Fashion,  ThreadTalk

The Venerable Bead

1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk! Today we’re tackling the venerable bead.

Don’t be fooled: This. Subject. Is. Huge. 🤯

We’re touring the world throug alchemy, biology, archaeology — and learn how colonialism & slavery figures in.

Featured: Sioux (Teton) woman’s dress from 1880.

An intricate dress from the Sioux, ca. 1880 from the Met Museum (public domain). It is covered from the chest up in bright blue beads, adorned with geometric patterns in yellow, green, and red triangles, as well as semi-circles. The dress has fringe along the sleeves, and additional beads along the skirt.

2 -Like its cousin embroidery, beads are a world heritage art. Beads evolve next to humanity, it seems.

But how beads are treated, valued & traded–and what they’re made of–well, that’s where things get interesting.

Featured: Helmet – Fang People, late 19th C/early 20th C

Africa | Man's helmet from the Fang people of Gabon | Bast Fiber, Reed, Animal Hair; Twining, Applied Glass Beads, Buttons And Brass Tacks | 19th to early 20th century - an ornate helmet with bands of beads made of buttons and glass. Via the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

3 – Beads are plentiful in archaeology, often long outlasting the threads that held them. These here are probably from Cyprus from 750BC-300BC & I would totally wear them.

Basically, people found shells & shiny things, went “mine” & the Precious was became… wait, wrong story.

String of seventeen beads and amulets in various materials and shapes; three blue and white glass eye-beads, rod-formed with trailed details; one gold spherical bead hammered from sheet metal (dented); eight sard (three biconical, two roughly spherical, two faceted); sard wedjat-eye amulet perforated through the long axis; one barrel-shaped agate bead,; similar shaped rock-crystal (?) bead; one spherical glazed composition (faince) bead; all strung on red string attached to an ivory pin with a bulbous head covered in red felt. Image; British Museum

4 – These shells from Morocco’s limestone caves from the Aterian people may be the oldest on record (84,000 years, y’all).

These are made of Nassarius gibbosulus shell.

That’s all a bead is: an object that can be strung for decoration–whether in jewelry or added to fabric.

Three shells with perforated holes, indicating they were used as beads. They are almond shaped, yellowed, and each have a hole in a similar place. They have yellowed slightly with time. Image: Smithsonian Institute

5 – But what are beads made out of? Well, the earliest beads were made of shells, bones, clay & other materials.

They could also be ash, fossils, precious metals & other animal matter (like porcupine quills).

Featured: ca. 9th century B.C., Iran

Met Museum - Public domain - Three different types of beads have been strung together in this necklace: long tubular stone beads, smaller circular spacers, and cowrie shells. It is not known how the beads were originally worn in antiquity, since any string or other material that would have held them together has long since disintegrated. Beads were worn as jewelry and sewn to clothing as early as the Neolithic period in the ancient Near East.

6 – That said: I am going into some sensitive territory. In many cultures, beads are sacred. Many museums house sacred items that were looted, plain and simple.

I believe museums should return stolen objects, full stop. Looking at you, British Museum.

7 – The Indus valley has some of the most brilliant caches of early carnelian stone beads. Dating from the 3rd millennium BC, they used *chemistry* to make designs.

In Mesopotamia some of them even had poetry on them, or signified connection to rulers or royalty.

Indus Valley Civilization carnelian beads excavated in Susa. Louvre Museum - five long cylindrical beads in a bright red of varying shapes, and a set of five atop them with etchings in geometrical and spiral shapes typical of this period.

8 – The Egyptians gave us faience, that famed glasslike material. You see it all over the place in ancient Egypt, including in scarab beads (more on that later).

More info about faience making here:

Featured: Broad collar of Senebtisica. 1850–1775 B.C.

From the Met Museum, public domain. Nine rows of faience beads and other beadwork in gold, red, blue, grey, and yellow, flanked by two large falcon heads on each side in gold. The outermost row has openwork upon it. Still in impeccable condition in spite of its age.

9 – You can see all kinds of beadwork in jewelry along with the rise & fall of civilizations, as well, often using precious & semi-precious stones (my precious).

These Byzantine 7th Cearrings are a stunning example of pearl beads & sapphires, forged together in this open design.

These elegant earrings are decorated with pearls, a favorite jewel of the Byzantines. Sapphires, then called hyakinthoi (hyacinths), became popular in Byzantine jewelry in the sixth century. They are made of gold wire and have grey pearls on the outside of an openwork ring; there are large sapphires in the middle.

10 – Many new kinds of beads came to the forefront in the Middle Ages, often discovered as a side-effect of alchemy. Italy became the glass powerhouse.

