Like most Americans, my first contact with a backstrap loom was in Mexico. It was the Toluca Museum of Folk Art, located next door to the school where I was working. I came across a group of women sitting outside under some trees, quietly weaving with a maestra occasionally giving a student instructions.
You would think I would have jumped at the chance to take such a class and indeed, I was tempted, but I also felt like an interloper, not willing to draw attention to myself. But the image still is in my head 17 years later.
Such a loom is one of humanity’s oldest machines. It may look crude and primitive, but it is anything but. The elements indeed are simple, sticks, rope and a strap that goes around the weaver which gives the loom its name. These sticks and strings, in the right hands, create some of the world’s most complex and sophisticated textiles.
Unlike the pedal loom, which the Spanish introduced later, a backstrap loom can be easily set up and taken down anywhere, event with a piece in progress. This is important as this weaving has been almost entirely in the realm of traditional women, who do this in between other domestic chores such as childcare, cooking and the like. Children learn to weave by having mini looms of their own, working alongside their mothers when they are old enough.
It may be tempting to think that such a loom is unique to Mexico, but that is hardly the case. Backstrap looms of various types can be found in cultures past and present all over the world. It does have some limitations. The main one is that the width of the fabric produced is limited by the human arm width. Theoretically, the length can go on forever, but in reality this is also limited by the need to keep the unwoven threads in a workable form.
The loom was never developed to mass-produce cloth. This was the purpose of the treadle loom, and it is after this that modern machine looms were patterned.
In most places in the world, the backstrap loom has fallen completely out of use, relegated to museums and history. Mexico’s indigenous cultures are one of the few in the world who still preserve the tradition, although it is a precarious existence. The main reason is that such weaving is highly labor intensive, even if the cloth is done with the simplest of weaves. For weaving communities, such cloth is not used for the making of everyday clothing.
The nature of this weaving allows the artisan to be much closer to the cloth being made and allows for the creation of very complicated designs as the piece is being woven. These designs can be bold, with the use of threads of bright colors, or they can be sublime, such as a white-on-white that you would need a magnifying glass to truly appreciate.
The most important design technique used in this weaving is brocading This technique creates raised patterns on the cloth with the use of supplementary weft, added to the ground weft. Backstrap looms allows this to be done as the base cloth is being woven.
The main reason why it survives is that the traditional clothing made from this cloth also survives. The most common garments made from such cloth are rebozos (a long rectangular shawl), wrap belts, boxy blouses and shirts, and the huipil, the long dress-like garment that defines indigenous Mesoamerica.
These clothing items not only make use of every thread that is woven on the looms, they play an important part in preserving ancient heritage, and allows many communities to keep traditional lifestyles. The complicated designs reflect the cosmology of the peoples who make them. Brocade (and embroidery) designs can identify the ethnic origin of the wearer, even down to the town h/she is from. Such complicated garments, much like the tapestries of medieval Europe, can demonstrate wealth and status of the wearer.
In the modern era, handwoven cloth and the items made from it allow traditional women to contribute economically to their families, without challenging traditional gender roles. The tourist trade is vital to this. The finished pieces can and do attract attention on their own, but it is the image of a woman sitting and working on such a loom that transports us from industrialized countries to another world… one we lost many centuries ago.
Interest in weaving and other handcrafts has sparked interest in demonstrations, conferences, and even specialized tours such as those offered by Tia Stephanie, going to artisans’ homes. Here one can not only see with work done in context, visitors can buy directly from the artisan, assuring the money they spend goes into the hands of the person who put the many hours and knowledge into the work of art.