This rant, or maybe I should say “response,” will be held on the ‘threads’ blog page (textiles tab), because that’s where I want it to be stored. It has to do with assumptions people make about backstrap weaving, and the pervasive ignorance that Western academics keep generating. It is a backstrap weaver’s rant/response, and an informative one (with footnotes!), so join me.
I started out weaving this with a two-ply handspun, churro and Icelandic. But the sett is too close with this reed, and the weft did not show through enough and I didn’t like the result, so I tried the churro singles. It was still on my spindle, and I discovered that this particular spindle (from Allen Berry) is of a length and whorl shape that works perfectly as a shuttle. Convenient! And I like the look of this weft, so I just kept weaving with the spindle as shuttle. Allen, who also carved the beautiful yellow cedar sword/beater, mentioned that he’d heard of people using spindles as bobbins/shuttles before, and this rang a faint bell for me, too. I knew I’d definitely seen people winding a warp directly from full spindles, and I found the video: winding a warp directly from spindles, in Western Ladakh.
It does sound familiar, though, putting a spindle into a shuttle as bobbin…. maybe a quill spindle, for cotton…? I can’t remember where I saw or heard of that, but pipe up if you know anything.
At any rate, I’m enjoying having a plain weave project with the reed on the loom again, and this time I’ve wound the far end, so I can weave a longer length without dealing with the full weight of a 3+ yard warp between me and the loom bar. Seems to be going ok. I have tension issues, but what else is new?
Otherwise, I’m working on the opposite end of the spectrum from plain weave - trying to wrap my mind around a pattern and technique that have been calling to me for years. It’s the typical Central Asian yurt band weaving, which Laverne has graciously explained in various tutorials, under the name of “simple warp floats” (simple because they float on one side only, the top.) I’ve had those pages, and this one, bookmarked and screen-shotted, and photos copied and printed since she started posting about it back in 2010. For some reason, the yurt bands have always grabbed me, and I knew I would have to figure it out someday. Yes, Laverne has explained it nicely and given plenty of ways for it to make sense - BUT, the actual translation of woven pattern to chart, especially with the Central Asian tendency to stipple the background, is really quite challenging. That final link, where Laverne made a wide piece with pickup in foreground and background, has just always thrilled me.
Note that in the tutorials, the background remains striped, which is plain weave with no pickup. Doing pickup on the whole surface is another ball game, and a very different one from Andean pebble weave or complementary warp pickup. The designs look similar, especially on the front, but structurally they are a different technique, and the rules for composing patterns are not the same at all.
I found out how different, and what some of the rules were, while trying to chart a section of a yurt band pattern, based on a printed photo of an actual band belonging to Marilyn Romatka.
I was still daunted by the wide yurt band patterns, but I really wanted to figure it out. Recently, circumstances came together that allowed me to sit down, look at Laverne’s images once more, and take on the pattern. I charted a quadrant of a symmetrical design, and started weaving a half-width to test it. So far, it’s working!
I’m continuing to look at the yurt band photos and trying to understand more of the typical patterning, so that I can create border designs in narrower strips. Spending my morning on this kind of thing is deeply gratifying, in the way that finally being able to weave something one has admired for years can be. The next effort at this will be with handspun wool.
Whenever I come home from being away, I tend to re-assess, to inventory my projects, ideas and materials. I need to go around and touch things, fluff the space, remind myself of what was going on. At the same time, I tend to be most open to doing something completely new during this re-entry phase. This was the case yesterday. I’m home, only for a week, with warps on the looms, fiber on the wheel and spindles, and plenty of things in some state of generalized progress. But as I moved through my studio space, every corner, bin, and shelf called to me with fresh voices, things that wanted to jump the queue and happen now.
I see papers and paints and pencils, and itch to pick them up. Then I see fibers lurking in a bag and start to think about enticing new combinations.
What I ended up doing, though, was pouncing on the box labeled Saki Ori, and saying This is it. This happens today. It had been a long time coming. I prepared the kimono silk weft many months ago, maybe even a year ago, I knew what I wanted to use for warp, and I knew I would use my 8 inch bamboo reed. So it was all ready to go, awaiting the moment of ignition. I spent the day preparing a whole new warp, musing on the materials visible through the warping frame as I wound.
And then we’re off and weaving. I’m happy to be doing something new, but also a planned thing: it was on the list, but it has a spark of excitement because I’ve never done it before. I have a beautiful example, an obi that I bought in Japan 20 years ago. Ever since I made the small bamboo reed, I’ve been wanting to weave with kimono silk weft. My silk strips are wider than those in the vintage obi, but this is my first go, just getting acquainted with the possibilities (I have a lot more silk scraps.)
The various vignettes in my studio continue to intrigue: the sakiori weft balls themselves, before being wound onto shuttles, begin to make tentative conversation with some aged handspun cops I picked up at the guild auction. The air hums with possibilities, even as I commit to a single project for hours and days.