This is also where this story gets really upsetting. And it has everything to do with slavery, trade, colonialism, & greed.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - A 13th century square of a saint rendered in tiny seed glass beads. He is bearded with yellow hair and orange/red cheeks.

11 – Africa has a long history of beadwork, of course, being the very cradle of humanity. Ostrich shells were used early on, and for some African nations, beads are even a form of communication.

This video traces the history of Northern African beads:

12 – Among the Ndebele people, for instance, different patterns are worn during a woman’s life.

I’d go so far to say that parts of Africa developed a whole language of beadwork… which became exploited by white slavers and colonists.

Featured: Ndebele wedding blanket.

 The British Museum, 2015,2011.1 - a large Ndebele blanket with writing and house-like geometric patterns made up of thousands upon thousands of beads -- colored mostly white, but also blue, green, orange, and yellow.

13 – Beads were so valued, that it became one of the primary payment methods for slaves, labor, and goods. Murano beads from Italy were particularly prized and you’d better believe Europeans went to TOWN.

It gets worse.

Roman beads in the style that would be typical of Murano, Italy. Multicolored, mosaic-like beads, made of glass. Enough to make a bracelet.

14 – The export volume was so great that slave ships used the Venetian beads as ballast to balance.

Europeans made so many beads for the slave trade that the market collapsed due to inflation.

Millefiori (thousand flowers) beads became known as “African trade beads.” No words.

A single bead with a flower pattern, called Millefiori, made in Venice. Red flowers, green and yellow flowers, combine to make the telltale design. From the Corning Museum, dating from the 19th c.

15 – In the 19thC, glass beads were introduced to indigenous tribes in the Americas. Already skilled in decorative arts, seed beads found new life.

In my research, this beadwork comes up again & again. In spite of atrocity after atrocity. Cree shoulder bag, 1810.

Creek man’s shoulder bag ca. 1810 – 30. Wool, cotton, silk ribbon, glass beads, 25¾ inches. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founder’s Society, DTR 781294. Purchased with funds from the Flint Ink Corporation, 1988.29. Photography: The Detroit Institute of Arts.  - Vivid bright colors in flower and leaf patterns -- two long straps and a bag in the middle with a triangular flap and tassels.

16 -Let it sink in. We live on stolen land, we are awed by stolen artifacts.

This art has persisted, in spite of better efforts to eradicate it.

This reticule from Mexico blends indigenous designs with a colonialist fashion trend; ca. 1818-1830,

A reticule, or holding bag, with beaded motifs in diamonds. Yellow, gold, white, and blue, with big pompoms.  From the Met Museum, public domain.

17 – I could share indigenous art of the First Nation and Native American people all day, and perhaps I shall soon.

Here are a few more before we get to some more.

Sioux (Teton) dress, 1870.

Vertical lanes of beadwork, in place of the typical horizontal configuration, give this dress its distinctive character. The U-shaped motif at the lower center represents Turtle, a symbol of power relating to women’s health. Like most bead workers in the mid-nineteenth century, this maker favored tiny glass Venetian seed beads over the larger pony beads popular in earlier periods. Today, women wear elaborately beaded dresses reminiscent of this one for the Women’s Traditional Dance, one of several categories in powwow competitions. - Met museum, public domain.

18 – And this photograph of an Ojibwe family, dating from 1902.

A family of five, including two small children. Many are dressed in highly beaded and embroidered outfits; both men are holding guns. It is in sepia color. From the Minnesota Historical Society.

19 – What else can you make beads out of? Remember I talked about scarabs?

Beetle beads originated in India. The “sequin” comes from the outer wing of Sternocera aequisignata, and was incorporated into embroidery beginning in the 19th C.

They glisten iridescent green.

Sternocera aequisignata - Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - A long iridescent beetle of brilliant green and blue, shaped somewhat like a sunflower seed. The top is speckled.

20 – Last week we had a beetle dress. In terms beetlemania in fashion, Lady Curzon’s peacock dress is IT.

Designed by the House of Worth, it used zardozi embroidery (another topic we’ve covered) & beetle wings. It weighed over 10 lbs & was an imperialist statement, for sure.

The Peacock dress -- from the Fashion Museum of Bath. A sweetheart dress with an exceptionally long train and ornate zardozi (metal wire) embroidery all along the length.

21 – Before we get to the gowns, here are some things I’ve also discovered as beads:

– Human teeth
– Human hair
– Dinosaur poop
– funeral remains
– dead flowers

In fact, some rosaries are actually made of roses (the practice originated in India).

22 – This is probably my favorite because it’s got beetles AND it’s been embroidered in India. The lace was made in Limerick, Ireland & then it was all put together in Paris.

