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What is Beadwork?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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Beadwork is essentially any type of craft involving the use of decorative beads. The beads may be strung or woven, sewn onto fabric, or bonded to another object. Some beadwork projects are simple enough to be easily completed by children or beginners, while others are highly complex and require a great deal of expertise. While many associate beadwork with the native people of North, Central, and South America, it in fact enjoys popularity in many parts of the world.

The building block of all beadwork is, of course, beads. These often-colorful items have been produced by people of many different cultures worldwide for thousands of years. They can be made from a wide assortment of materials, including glass, metal, clay, plastic, or crystal. Some are barely larger than a pinhead, while others are wider in diameter than one’s thumb, and while they may traditionally be O-shaped, many take unique forms. Indeed, perhaps the only thing that all beads have in common is their hole.

There are a great many different forms of beadwork. Some involve stringing beads onto fiber or wire. Often, this technique is used to produce jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets.

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Creating woven beadwork is generally more complicated than making strung pieces. Some woven work requires the use of a loom. Other forms are executed by threading many strings of beads together. A weaving technique can be employed to produce “sheets” of beads, which may then be used much like traditional fabric to create items such as purses or rugs. Skilled bead workers can weave intricate illustrations or designs into these bead “sheets.”

Sometimes, beads are used to embellish existing decorative items, clothing, and accessories. They may, for instance, be sewn onto a pillowcase or a wall hanging using embroidery techniques. Alternatively, they may be used to create a trim on a shirt or a fringe on a purse.

Yet another form of beadwork involves gluing or otherwise adhering beads to an object for decorative purposes. Beads may be attached in this way to items such as vases or jewelry boxes. The skill level required for this type of work varies widely, depending on the specific project. Freeform bead embellishment can be easily performed by those with little or no beading experience. On the other hand, this type of technique can be employed by practiced crafters to create extremely complex patterns.

Many associate beadwork solely with the native people of North, Central, and South America. While beading has historically been an important component of these peoples’ decorative arts, it has also enjoyed popularity in many other parts of the world. Beads have been found among the ruins of ancient Egyptian and Irish societies, for instance, and Venetian glassblowers have been commercially manufacturing beads since the 13th century.

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