinning by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. I took an online course by Kimberly Hamill and later I also bought ebooks on pick-up techniques and the eye-pattern tubular band by Laverne Waddington.
Weaving with the trees
Backstrap weaving is practiced in many different cultures across the world. I love the portability of the loom as well as the many traditions and weaving techniques associated with it.
Being a part of the loom
The idea of being a part of the loom together with a tree is truly fascinating. Being a part of the loom makes my body understand the rhythm of the weaving better than when I am detached from the loom. I like to compare it to spindles and spinning wheels: When I spin on a spindle – of any kind – I am a part of the mechanics of the spinning. Therefore I can understand and control the spinning better than if I were spinning on a spinning wheel where those mechanics are built-in in the spinning wheel.
I prefer standing when I weave on a backstrap loom. I feel it gives me more fine tune control of the tension of the warp. It also feels more flexible than sitting. A downside to weaving standing is that the ground is further away if (when) I drop things. Usually I bring a shoulder bag with the essentials for easy access.
I am, and will keep being, a novice at backstrap weaving. Still, I have learned so much about this craft that is as humble as it is magnificent, as simple as it is complex. And all between just a few hand-carved sticks. And I am truly grateful for the time and space I get to spend with and in the weaving.
Thank you. sweet followers, for another year of spinning, teaching and learning. Your support, your progress and your spinning stories all give me energy and sparkle to keep creating for you.
The week in Abisko ended far too quickly. I am not finished with this place. There are so many things to discover, so many places to craft. I will come back. After all, it’s just an 18 hour train ride from home.
Back home I finished the striped weave and the band. I wove an eye-pattern tubular band around the weave to protect the edges. I sewed the band onto the striped piece and attached D-rings for closure. And voilá, I had myself a wrap for my loom sticks.
Support Andean textile artists
I make a monthly donation to the Center for traditional textiles of Cusco. If you want to support the textile traditions of the Andes you can donate. Andean weavers are facing multiple difficulties due to the consequences of the pandemic. The center also has an online shop where you can buy beautiful hand made items like bags, purses, hats, shawls etc.
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