NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Bead Weaving Techniques and Analysis

Beads are perhaps one of the earliest forms of Native American art. Beads are by their nature, intended to be strung on cord and various techniques have developed and evolved over the millennia in the eastern Woodlands. Some methods of stringing beads are similar to those used in textile and basket weaving. Beadweaving shares many technical traits with woven mats and twined baskets, and it may have developed alongside these other industries.

Woven Beadwork consists of two things: beads and string. The string used can range from animal proteins such as twisted sinew or hide thong to twisted cord from numerous plants, bark and roots. Twisted cordage needed to be made from otherwise short fibers for beadweaving, as it requires a string long enough to go through a great length of beads. Dogbane stalks, basswood bark and cedar bark or roots are commonly made into cord for beadweaving. Though European threads were available during early contact, Natives continued to use their own cordage, which was also deemed of superior quality by Europeans.

double strand warpless [wire-weave]
In weaving, as opposed to knotting or looping strings around each other, the bead represents an alternate way to secure strings together. Without the beads, loomwork would fall apart! The earliest forms of weaving by Natives of North America were probably hand-held 'finger-woven' techniques, developed from simple forms of braiding in which one end of a length of strings is anchored. The free end of the lengths are held in the hands and interwoven by taking the elements from the outer edges and bringing them to the center. There is no separate warp or weft with hand-held methods of 'finger-weaving', as the outer warps are each in turn then used as wefts as the work progresses.

Wire-weave ring, 20th century
The simplest and perhaps the earliest form of beadweaving is hand-held, using techniques similar to braiding. This technique is often refered to as 'wire-work'. Ironically, though 'wire-work' is perhaps the first type of woven beadwork, the term comes from a 20th century type of beadwork using glass seed beads on thin wire to make rings and other commercial jewelry.

Penobscot and Wampanoag Bias Weave Wampum Collars
Building on the same principles in 'wire-work', bias-weaving was used to produce many wampum collars in the Northeast during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bias-weaving beadwork techniques are nearly identical to those used for Native-made textiles such as basswood burden straps and yarn belts and garters in 17th century New England.

Bias Weave Warp turns to Weft.
When archaeologists or ethnotechnologists are analyzing fragments of very old beadwork, they must be very careful to observe the selvedges of woven fragments. Being unaware of 'false fringe' effects produced by broken warps and missing rows of beadwork can lead to erroneous interpretations of beadwork techniques.

European contact introduced metal tools, enabling the Native production of smaller shell beads, and also made available a flood of glass trade beads and iron needles. Native Americans developed ways to weave larger pieces of beadwork using smaller tools and supplies. It is more practical to anchor both ends of the long strings, the warp, and to use a separate element, a weft, to secure on the beads. Separating the strings in two weaving elements, warp and weft, required the use of a loom. The bow loom is the most elemental form of free-standing loom (meaning no part of the work is attached to the weaver).

Eastern Great Lakes Garter Drop
Using a bow loom, beads can be individually strung on a doubled weft, which is parted and passed around each warp string, paired again and passed through a bead, and so on. This technique is called 'double-strand square-weave'. The weave is 'square' because it progresses across each row to the next column, in a square direction.

Huron/Jesuit Wampum Belt Agreement

Diagram of Twined Mat
The technique has parallels with Native American twined mats and baskets. The weft makes a pattern of X's on the outer warps of the beadwork, showing how each weft crosses it mate as it moves to string on the next row of beads.

Double Weft Square Weave
It is possible, though not time-effective to do double-strand square-weave without the use of a loom, by anchoring one end of the beadwork as in bias-weaving. Double-strand square-weave does not absolutely require the use of a needle, as the beads for each row can be placed on the doubled thread on at a time.

Narragansett Twined Bag
Because of the similarities of double-strand square-weave to bias-weaving, and because it doesn't require a needle, it was probably the first technique of loomed beadwork used by Natives of the Eastern Forests for the large wampum belts in the 1600's.

Single strand (weft) Square Weave
Another beadwork technique for the loom, commonly used today by many Native Americans, is 'single-strand square weave'. With this technique, a single weft is used that passes through the same row of beads twice, before progressing to the next row. Because weft cannot secure the beads on either side of the warp one at a time, a needle must be used to get the weft through back through the entire row of beads. This method of beadwork has obviously been used for a long time, as wampum belts from the 1600's through the 1800's also use the 'single-strand square-weave' technique.

Seneca Wampum Belt
For each of the basic hand-held and loomwork methods, there are innumerable variations. An infinite number of effects can be achieved by wrapping or varying the number of warps, or by changing the way the weft goes around the warp. On a very local level, as the degree an intensity of European contact varied from area to area, there appears to be a chronological sequence from hand-woven multi-strand beadwork to needle-loomed single-strand beadwork, coming full circle back to a revival of hand-woven 'wire work' in this century.

Index to Techniques of Woven Beadwork using Diagrams

Return to NativeTech's Beadwork Menu

Beadwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.