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Unraveling the mysteries of backstrap weaving.

May the warp be the white light of morning, May the weft be the red light of evening, May the fringes be the falling rain, May the border be the standing rainbow. Thus weave for us a garment of brightness.

Weaving on a backstrap loom provides a unique way of extending students' horizons. The activity takes some effort on the parts of all concerned, but the benefits are well worth the work. The term backstrap loom refers to any loom on which the warp is stretched between the body of the weaver and some stationary objects. The weaver provides tension on the warp threads by leaning back against some form of belt which is attached to both ends of a cloth beam. The warp threads at the opposite end can be tied to a tree, a stake or a hook, or be held firmly by the toes of the weaver's feet. The backstrap weaver is actually part of the loom because the warp tension is constantly tuned or tensioned by the weaver.

Backstrap weaving has been done all over the world. Some of the world's finest weaving has been done on this simple tool. This kind of loom has been used in many areas of Asia and in Scandinavia and it is still commonly used in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. Until recently, Native Americans of the Zuni and Navajo tribes in Arizona used this type of loom to weave belts, sashes and pieces of narrow fabric.

I have found the following backstrap weaving activity to be very effective in elementary classrooms.

1. Introduction and Motivation

Wearing a colorful, geometric belt which was woven on a backstrap loom from Guatemala or Mexico (available in museums or ethnic shops throughout the U.S.), ask students to hypothesize as to how the belt was woven. Explain that the warp threads are held under tension by attaching one end to a fixed object and by tying the other ends to a belt attached to the weaver's back. Try to show examples which depict the variations in backstrap looms. Note that this type of weaving is relatively simple, involves no complicated equipment and is portable. The backstrap loom is called a primitive tool--when the finished cloth is removed from it, there is nothing left but sticks, a backstrap belt and strings. Ask students to compare this kind of loom to a complex modern loom.

2. Making a Rigid Meddle

Rigid heddles can be easily made from popsicle sticks. First, drill holes into the centers of some of the popsicle sticks. As many as ten popsicle sticks can be drilled at one time using an electric drill and vice. Ask the students to put two non-drilled sticks down on their desks in a parallel fashion, approximately 4 1/2" (11 cm) apart. Have them apply white liquid glue to each of the two parallel sticks. The students should vertically line up seven popsicle sticks with holes onto the two plain sticks, each with a 1/4" (1/2 cm) space in between. Place two more non-drilled sticks with glue horizontally on top of the seven vertical ones. Weight the loom with several heavy books and let it dry overnight.

3. Making the Backstrap Belt

Tear old sheets into a variety of lengths to fit the children, making each strip 2-3" (5-7 cm) in width. The length should be long enough to go around the child's back and end in front of the hip bones. Lengths will vary from approximately 22" (55 cm) for the smallest student to about 32" (80 cm) for the largest student. Tie a 5" (12 cm) piece of strong string to each end of the piece of torn sheet.

4. Making the Warp Beam

Cut 1/2" dowel rods into 9" (22 cm) lengths, one for each student. These will be used to tie the front warp threads. Cut sturdy coat hangers into 12" (30 cm) pieces and twist them around the dowel rods.

5. Threading the Rigid Heddle

Students should work in pairs. One student cuts an odd number of pieces of cotton carpet warp or string into 6' (180 cm) lengths. It takes five warp threads to make a narrow belt and a wide weaving might take as many as thirteen warp threads. The second student of the pair holds the rigid heddle and the already-threaded warp threads, while the first feeds the new warp threads into the rigid heddle: hole, slot, hole, slot, etc. The students thread their warp threads from the center of the rigid heddle and then out to both sides. In other words, the first warp thread goes into the hole of popsicle stick number four, the next in the adjacent slot or space on the right, the next in the adjacent slot on the left, the next in hole number three, the next in the slot to the left of popsicle stick number three, the next in the hole of popsicle stick number five, etc. When all cut warp threads have been threaded through the rigid heddle, tie the long ends into a single knot.

