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 Seed Bead History

Adding beads to clothing can be found as far back as the Late Old Stone Age (the Upper Paleolithic). These were large beads of shell or ivory. What we think of as beadwork, using small seed beads, is also quite old. There are beaded items in Egypt, using small faience beads, dating back 4000 years.

King Tut had beadwork in his tomb, including a pair of slippers he must have worn as a child and a hassock showing captive nations. (Tut didn't capture any nations, but beadworkers flattered the Pharaoh as well as anyone.) Other early examples tend to be rare because the cloth or leather on which the beads were sewn disintegrate. There are several beaded items in the ShOsO-inTemple in Nara, Japan, dating to the 8th century A.D.

Beadwork is recorded in India at an early date. There are 9th century B.C.references to braiding beads into hair and horse tails. Around 300 B.C. Buddhist monks were admonished not to wear beaded shoes. The first reference to bead weaving is from about 1300 A.D.:

Just as there is one thread
And on it are woven breadthwise and lengthwise
Hundreds of thousands of beads
So is everything woven into the Lord
- Nam Dev, incorporated into the Grantha Sahib (2352)

The earliest African beadwork (outside Egypt) is found in a tomb called Igbo Richard in Nigeria dating between the 8th and 11th centuries. The earliest recorded beadwork in Europe is, as far as I know at this point, comes from a 13th century tomb near Burgos, Spain, embellished with blue glass beads, seed pearls and coral beads.

Jamey Allen has written an essay on beadwork covering some other points of its history.

The earliest mass-produced seed beads were the Indo-Pacific beads of India and related places. They dominated the bead trade from nearly 2000 years. The modern era of beadwork began around 1480, when Venice learned how to draw tubes and turn them into beads.

Here you will find several pages on beadwork. You might start with a short introductory gallery. Seed beads can be made from material other than glass. Dating beadwork can be tricky, but here are some hints. Seed beads have many uses, some of then rather special.

In a tribute to her, I have a page of my Grandmother Minnie's beading box. She was a professional wig maker, working with stage acts (such as Radio City Music Hall). She was also something of a fashion plate and wore beaded dresses accompanied with beaded bags, some of which she made herself.


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