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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

Beads and beadwork have long histories

By Darlene Peterson

I've been making a lot of bracelets and necklaces with beads again, so it inspired me to write an article about them.

When we think of intricate beadwork, we often think of Indians, although the Sioux weren't the only tribe skilled in this art. Beads have been used for decoration and other purposes in cultures all over the world.

Common materials used for making beads include shell, bone, wood, stone, ivory, metal, glass and plastic, and in some cultures resources such as porcupine and bird quills, coral, and even teeth.

Beads can range in size from the tiniest seed beads of one millimeter, on up to three inches in diameter and aren't limited to having a spherical shape. They can be oblong, tubular, or cube-shaped, and there are also star, heart, and paddlewheel-shaped plastic beads.

Depending on what material is used, the process for making the beads varies. In primitive cultures, beads made of shells, nuts or seeds are ground up, put into rounded form, and then drilled a hole through the center. Beads made of ivory, wood or stone are first carved into their desired shapes and then the hole is drilled through.

The step of drilling the hole is bypassed for beads made of glass, metal, or faience. They are cast into different shapes around a central core. Gold beads are often made of clay or stone and then overlain with the metal coating.

People in primitive cultures often decorate different parts of their bodies with beads. The Huichol Tribe of Mexico even fastens beads to the ears of their pets for decoration and protection.

In other cultures, beads are involved in superstition and magic; they are believed to bring good luck, ward off evil, or attract the attention of their gods. They also have religious purposes. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims use prayer beads, and Roman Catholics use the rosary to help them count their prayers. Among some Indian tribes of the east coast, shell beads, or "wampum" were used as gifts in ceremonies.

Beads have been in use since prehistoric times as objects of trade. As early as 4,000 B.C. ancient Egypt was a major source of beads. European explorers introduced glass beads to North America around 1,700 A.D.; they mistook the wampum as a form of currency. The glass beads then became valuable, but their value eventually declined as the supply of trade beads increased.

Beadwork is the technique of embroidering beads onto a surface, such as cloth. They can be sewn on one by one or attached in entire rows. In Europe, beading was most popular in the 16th century and the Victorian Era in England. Clothing, purses, containers and other objects were heavily ornamented with tiny, colorful beads. Geometric patterns were most common, but floral patterns and representational scenes were also created.

North American Indian tribes, especially the Crow, Blackfoot, and Sioux, made solidly beaded objects and decorated their dwellings, costumes, and horse gear with colorful and valuable beaded designs. Plains Indian women often wore massive amounts of beads. It was common for them to wear about 10 pounds of glass beads on the upper portion of their buckskin dresses.

Today, beads are used in making jewelry, as well as decorating things like coin purses, and are sewn into delicate patterns on wedding dresses, prom dresses. and other formal dresses.

The museum has several articles of beaded objects on display made by both the Sioux and Ojibwa tribes of our area.