After my first trip to Luang Prabang in 2013, the main thing I hope to follow up on was Katu backstrap weaving. It had been amazing to connect with backstrap weavers as a weaver, and I wished for more time with these young masters, Keo and Mone. Their skill level is astounding, the techniques and tools mesmerizing.
As I wrote before, I tried my hand at warping and weaving in this way on my own, based on video documentation of Keo, and the results were less than impressive. I never posted the "finished" object here, because I had simply cut it off the loom when it got too messy: too many broken warps and tension issues. But when I knew I was returning to Luang Prabang, and that Mone was teaching weaving and I would very well have the chance to learn with her, I knew I had to show her my solo attempt. I packed the sad little sample (about 10 inches, woven off a 4 yard warp) along with gifts of merino bamboo yarn for Mone to experiment with, and couldn't wait to meet her again and learn to weave officially.
When I met Keo and Mone and presented my sample, they exclaimed in disbelief: "You did this by yourself??" They were thrilled, happy, and proud, and wouldn't stop exclaiming and admiring my funny little piece. Mone said, "This looks like my first weaving!" It felt wonderful to finally share with them, because no one else in the world could appreciate the work that went into that sample. They honestly seemed to think it was good, and Mone was convinced I could try weaving a wider piece in her "advanced" class format. The good student in me swelled with pride - but more than that, I was basking in the fellowship of weavers, traditional master backstrap weavers who were acknowledging me as someone on a similar path of effort and skill.
Mone now teaches half-day classes for beginners, preparing a narrow warp so her students can weave a cuff/headband/bookmark sized band with border stripes and beading (for information see The Weaving Sisters on Facebook.) Katu weaving traditionally incorporates seed beads, which are threaded onto the weft and worked into place as each pick is thrown. Traditional weaving also has a variety of supplementary warp patterns, which I had tried and failed to make in my own warp. I had hoped that Mone would introduce me to those, but she said it was too advanced for me: "Next time," she told me with a smile. As a concession to my skill level, she allowed me to work on a wide piece, and to participate from the beginning, in winding the warp.
My friend Sarah and I were learning simultaneously. Sarah had a pre-warped narrow band, and Mone got her started, then began making the warp with me. She explained that when two people warp together, they begin in the middle and work their way out, symmetrically. I'd chosen colors and we invented a stripe sequence as we went along, Mone telling me how many times to wind each color. She had to attend to Sarah's weaving intermittently, and introduce the beading process, so if I got ahead on my side of the warp, I would shift to her side and catch up. As a result, I can't say who warped which half of my piece. In addition, there was some confusion as to what she meant by her count - whether "3 times" meant three full rotations, or three lengths, for example - so there are some anomalies in the two sides that show not only that two people were warping but that they had different interpretations of the numbers (and I'm sure I miscounted at least once.) The whole process is recorded in the stripe pattern, a visual document of this teacher/student exchange.
The first time I was in Luang Prabang, asking Mone questions about the weaving patterns, she told me, "You need to stay with me for a month." I completely agree. Although I had a lesson that spanned a couple of days this time, and I got to warp and weave a whole piece by myself, there is still so much I couldn't learn in that time. Leaving aside the more advanced techniques of supplementary warp, there are countless small habits, in the winding of the warp or the use of the loom, that she may not even think to mention because they're second nature to her now. Mone is an excellent teacher, and she conveys the basics very clearly, giving pointed guidance while reassuring students, "You're just learning! This is your first piece - you're doing great!" But on the subtle level, anyone who has honed a skill from childhood has trouble breaking it down into every step involved, and that's why I'd need at least a month to pick up on all the details. It was invaluable to weave with her for two days, and to hear tips that changed my whole approach. Having tried this myself, unsupervised, I'd of course developed my own habits, work-arounds that were not necessarily helpful, and being observed by Mone and Keo, it became obvious very quickly which habits were not acceptable to them.
In short, I wove with masters, and I'm very grateful.
One of the main bonuses of the advanced class is that you get to keep the loom. This was very exciting to me, since I'd experienced my own jerry-rigged version, and knew the importance of the particular shape of the sword beater and the smooth bamboo elements. The bamboo has been shaved by hand so that it's completely smooth, and the sword beater was hand-carved by Mone's brother from a Burmese type of mahogany.
I took the weaving back to my room, and worked on it whenever I got the chance. I wanted to be sure and learn some beading before I finished, although I knew I didn't want to bead the whole length - for a beginner, it takes way too long. Mone got me started on a diamond pattern, which I copied. Then Keo told me to try the filled diamond (more beads = more difficult), then for the last one I tried a more open diamond, skipping a row between beads.
Mone recommended that for my next solo attempt, with my new loom, I should weave a narrower piece, to practice and get used to the loom. I had purchased some of the fine cotton that is available in the Phusi Market in Luang Prabang, and that Mone uses double-stranded as warp and weft. Soon after I returned home, I set out to make a new warp while the process was fresh in my mind. I was thinking about acquiring 2x4's to make the warping frame, when my gaze fell on this wooden ladder.... for the current purpose, it worked just fine.
I'm off and weaving again. The one mistake I made was to make the warp a bit too short. It fits my legs exactly, without rolling onto the bar at all. And the way these bars are made, a piece of bamboo split in half lengthwise, it's meant to be rolled on a bit. So the warp length on the frame should be longer than my hip-to-foot span. Since it's a circular warp, the actual woven length will be double that: the top half is woven, and the warp is advanced by rotating it on the bars.
The next step is to shop for beads to use in the middle of this band.