What is Backstrap Loom Weaving?

overhead view of Street Mural in San Juan La Laguna depicting the steps of backstrap loom weaving
Street Mural in San Juan La Laguna depicting the steps of backstrap loom weaving

 

In Maya cosmology it was Ix Chel, the Goddess of Moon, Water, Weaving and Childbirth who taught the first woman to weave millennia ago. The whirling of her drop spindle which is used to spin thread from cotton fiber is said to be the center of the turning universe. The backstrap loom has been used by Maya women for thousands of years to create cloth that is both stunning and functional.  The loom itself is simple in design but ingenious - a set of sticks gathered in the forest then carved, a sash, and some rope.
All the sticks, rods, straps and cords needed for the backstrap loom and a low stool
An assortment of sticks: Loom rods, heddle rod, shed rod, beater, etc.

 

It is of exceptional convenience; lightweight, portable, compact, and easy to start and stop when necessary simply rolling up the loom when not in use.
Rolled up backstrap loom with a blue and pink in-process weaving showing the loom's portability
The backstrap loom is efficiency itself - portable, easy to manufacture, and extremely economical

 

The weaver becomes an integral part of the loom as soon as she wraps the backstrap around her hips. In all systems of weaving the warp threads (the long threads of the loom) must be under tension in order to neatly lift and separate them so that they may be woven by the weft thread. The two points of tension on a backstrap loom are the weaver herself and a post or tree on the opposite end.
Side view showing the complete set up of a backstrap loom with Master Weaver Cristina Hernandez
The attaching strap is not actually on the back but low around the hips.

 

In this manner, the weaver becomes the loom, subtly adjusting tension with her body.   Watch Master Weaver Cristina Hernandez demonstrate the technique.

 

 

The Process

Before industrialized thread making, Guatemalan weavers would hand spin their own thread from cotton plants using a drop spindle. Although this knowledge is still retained, very very few weavers today make their own thread because it is so labor intensive.
overhead view of San Juan wall mural depicting woman with drop spindle making yarn from cotton
Today hand spinning of cotton thread is generally reserved as a demonstration for tourists.

 

1. Setting Up The Loom - Warp, Weft, & Heddles

The loom set up can take anywhere from a few hours to a full day, depending on the size and complexity of the weaving.

WARP
After dyeing the thread (or purchasing already dyed) the vertical warp threads are wound onto the urdidor or warping board according to the chosen design. During the laying of the warp, jaspe panels are inserted in their correct order if the weaver is including them in her design. 

Cristina Cumes at the women's cooperative winding warp threads onto the urdidor for the backstrap loom
Cristina Cumes laying out the vertical warp threads on the urdidor.

 

Once completed, the warp threads are removed from the warping board.   
Close up of hands removing the blue and pink warp threads from the urdidor
Removing the finished warp from the urdidor - note the loops which are formed at both ends of the warp.

 

The far loom rod is slipped through the looped ends of the warp, then these loops are lashed to the rod with heavy string and attached to a tree or post. The near loom rod is simply slipped through the loops at the other end the warp and then attached to the weaver's hips by means of a wide belt. 

 

WEFT
The horizontal weaving threads are wound onto a shuttle which will be passed back and forth through the warp of the loom, leaving a trail of thread that weaves in and out of the vertical thread. These threads may be single, double or more, depending on the thickness of the weaving. This is called the trama or weft.

winding the backstrap loom shuttle, the weft threads or trama, in preparation for weaving
Winding the trama (weft) threads onto the shuttle which will be woven over and under the warp threads

 

HEDDLES
The next step is to form the heddles. Heddles serve to separate half the threads of the warp so that when lifted they create a tunnel (the shed) in which to pass the weft threads.  Instead of tediously lifting one thread at a time to get the over/under of a weave, heddles pick up the threads all at one go.  On this type of backstrap loom the heddles are made from a continuous thread and are lifted by the heddle rod which will be been inserted in the place where my fingers are holding open the heddles.

close up of hands creating continuous string heddles on a backstrap loom
Forming the continuous string heddles takes patience and care

 

This link, Making Continous String Heddles,  will take you to an article that contains an excellent description of forming the heddles.

 

Once the heddles are created the rest of the rods are inserted to form the complete backstrap loom as depicted below. 

in-process weaving stretched out on the floor showing a backstrap loom with labeled parts
This weaving represents the totality of all my backstrap loom experience (so far). Woven in 2013 under the expert guidance of Cristina Hernandez.

 

 

2. Weaving

Once the loom is set up, weaving can begin. The beater and the shuttle are the freely moving parts of the loom.  

To begin, the beater is used to whack the weaving above the heddles to separate the weft threads while simultaneously lifting up the heddle rod to form a shed from half the warp threads.  The beater is carefully inserted and turned on it's edge to keep the shed open while the shuttle is thrown through the shed from one hand to another going from one side of the loom to the other.

Close up of the working area of a backstrap loom and hands passing the shuttle through the weft
The upturned beater creates the shed, a passageway through which the shuttle slides. Note the shuttle just visible behind the beater.

 

Once the shuttle is through, the beater is flipped back to horizontal and then whammed down towards the stomach to firmly pack the threads.  Next, the shed and heddle rods together are pulled down and then up, mysteriously creating a 2nd shed from the other half of the warp threads and to which the beater bar is again inserted and tilted up.  The shuttle is then whipped back over to the beginning side through the shed, the beater is whammed downwards and the process begins again with the beater bar once more smacking the weaving above the heddles. 
Close up of working area of backstrap loom and hands packing the weft threads with beater
Packing the weft threads with the beater. Prized beaters are often passed down from mother to daughter.

 

It is just possible this description might be influenced a teensy bit by my personal experience in trying to learn to weave; at times it certainly felt like I was fighting for my life. Cristina from the video, however, is a very skilled weaver and her movements are fluid and graceful; when she weaves it's all a beautiful dance.

Once completed, the sticks of the loom are removed and the looped ends are tied and/or leg-rolled to finish it off.  Often, the top and bottom loops are then cut to create a more symmetrical fringe, but if they are not, the appearance of these loops is one way to identify a textile as having been made on a backstrap loom.

The video below shows Cristina Hernandez leg-rolling the fringe.  Try doing that at home (hah!)