I'm preparing for my second round of teaching an introduction to backstrap weaving through the Cedar Root Folk School at the end of September, and remembering what an enjoyable experience it was last year. This school focuses on sustainable living, with classes taught "hand-to-hand" in an intergenerational, mentoring format. Such a premise attracts students with an interest in skills acquisition. They are coming to learn how to work with their hands in a specific way, for their own long-term benefit, and their focus and earnest attention reflected this.
None of my students were weavers when they arrived, but they all took to it quickly, establishing the rhythm of opening sheds and manipulating string heddles. Very soon they were ready to move on from plain weave stripes to the basic tanka ch'oro pickup pattern.
I explained the context of this pattern, that it's a beginner design for young weavers in Peru. These students were interested in all my digressions and side stories, my samples and cultural background notes. We studied images of backstrap weaving from different parts of the world, and they appreciated the range of possibilities sourcing from an overtly simple method.
One student brought some handwoven examples from her own collection, for me to admire and try to identify. I love the band pictured below, although I can't tell its origin - possibly Central Asia?
We had wide-ranging discussions at lunchtime, confirming that these were not just people I was happy to teach, but women I was glad to know. They worked diligently through the afternoon, practicing pickup and warp winding. The next morning were ready to wind wider warps, to weave their own striped backstraps.
Interesting backstrap designs emerged, and these determined students managed to finish, or very nearly finish, the entire thing that day. Taking home the sticks, sword beater, and handwoven backstrap, they were all prepared to keep weaving on their own.
It was a gratifying class for me to teach, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I'm glad to have connected with the Cedar Root Folk School, and I look forward to this year's class.
I probably overuse the word "whirlwind" to describe periods of time in my life, so let's say that the last several weeks have been a blur of weaving and textile-related stimulation.
It started with a visit to Kansas City.
Well, it actually started over a year ago when I plotted and schemed to bring Laverne Waddington to Port Townsend for a class. She visits Seattle regularly, but I hadn't managed to bring her to my home yet, so I drummed up interest in my weaving guild (not difficult at all) and scheduled a day of weaving in April 2018. Getting this all organized had been my focus, as well as family issues, and so when I prepared to go to KC for phase one of family stuff, I was not thinking of fun fiber events or weaving opportunities.
But of course, Kansas City is the new home, for three years running, of Ply Away, and I soon became aware that fate, the universe, and/or the weaving gods had conspired to place me in the perfect position to photobomb Abby's intermediate backstrap weaving class and assist her with a warp-winding method I've been eager to learn for YEARS! I mean, really. I can't express how great this was, particularly for being so unexpected and unsought.
Watching Abby go through the basics of backstrap was edifying - although this was an intermediate class, she reviewed things like winding two-color warp and making heddles, for the benefit of the newer weavers (those 5-6 year-olds on the Chinchero weaver scale.) I had been advised and coached by Abby over the last 8 years, but had never actually watched her handle a warp, so just seeing how she did pickup, opened sheds, and used her hands and tools was a special treat.
It was also remarkable to weave with Abby and then Laverne, almost back-to-back. I've learned to weave from these two people, but I'd never sat in a class where they showed beginners the basics before, and in both cases I got to see the teaching method in action and directly compare the styles. Abby is admittedly Chinchero-chauvinist, teaching The Way she grew up learning, while Laverne has amalgamated methods from a variety of traditional weavers in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, from whom she has learned different techniques. Both of them have experience as educators, and so their teaching is deliberate and skillful, developed from an understanding of progressive levels of learning. This means I got to observe not only how to weave from the student's perspective, but also how to teach, which interests me because I have taught backstrap once or twice, and hope to have more opportunities.
Being around newer students, I also saw how the teaching translated into their understanding of how to weave. Abby's students are comfortable with Quechua terms like illawa and sonqopa (heddles and shed stick, which are the only system they use for opening sheds,) while Laverne's students adopt the clever "twisty sticks" (an extra cross held on two bound sticks that is used to help open both sheds), and heddle the alternating "pebble" sheds when using such patterns. The terminology and vocabulary of movement that each set of students picks up is different, but they're all learning traditional backstrap weaving and it's brilliant to see weavers growing up.
I've felt pride in being able to weave in this way, since I began in 2010, and having my skills confirmed by my teachers gives me a thrill of confidence, and motivation to keep growing. It has been intense, having so much exposure to my weaving people. This is a precious community we're creating, and I hope to nurture it.
