Use of Beadwork in Period
Beadwork has been used for decoration since the time of the ancient Egyptians. One of the oldest remaining examples included a scarab composed of colored glass beads which formed a part of the covering of an Egyptian mummy; it is dated between 908-812 B.C. As time continued onward, beadwork was most commonly found to adorn religious apparel. It was particularly used to embellish embroidery. Pearls, semi-precious stones, enameled plaques, and glass beads or disc were commonly used to create rich designs in their own right or to outline gold or silver embroidery. Contrary to popular belief, small glass beads, similar to modern seed beads, were also used in period. For example, an altar frontal from Lower Saxony which dates to the mid-1200s features both transparent and opaque glass seed beads in a variety of colors, including gold. These beads were very small, and were most similar to the modern bead size 11/0, although the edges of the modern equivalent are smoother.
My inspirational pouch was found in Trier, Germany, and dates to approximately 993. It is currently in the possession of the German National Museum at Nurnberg. The front of the pouch featured gold-plated plaques and glass beads surrounded by pearls, which were stitched onto purple silk. The back of original utilized red silk with metallic embroidery. The pouch also lined with red silk and utilized a silk cord with metallic thread tassels. It measured 15 cm tall by 13 cm across. At the time I began this endeavor, I had no experience with traditional embroidery, so I decided I would attempt to recreate the back of the pouch utilizing beadwork.
There are two main techniques used for beadwork. The most common period technique was to thread a long strand of beads and lay them in place onto the fabric. A second, separate thread would then be used to couch down the ground thread in between each bead. This method, unfortunately, has not stood the test of time. Of those pieces which did survive, many are missing beads, and some are missing entire strands. A less commonly used technique was to thread just a few beads, then to stitch through the ground fabric before adding additional beads. While this technique is was not commonly found in Europe, it was widely used in Native American artifacts, and has proven to be a more durable technique.
I have experimented with both techniques in previous projects. My first beadwork project was to create a Byzantine Superhumeral (collar) as a project for Nobelese Largesse, a Knowne World swap; I used only the first method, couching, to attach the beads. When couching, I found that the beads felt very loose, particularly when using larger/heavier pearls. I was also concerned that if the main thread should ever break, it would not be difficult for it to slide out from underneath the couching stitches, and beads would inevitably be lost. It also created space between the beads. This space was useful when trying to form curves, but it did not keep the beads together as tightly as I would have preferred. Because I was concerned the beadwork would not remain in tact through shipping, I ended up running multiple ground threads through the beads so that if one should break, the others would hold it in place.
For my second beadwork project, I created a beaded pouch as a gift to my Laurel on the day I was apprenticed. For this project, I utilized the second method. I quickly found that just placing a stitch through the ground fabric made the strands more stable; there was less risk of losing an entire strand of beads should a thread break. However, I also found that it was very obvious where the stitches were because they would interrupt the line of beads. To counter this, I found that back stitching through the at least the last bead in the strand before adding additional beads would allow the string to appear uninterrupted while providing better stabilization.
The design on the back of the extant pouch is what really caught my attention. However, I loved the use of the pearls on the front. I therefore decided to combine the two. I utilized 3 mm glass pearls and size 11/0 gold glass beads to recreate the pattern found on the back of the extant pouch.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was finding a way to transfer the pattern. I find stick people challenging to draw, and so sketching this pattern was not an option for me. After trying several different methods, I finally stumbled upon on that worked. I printed a picture of the original pouch in the size I anticipated using. I then traced over the pattern liberally with chalkboard chalk. I then turned the page over onto the silk and rubbed hard; this allowed the chalk to transfer onto the silk. I then traced over the chalk with an ink pen to keep the pattern visible after the chalk had worn away. For the most part, this method worked well. The only exception is that the vines along the edges of the pouch are backwards from the original. This could be easily fixed in the future by simply printing a reverse image of the original from the start. In hindsight, I also wished I had not used ink pen; some of the pen marks are visible in the areas long the vine. I did attempt to remove these with soap and water, but was hesitant to use anything stronger in case it should damage the silk.
After transferring the pattern, I placed the silk into a large circular embroidery frame. This helped to keep the silk taut while I stitched the beads onto it. However, I quickly found the silk slid around in the frame, no matter how much I tightened it down. In the end, I found myself pulling the silk as tightly as possible, and then following the lines I had traced, even when they did not look right. For example, while I was working on the cross in the center, it appeared bent or curved. However, when I would take the fabric out of the frame to check, it turned out to be relatively straight. In the end, I believe the pattern came out well.
To apply the beads to the silk, I used a combination of the methods previously described. I threaded three beads at a time onto a double threaded silk strand, and then backstitched through the same beads for additional stability before adding three more beads. This meant that at least four threads passed through every bead, providing plenty of stability should a single thread break. Additionally, by passing through the beads, I was able to get a very tight line of beads with little to no space in between. This came out much tighter than my previous attempts. While this made achieving straight lines easier, it did not work sufficiently for tight curls. In the areas which involved a tighter curl, space between the beads helps to achieve the curl. In these areas, I applied only two beads at a time before backstitching. In some areas, I also couched between them to test whether this would provide additional stability. In the end, I didn’t feel the couching was adding anything other than more thread; it was distracting rather than helping, and so I took it back out.
Upon completion of the beadwork, I began assembling the pouch. First, I used silk thread to sew the front and back of the pouch together using a backstitch. I then did the same with the lining fabric, which was a gold home décor fabric. (Although the extant pouch was lined with silk, I felt that I needed a thicker fabric to help strengthen the thin silk. In period reliquary pouches were used solely to hold small religious items such as paternosters or slivers of bones from saints; I intend to use my pouch to hold heavier items at events, and so it needed to be more durable.) I then inserted the lining and folder over the top of the silk outer fabric to meet the top edge of the lining fabric. By doing this, I was able to connect the lining and the outer fabric with a simple running stitch that is not visible from the outside of the pouch. Additionally, it allowed me to run the cord just through the silk, which allows the pouch to close more easily.
To add a finishing touch, I used commercial cording to cover the seams. In examining the extant pouch, it is clear that the seams are covered with some type of cording. I therefore chose to emulate this. I had a roll of gold commercial cording which matched well, and so used it as both the drawstring and to line the edges of the pouch.
Overall, I really loved working on this piece. I have attempted to embroider before, and had never been particularly successful. I found beadwork to be much more forgiving; it allows for a beautiful piece which still requires precise placement of the ground thread without showing as many flaws as my embroidery did. I certainly plan to continue doing it in the future.
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Halacombe, Christian. What Stitch is Period: Beadwork. West Kingdom Needleworkers Guild, 2003.
Object Catalog of the Collections of the Germanic National Museum, http://objektkatalog.gnm.de/objekt/KG562.
Segrest, Jen. A Pictoral Overview: Bead Embroidery in the Medieval Period from 1000 to 1600 A.D. http://old.medievalbeads.com/notes/pictorial_handout50.pdf.
Segrest, Jen. How to Do Machine Washable Period Beadwork. http://www.medievalbeads.com/documents/hands_on_handout50.pdf
Segrest, Jen. The Medieval Beadwork Page. http://old.medievalbeads.com/docs.shtml
Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen Embroiderers. University of Toronto Press. 1991.