# 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.

6. The Final Set-Up Steps

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.

WEAVING TERMS

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
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.

Title Annotation: Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback includes glossary of weaving terms Veirs, Leslie N. School Arts Oct 1, 1991 1911 Primary origami. Modern cave art. Hand weaving Looms Weaving