So that's the overview. Then, there was the stuff I actually learned, and the whole process of absorbing the information. I got a lightning-fast demo of supplementary warp patterning in Abby's class (fast because I had to keep leaving because family,) and was glad that Laverne made me show her later, which helped me remember what the heck we did. It's kind of like learning a language: I can repeat things perfectly, in the moment, but ask me the word later and unless I wrote it down, it's gone. I made this warp immediately after Abby, which was fine and easy, but I very nearly forgot how it was done when asked to explain a week later. But I did figure it out. It's easy. I just have to write it down (or show Laverne, who is way more meticulous in sampling and nailing down techniques - she'll remember it!)
The two-person warp winding method (shown above) with a header cord was my Holy Grail of things I wanted to learn, so I was crazy excited for that. Only thing is, it takes two people, so until I see Abby again, I can't exactly practice.
From Laverne, I got to learn two techniques I've been curious about for a long time: double weave and supplementary weft patterning. Both were completely new to me, so I had to focus and work to get a grip on the mechanics. They make a nice pairing because the patterns follow the same math, or logic, meaning they can be charted in the same way. So if I come up with a design in double weave, I could weave it with supplementary weft - although there are some considerations that make design choices more suited to one or the other. At any rate, my head and hands have been fully occupied with continuing to reinforce the type of thing shown below. I've followed through with my samples better than I usually do, being determined to keep these techniques in my tool kit.
I didn't know I was going to focus so much on this weaving today, but it just sucked me in. I've been spinning for backstrap weaving for a while now, trying to build up a collection of different colors that are all spindle-spun and suitable for warp. Not a huge range of colors, but enough to choose from to make a bag-sized weaving.
I was in the midst of warping this handspun for a striped piece with Andean pickup bands. It needed to be warped in two bouts due to the width of the piece in relation to the size of my warping pegs - that's why I stopped in the middle. So today should have been just finishing up less than half of the warping. But, after doing that, and laying the two bouts side by side on loom bars, the second bit was clearly much tighter, so I did it again: 30 rounds of dark, some stripes, a pickup band of 8 pairs, border, then 20 rounds of green. Much better results. Got it heddled and felt good, apart from noticing a stripe I'd left out - ah well, it wouldn't be my weaving if there weren't something odd in there.
When I needed weft yarn, I was able to wind a shuttle from the green at the top of my discarded too-tight second bout. Then I started to consider patterns for the pickup, and was looking at Nilda Callañaupa's book on Textile Traditions of Chinchero. The book includes patterns that have been found in old textiles and reproduced or documented. One was a variation on the cutij/kuti or "hoe" pattern, an 8 pair design I've worked with.
The pattern in the book seemed to have the same number of pairs, so I lifted the 8-pair pickup section off the discarded bout of warp to test it out (the discarded bout of warp was coming in very handy!) After a very focused half hour or so, I had a replica of the double-bar kuti pattern, in 8 pairs. At this point I was very proud of myself.
Usually it takes a workshop with a teacher to get me to focus so intently on one thing all day, and to slow down and sample to figure things out. But today I got to have my own private workshop, and it was so gratifying to dig a little deeper, all on by myself (with help from Nilda, of course.)
This will be my side pattern, and I still have yet to choose the pattern for the center panel of pickup. We'll see what tomorrow brings.
I left the reed half-constructed in the previous post, but it was finished within the three-day workshop, I love how it looks like something maritime while on the stand, with its twin masts and hanging bobbins. There was a scary moment when Bryan discovered a problem with the width, but he corrected it with some selective pounding. Soon enough I had a finished reed!
When I got home I immediately cleared the deck to weave with it, rummaging in my weaving yarn bin to find the right warp. I chose an undyed cottolin a friend had given me, and found some handspun for weft.
I wound a long warp, more than 3 meters. When I first tied on, I had to open the door behind me in the photo, and sit in the closet. Some astute observers may be thinking that those two balls don't look like much weft, and that is correct. I was so eager to get started, I didn't even think of measuring for weft, and they were already wound in balls without recorded yardage anyway (I had the idea I would ply them with something else eventually), so I plunged in with about three bobbins' worth of weft. Needless to say, I had to spin more as I went along. But I was weaving! With my handmade reed! Longer, finer, and wider than most of my backstrap weaving so far.
Somehow the fabric felt Japanese. The width is similar to kimono cloth, but the use of this tool seemed to put the whole project into a certain cultural mode. I always like the state of mind I have while weaving, but this time it was even more transformative. Bryan had talked about the Japanese aesthetic and the deep roots of the mindset, and I felt tapped in to the sense of making "egoless cloth" with this piece.
The end result feels Japanese to me, too, in an intangible way. I'm grateful to Bryan for helping me access this way of weaving. Although I spent three years in Japan, I was not able to engage with textile making in that context, so it has been elusive for me.
Meanwhile, I went to work on another, smaller reed. We had enough supplies to make a second reed of 8 inches or so. I set this up and tied it slowly, relishing the process. I very much like doing the work of making this tool.
