Beautiful beadwork is back

Beadwork took many forms over the 19th and 20th centuries. But it’s really collectible now that beading is a popular craft again.

European bead crafting began in earnest in medieval Venice, already a center of glass production. Venetian women made glass bead flowers to decorate church altars, religious statuary, and lavish banquet tables.

The bead flower fad soon spread to France. But in England, by the 1500s, aristocrats more commonly had beads sewn onto their ballgowns (if women), their jackets (if men).

Decorative beadwork also spread to handbags once wide, purse-concealing, panniered skirts gave way to body-hugging Empire dresses, circa 1800. The reticule drawstring bag, usually crocheted or knitted for elasticity, had beads worked right into its body. Also popular were metal-framed purses with beaded fabric bodies. But the most beloved beaded purse was the so-called miser bag, two pouches joined by a narrow neck.
card party purseMaker unknown, probably American. “Card party” purse, early to mid-1800s, glass beads on cotton, linen crocheted top, cotton cord drawstring, buckskin lining. Gift of Pamela Miller Ness and Paul Marc Ness in Memory of Professor and Mrs. Edwin Haviland Miller.

It was easy to make at home and, since it was carried by both sexes, an acceptable gift for young women to give to young men.

What gave beadwork its biggest boost, however, was the growing affordability of beads once a cheap way of manufacturing glass had been found in the mid-1800s. Middle class women were now able to buy not only beads but booklets and magazines containing patterns for beaded gift and bazaar items – coin purses, wristbands, eyeglass cases, pincushions, needleholders.

Some small items were worked on perforated, often color-printed cardboard. This process was so popular for bookmarks that special designs with moral or religious sentiments were available to reflect the books they accompanied.

Because glass beads were heavy, it made sense when doing large, functional items to combine beadwork with the wool needlepoint called Berlinwork. In some cases beads formed the design while Berlinwork was relegated to the background. In other cases beads were randomly added as highlights.

The same printed grid patterns published for Berlinwork could be used for beadwork, one bead substituted for each colored square meant for a stitch. Soon Berlinwork, beadwork, and combinations of both reflected the pretty, sentimental motifs so dear to Victorian hearts – flowers, birds, animals. And while a few wearables for men – suspenders, slippers, smoking hats – slipped through, almost all of this production centered on the home.

It was meant to brighten interiors darkened by mahogany furniture and windows draped to exclude bad air, ugly views, even sunlight. There were chair back covers and fire screens. Face screens resembled fans but were meant to protect milady’s face from the hearth. Pelmets, three-drop valances, adorned corner or wall shelves. Tea cozies are being taken apart by today’s buyers to make sofa cushions but there were panels made specifically as pillow fronts. Tray mats can be found both mounted and unmounted. Table mats served a purpose similar to doilies. In good condition, these items often command $300-$800 each.

Besides offering Berlinwork patterns, Victorian crafts publications ran embroidery plates showing how to bead alphabets, monograms within beaded frames, grape clusters and floral bouquets. And there were patterns for novelty beaded pincushions – teapots whose removable lids revealed room for a tape measure or thimble, jugs in two-toned satin with two colors of beadwork, fans boasting sequins as well as beads.

But the best beaded pincushions – and the most collectible – were not done by Victorian women but by Native Americans. Although Indians had long created beadwork for themselves, dire economic conditions forced the Iroquois and Mohawk tribes in particular, to tailor their work to the growing Niagara Falls tourist trade. These souvenirs became such an important income generator that whole families made them. Not only were they sold at Niagara Falls but by touring Wild West shows and at train stations so they were soon dispersed throughout the continent.

Their beadwork is extremely dense and includes fancy hanging borders. The Mohawk favored purple or pink fabric grounds, the Iroquois red, tan, or blue. The Mohawk included many animal motifs while the Iroquois were fond of flowers, birds, butterflies. Boot shapes were popular with both tribes – but Mohawk boots were bigger. As well as pincushions, the Iroquois made hanging boxes, wall hangings, and ornately-shaped frames. The Mohawk were famous for specialty holders for whisk brooms, scissors, watches, needles.

Along with travel souvenirs, 19th century beadwork encompassed commemorative items for a different kind of remembrance. The hair of departed family members was braided and surrounded by beaded borders. Beaded flowers were at the heart of many such commemoratives – and most came from France. The demand was so great that, at one point, prisoners jailed off the Breton coast were pressed into beading service. While some of these flowers were used on boxes or wallpockets, mirror or photo frames, many adorned beaded wreaths, usually funeral wreaths. Even white ones with cherub trims were used on the graves of children.

Not all beaded commemoratives were gloomy, however. In the first half of the 1800s, long lengths of woven beads, used as necklaces, belts, watch chains, eyeglass or scissor holders, were made as love tokens by young men and women. Most had sentiments like Remember the Giver, Forget Me Not or God Is Love beaded into them.

Contemporary pincushions pinstuck with messages served a similar purpose. But it was only in the late 19th century that they were combined with beads for a lavish effect. One velvet square’s ribbon and gold thread trims were held in place with glass-headed pins pushed through beads. An eight-pointed pincushion had its printed satin center and four printed satin messages attached the same way.

These pinbeaded pincushions quickly became the preserve of military men who crafted them for their dearest when they weren’t nearest. A Boer War soldier’s small rectangular cushion for his son, pinbeaded FOR A GOOD BOY, had a beaded heart at its center and beaded military emblems around its edges. One pair, done by a sailor because of its anchor motifs, had TRUE LOVE and THINK OF ME picked out in white beads. Although smaller than later examples, they already have the metal thread starbursts of World War I-era pincushions.

 By WWI, British soldiers had become adept at making large, elaborate, pinbeaded cushions. One example has an aqua cotton heart centered with a Sphinx-decorated silk, two “Remember Me” silks, the Gloucestershire Regiment’s coat of arms, and much gold tinsel. Another examaple is  a red cotton heart from the same regiment boasting pin-and-bead trim around a Christmas card greeting, a Royal Artillery emblem, and two printed silks.

That many soldiers’ pincushions carry these silks is not surprising – they were the cigarette giveaways which women had been turning into crazy quilts, tea cozies, and pillow tops for a decade. But women attached them with fancy embroidery stitches, soldiers used pins pushed through the holes of beads. Some pins were so long they easily held down two beads, one atop the other, and – for added sparkle – a sequin. One of the most ornate examples, lovingly placed on a doily with “My Sixtieth Birthday” spelled out in rhinestones around it, had a photo of a soldier at its center encircled by a beaded “To Mother.”

French couturier evening gowns, evening bags and evening hats were professionally beaded in the 1920s. In the 1930s beaded flowers made a comeback, most of them imported from Czechoslovakia. But the next big beadwork surge occurred in the 1950s when big plastic beads were combined with safety pins to make baskets. These are hot collectibles but their often odd color combinations are much improved by the addition of that other ’50s favorite, beaded fruit. Essentially updated pinbeading, mock bananas, lemons, pears, apples, peaches, and grapes graced many a suburban dining or coffee table – and are frequently fitted today into retro decor. They may be the easiest to find, most affordable bead antiques around.

The 1960s and ’70s saw yet another flower-making revival, this time as a craft for American women. These flowers should be a common sight at tag and garage sales as their makers head for retirement villages or their children part with less treasured family heirlooms.

While beaders are back to making flowers, a glance at today’s beadwork magazines will confirm that jewelry is what modern women want to create.