The beautiful blue turquoise or pottery beads in Iran and Syria,the colourful strings of Wampum changing hands among American Indians, the elegent seedpearls used to decorate the doublets of many Elizebethen courtiers- and the variety of materials which have fallen under the heading of beadwork is phenomenal. A string of beads told one of many things about its wearer.It could betray his superstitious nature- as he wore it as protection against evil spirits or enemies he might have.
Earliest beadwork utilised bits of every day litter such as, Opalescent shells washed up on rocky beaches,pips or seeds from fruit,the bones of small animals all were useful as ornament. The Egyptians refined their beadwork collar material,producing fine,smooth small pellets of lapis lazuli,amythest,cornelian and gold for the best pieces,and perfecting a method for producing a type of pottery faience bead for everyday wear.
The tiny glass bead we associate with most beadwork today originated with the Mycenaen Greeks and were first gilded,later plain They were strung onto necklaces interspersed with gold pendants and ornaments creating fringe-like droplets. The Romans and Etruscans both experimented with glass beads but later preferred strings of polished uncut gemstones.
Many of the 19th century pincushions and smaller domestic articles found in antique shops today, include bead motifs such as, The Dove of Peace, The Oak Leaf and The English Rose were the product of commercial minded squaws on reservations and Indian settlements. Many other articles include watch-cases, purses,pin-cushions, bell pulls,curtain sashes and hair tidies all made by outworkers and cottage industries.The gents love token-usually from a sailor or army man in the shape of an embroidered,bead-bedecked heart, became another popular item. Often the coloured beads picked out a regiments number or the skeleton of a ship in full sail.
Long afternoons were spent by well-to-do ladies in their leasure time making table edgings and fringes,chair and footstool covers. The Victorian moral code was that “time should be well spent”. Later beadwork became more elaborate and smaller articles were being made that could be found about a lady’s person such as, bodkin holders,scissor sheilds and many other small items. The holders of quill pens also showed a flourish of beading-Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have had a liking for this pleasant touch.Purses and handbags were often made by stitching beads one by one into a canvas of net ground.
One of the earliest pieces of beadwork,the sovereign, or” misers purse” is one of the most difficult of beaded products to make.These long sausage or duffle-shaped coin bags were either crocheted or knitted,with the beads dropped in at planned intervals. The end piece or” garniture” was usually composed of beads and decorated both terminals,so that two fringe edges hung on either side of ones belt where the purse was designed to loop(see illustration) A slot was left in the side of the purse itself and two gilt rings narrowed the centre portion,so the aperature was closed and the coins allowed to slide to either of the fringed ends. A mind blowing excersize to say the least.
A fine piece of Victorian needlework- beadwork firescreen.
After 1865 the artisans began to diversify, beaded handscreens made to sheild delicate complextions from the heat of parlour fires,bell ropes,and pictures of beaded vases and flowers under glass,collars,cuffs and capes,chairbacks and sofa cushions,tea cosies, pin cushions,watch cases(a Victorian/Edwardian type mitton to keep timepieces warm at night) and even candlesticks, all glories in the glittery glamour of the new-found medium.The 1860’s brought the velvet dresses,shawls and parasols embroidered with jet as a result of mourning Prince Alberts demise.and used thereafter at funerals. Beaded slippers were another popular item and the Berlin woolwork was often enriched with beading.
Beaded pieces in good condition are hard to find, but once found,they can be kept in a good condition with minimum effort. A piece should never be cleaned with a vacuum but may be washed in soapy water with a very soft brush. It should be laid out horizontally when drying and if put in storage should be packed flat if possible,it should never be folded since the threads will have become brittle with age.
When I was in the antique trade in the 1970’s – 80’s, beadwork pieces were reasonably cheap. A Victorian pin cushion for instance would cost around three pounds where a tea cosy would be about fifteen pounds.Todays prices obviously much higher depending whether you manage to spot a bargain. Some of the most desirable pieces are those in the turquoise-blue beads,so they tend to be more expensive. But colour combinations and themes,from the subdued and tasteful to the garish exist to please every eye. And what teapot could feel prouder or pocket- watch( or in fact today’s wrist-watch) warmer,than in the cuddly confines of a handbeaded mitton made by, who knows? maybe one of your ancesters.
These lovely Victorian wooden boxes held beads.Pin cushion front of picture.
.Also two tube boxes front of picture held needles.Blue box back right, was for pins.
the prongs and the cotton thread pulled through holes at the side.