It’s by a designer called Rouff, and dates from about 1800. A remarkable tea gown that is SO EXTRA.

This example is very much a hybrid of influences and materials. The richly embroidered front panel of this gown was probably made in India but was designed to appeal to European taste, and it is complimented by the generous falls of Limerick lace. From the back, a long pleat of lace drops from the neck to the hem, a style known at the time as the Watteau pleat, after the dresses seen in paintings by the eighteenth-century painter. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

23 – This dice bag from the early 17th century says “HIT OR MISS” and let’s be honest, anyone in my #DND group would wear the hell out of it. It’s a quote from Shakespeare, naturally.

The expression 'hit or miss' is first recorded in the English language in William Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida published in 1606, where it has the same meaning of random luck that it has today. The expression may have derived from a country dance also known as 'hit and miss', recorded as early as 1626. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

24 – As much as I have a deep, abiding love of vivid, jewel tone colors, I also love brown dresses. I know, it’s weird. But I always keep you guessing.

This gown from 1893 combines mutton sleeves with ornate beadwork embellishments for a lot of wow.

It’s also got *rhinestones*

25 – Another earth tone lovely comes from France in the form of this dinner dress. The bodice almost looks Spanish, to me. It is also from the House of Rouff, and the accents of embroidery really bring this all together.

Also that velvet. Yum. Chocolate.

ca 1900-1903.

Dinner dress with vest in detailed black and brown beaded embroidery. The dress itself has a patterned velvet design, high collar, and long lace, sleeves. It is in a deep reddish brown and very stately. Met Museum, public domain.

26 – We can’t talk about beads and Western fashion without mentioning the Edwardians. Because they were wild about beading anything–near, far, wherever they are.

Now these are BEADS. Like, no joke here. Holy moly. Dating from 1912, and formerly for sale.

An Edwardian style dress with iridescent embroidery on the knee level and again on the chest. Lace at the top. Sheer dress draped (muslin) over a white shift. Very small waist, high neck. Via

27 – This gown is just the epitome of Edwardian luxury. The three tiers give a sense of movement and the contrast of the red bodice and pale pink is stunning.

The beadwork here is so delicate it’s almost like netting in places.

Around 1910, leading fashion houses such as Worth created evening dresses with a straight silhouette. Their impact depended on the juxtaposition of colours and a variety of luxurious and richly decorated fabrics. On this garment, vivid velvet pile is set against light-reflecting beadwork, and the triple-tiered matt net overskirt covers the sheen of the trained satin skirt. The pillar-like look exemplified by this dress replaced the exaggerated curves of the early 1900s. It also shows how designers broke the strong vertical emphasis by creating overskirts with horizontal lines. The bodice, however, is still boned (nine bones). 
©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

28 – And then, I mean, if you’re going to go for beads, you might as well go ALL THE WAY.

This is a beaded jacket – American, 1895. Impractical perhaps, but I do like the murderous vibe it gives off. After my recent research, I know the feeling.

A beaded jacket with very puffy satin sleeves. The whole of the jacket is made with beads, so it can't be warm in any sense, and must be purely decorative. The beads are black, and the collar is lace as well as the cuffs. Met Museum, public domain.

29 – And last, but not least (because holy heavens, I have so many sources today) — this BAMF cape by Pingat in 1895.

These beads are made of JET. And they’re so small that they look like sprinkled glitter. I love every detail. The STRUCTURE. The LINES. The SHINE.


This beautifully constructed Pingat cape gains a rich and elegant appearance from its use of coordinating black beadwork embroidery on alternating flat and pleated panels of contrasting materials. That elegance can particularly be seen in the front where the embroidery on the two flannel panels line up to create a larger cohesive design oriented horizontally, as opposed to the other panels which are vertically oriented. - Met Museum, Public Domain.

30 – I hope you look at beads a little differently. There is SO MUCH MORE to this topic, but — well, #ThreadTalk is just a thread.

Look closely, now…

See? This Pingat cape directly steals from Plains tribes tribal motifs, clear as day. How’s that for full-circle?

Pingat's interpretation of Plains Indian motifs on this cape is indicative of his fascination with incorporating other cultures' designs into the contemporary couture vocabulary. This style of embroidery pattern, although distinctive amongst other late 19th-century European designs, is iconic of Pingat's work. - Met Museum, public domain.

31 – Now it’s time for SOURCES. There are… many.

32 – Sources… again.

33 – More sources …

34 – And finally, the last batch of sources.

35 – Thanks so much for coming to #ThreadTalk I hope this week you learn to look beyond, to go a little deeper than is maybe comfortable.

It doesn’t mean it stops being beautiful; it becomes more complex. Just like human history. One single bead can tell a whole story.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on March 29, 2021.