6. The Final Set-Up Steps

Ask for a volunteer student to help demonstrate. Ask the student to sit on the floor or in a chair. Tie the knotted end of the warp threads to a stationary point: coat hook, table leg or a file cabinet drawer. The student puts the backstrap belt around the back and inserts the end loops of string through the hooked ends of the coat hanger attached to the warp beam. Next, the student holds the threaded rigid heddle with one hand and the warp beam with the other. Tie the warp threads onto the dowel rod by bringing the warp threads straight out in a bow in front of the student. Tension on the threads should be relatively even. Bouncing a hand off the taut warp threads serves to check tension. If a group of warp threads is too loose or too tight, re-tie only that group onto the dowel rod. The width of the tied groups of warp threads at the warp beam should be equal to the width as the threads come out of the rigid heddle. Having previously instructed parent volunteers to help with the tying-on stage is highly recommended. It is extremely important that this step be done carefully and properly; the success of the project depends on it. It is not a complicated process, but it does take about five minutes per child.

Ask each student to cut a 6' (180 cm) length of weft yarn. I have found that inexpensive three- or four-ply acrylic yarn is most practical for an entire class. Try to find the yarns which have three basic colors in a repeated sequence.

7. The Backstrap Weaving Process

Ask the student to lean back enough to hold the warp threads under tension. Show how to bring the rigid heddle up and lay the piece of weft yarn in the shed (space between the upper and lower threads). Instruct the student to pull the rigid heddle forward and "beat in", or push forward, the weft yarn. Push the rigid heddle back to its starting position, or approximately 12" (30 cm) from the weaver's front. Ask the student to push the rigid heddle down. Pull the weft yarn through the shed until there is no more yarn to pull.

At this point, assorted comments such as, "Ah, I get it!" or "Wow!" or "Neat!" will be heard from the demonstration area. No more motivation is needed. The students will anxiously set up their own looms, with help in the tying-on phase, and will happily weave away. When the first child asks, "What do I do now? I'm out of my first piece of weft yarn." show the student how to join a new piece of yarn by laying the new weft in on top of the old in the same shed. The weaving thus produced is called tabby, or plain weave.

When the backstrap weaving is an appropriate length, cut off the weaving at the knotted, stationary end, approximately 4" (10 cm) from the end of the weaving. Tie off the warp threads in small groups by making a loop in them and sliding it to rest next to the woven part. The warp ends may be trimmed to form fringe, if desired. Complete this final step at the warp beam end by untying the bows from the dowel rod.

8. Extensions

Challenge students to experiment with other weft yarns. Encourage them to try adding textural embellishments such as unspun wool or textures gathered from a nature walk. Suggest that students try to weave a horizontal striped pattern. Ask students to experiment with patterned weaves, using a tapestry or wide-eyed needle while leaving the rigid heddle at rest. See if any one can create a simple geometric pattern repeat in this fashion. Consult one of the many books on weaving in general to help children do pictorial weaving in the back strap pieces. Show examples of such weaving from Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala or Peru. Challenge students to invent a device to hold a long piece of weft yarn called a shuttle.

I have had a recurrent problem at this point: when the recess bell rings, most children would rather continue weaving at their backstrap looms than go out to play. Eventually the novelty wears off with some children, but others will finish one weaving, make their own looms at home and continue to experiment with backstrap weaving. I have often had children ask if they could help me teach other classes to backstrap weave. I have had teachers tell me that behavior problems have disappeared during this activity; they have "never seen a certain child so motivated as with backstrap weaving."

The benefits of backstrap weaving are many and diverse. Weaving activities provide interdisciplinary, historical and multicultural learning for children. Weaving develops creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills and provides students with an enjoyable way to build self-confidence. In elementary education, art needs to be emphasized more. Art should be taught dynamically and purposefully. This helps children to grow daily, to become more aware of life and to be more sensitive to their changing world. They will be better able to make aesthetic choices, and more appreciative of the contributions art makes to life. By weaving a multicultural enrichment web into the curriculum we can provide such an avenue. Art becomes part of life much much the same way the traditional Song of the Sky Loom sings.


backstrap loom--Any loom on which the warp is stretched between some stationary object and the body of the weaver.

beat--To push the welt down into place.

rigid heddle--A device which consists of a series of short sticks or reeds held parallel by top and bottom cross bars,

shed--A horizontal opening made in the warp when a number of warp threads are raised, forming a passage for the weft.

shuttle--A weaving tool used to carry the weft, such as a notched stick or piece of cardboard.

tabby--Plain weave where the weft thread goes over one warp thread and under one warp thread repeatedly.

warp--The structural threads that run lengthwise in a fabric.

weft--The horizontal threads which are interlaced through the warp threads of a fabric.

Leslie N. Veirs is Resource Teacher for the Talented arm Gifted at Wolford Elementary School, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Drawings by Jena Rochet and Val Veirs
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes glossary of weaving terms
Author:Veirs, Leslie N.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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