The second one ended up with about the same dent (22 epi), wide enough for 8 inches of weaving. I hope to to some sakiori with this one, using my stash of kimono silks as weft.
Oh, and by now I have my second large piece on the loom with the wider reed. It's handspun wool warp & weft, only about 2 meters long this time, and less than 12 inches wide (I measured the yarn this time.)
The Aodake (type of bamboo) is split and peeled progressively from the whole chunk, about 5-6 cm diameter, to the narrow higo strips used for basketry. These strips are then cut to size for reeds. Each individual reed is about 9 cm long, 4 mm wide and 0.4 mm thick, with beveled edges (the length is variable, the width and thickness uniform because that's important for consistency in the finished tool.) All of Bryan's students received packets of 330 of these small pieces to make our reeds. The amount of effort that went into preparing them is astounding: before the bamboo is even cut, it is dried for months, cured over a fire to release oils, and dried some more. During the first day of our workshop, Bryan demonstrated the methods of splitting and peeling bamboo, and beveling and planing the higo. It looked smooth and easy as he worked, but when we tried we found that doing it right is tricky and difficult.
Throughout the workshop Bryan gave us the historical, cultural, and aesthetic context of bamboo, weaving, and cloth in Japan. Since I'd lived in Japan years ago, it was nice to re-immerse in this world, and memories of the place and the language came to the surface of my mind. The block of wood we used as a stand for reed building is made of hinoki, a type of cedar used in Japanese baths. The smell evoked onsen, hot springs, one of my favorite aspects of living in Japan, and I kept happily inhaling the distinctive scent as I worked. I'm grateful that we got to keep the wood. Bryan didn't just bring us a technique - he brought as much of a cultural experience as he could to the physics lab on the UVic campus. When people attend workshops in his home, they're surrounded by the indigo and tea fields, the bamboo forest, and centuries-old silk weaving houses. It was challenging for him to translate both the terminology and the experiences into English, but he succeeded - probably because he's spent the last 30 years bridging cultures.
Our class was unusual for a weaving conference, and more than one weaver asked me why I was making a reed. As a backstrap weaver, I've been seeking this kind of tool-making skill and knowledge for a while, but to most weavers using floor looms, it's not necessary. For this reason, our class was a group of people with interests slightly outside the norm for North American weavers. We were remarkably harmonious, and many in the group have a strong urge to travel to Japan for further study with Bryan sensei.
More to come on what we actually did, and where it has led me.
I'm currently working on a piece that is all handspun wool, and relatively large for a backstrap weaving.
It's traveled around with me, and I've given demonstrations to weavers, friends and students in Seattle and Kansas City. I don't have many good photos of it, but I'm honored to say that Laverne posted some here.
As I've been working on it, this weaving has become a kind of home base for me - an experience I haven't had before with weaving.
At home, I check in with it almost daily, putting in a few rows in the early morning. Already, before taking it elsewhere, the weaving felt like a space, a separate place to go for a while. When I'm there, I'm in the weaving, in the world of it, which has certain rules that I needed to learn when I began. How to manipulate these yarns, and open these sheds, slightly different from any other project I've done. The pickup is a different set of patterns - so although the technical process of pickup is familiar, I had to learn to read them.
The first time I demonstrated, I remained silent, and was able to weave along, without mistakes, for several picks. The second time, I was trying to explain the process to students, and I couldn't fathom my pickup, then forgot to pass the weft (which, by the way, is a good way out if you have made pattern mistakes during a demo - just don't pass the weft!) I learned that people just want to see you change sheds a few times, so "pretend weaving" is good enough for a warm-up. After a few minutes, I got to the point where I could weave for real and answer questions.
These experiences made me bond more with the weaving, in a way. I had to master its language enough to do it while semi-distracted. Not arguing for multi-tasking, but it's interesting how the distraction made me focus more, and go a bit deeper into my relationship with my weaving. Which is what I'm trying to talk about. There's a relationship with this weaving, as a process and as a piece. My time with it is valuable, and necessary. Like feeding a friendship, the time weaving solidifies something good in my mind, something deep and true.
So when people ask what I'm planning to do with it, I have no reply because I'm not thinking of it that way. Not trying to get something done, but just doing. Something important.
I love watching this pattern take shape. Warped up a quick band of al'ouerjan, just to make sure I could still do it. I tend to combine Joy Hilden's instructions from her Bedouin Weaving book, and Laverne's tutorial to remind myself of the slightly odd warping technique. (The beautiful little sword is one that Laverne brought from a maker in Bolivia - adds joy to the process!)
Having woven a bag with this pattern, which I'm proud of and use so much it's nearly wearing out, I wanted to revive my familiarity with the lovely dotted strips.
I've already written about why I like it so much, so I'm going to link to my old blog post celebrating al'ouerjan.
I didn't consciously reverse the colors of the diamonds in the new band - they just happened that way. we will see where this leads....