Weaving with a Backstrap Loom

Weaving textiles on a backstrap loom is ancient practice in Mesoamerica (and all over the world!). The loom itself is quite simple, basically a collection of different sized and shaped sticks. It is also highly portable–you just need someplace to anchor it. Preparing the thread, setting up the loom, designing a textile, and executing the weaving are not so simple however. In order to try and give an idea of how much work and creative design go into this process I want to share some pictures and a video of a couple of my friends, Ixil-Mayas from Ilom, Chajul, setting up their looms and weaving.

But first the basics. Here is an interesting simplified schematic drawing of the basic parts to a backstrap loom (the image and description I found at this helpful site):

Backstrap loom

A = A cord or rope is used to tie the loom to a tree or post. B = End bars are used to hold the warp (vertical threads) to the upper and lower ends of the loom. C and D = Shed rods maintain the crossing of the warp’s threads. E = The heddle rod lifts alternate threads of the warp. F = The batten helps to separate alternate threads of the warp to allow the bobbin (G) to pass through them. The batten can also be used to tighten the weft (horizontal threads) as they are woven. G = The bobbin, containing the thread of the weft, passes from side to side between the warp. H = This belt is worn around the weaver’s back and connects her to the loom. The weaver controls the tension on the warp by leaning backward or forward.

The backstrap loom is extremely versatile. The entire thing can just be rolled up into a tube-shape when not in use and would only weigh a couple of pounds. And as mentioned above it can be set up anywhere there is a decent anchor and enough space to spread out the entire weaving. A unibquitous sight in Guatemala are women sitting inside the family convenience store making progress on their latest creation in between customers. With a backstrap loom you can weave something as small as a headband or something about a meter wide and two meters long. Often women unite two separate pieces to produce a larger textile. The simplicity, functionality, and versatility of a backstrap loom belies the trickiest part: setting up the loom, designing and then actually weaving a textile.

Antonia starting on a new blouse.

Antonia starting on a new blouse.

Women get started early learning by example and trial and error, often weaving at the side of their older sisters or mothers who can help out when things get complicated.

And complicated they can get. Throughout the process of setting up the loom and weaving it is extremely easy for the threads to break, get out of alignment, for rows to be skipped etc. All are disastrous for the final textile and are usually pretty hard to undo once done. Care and attention to detail is extremely important.

The following is a slideshow of Rosa walking us through the process of setting up a loom and beginning a new weaving:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And finally, here is a video of another Rosa weaving to give an idea of how much work goes into just one row of a blouse. I filmed this in her house in Ilom, Chajul, Guatemala.

I hope this has been helpful to appreciate and understand how much work and creativity goes into the design and execution of backstrap loom weaving!

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