Tuesday, 1 January 2008

What have I been doing lately? beading

Well I've discovered a fairly good way to do beading on the train. Couching pre-strung beads. And using fake parchment (real vellum donations welcome) provides a stiff base so you don't need a frame to keep a taut background.

I've discovered this also makes a good introductory or beginner project, as long as the person has basic stitching skills (anti tangling skills especially). I've done this at a demo now, and several people had fun with it - quick and colourful.

historical background:
Grizel's website has some great links to medieval beading. She unearthed the pieces that got me started on beading on parchment.
This set of pieces in particular, and this one are on parchment.

By contrast this cap is on a linen base.

Most pieces I do not know if they are on parchment, linen or some other background. Some pieces that might work well in parchment, but could equally well be on fabric are for example beaded chests, or boxes, or cups.

my first piece:

I chose the form of a decorative roundel as it is a shape that is used quite small, and one we see in period tapestries and embroideries particularly. The pattern is a simple geometric, in a style I'm sure I've seen in Romanesque art, but I can't point you to a picture today.

It sure looks impressive from here, and is a faster technique than many methods of embroidery. I think I've already said I did this on the train, but I'll just confirm, that once beads were strung, this was one of the most portable projects I've ever done. (The buttons being the only slightly more portable thing).

I read somewhere (probably on Grizel's site or mailing list) that beads were generally couched in period, and that is why long strings of them fall off so easily. They also fall off when helped by humans, generally in order of their resale value, but that still would be unlikely to happen in the same way if each bead was individually sewn on in the way many of us would think to sew on beads otherwise.

I haven't he expertise to disagree with this statement (and reputable books that truly cover medieval beading are few and far between), and indeed what small evidence I've seen suggests a lot of the large scale beading was done this way. (I'm sorry if this sounds like doubting people, but I try to doubt everything including my own assumptions, so I'm noting this really to say I need to provide better evidence, not that others whose evidence I haven't seen isn't correct.)

fine points of technique
When I first started trying this I couched the beads down every 7th bead or so. And I was having trouble controlling the exact placement of the beads. Then I saw this fragment of a beading.
This piece has some beads removed -probably the more precious blue lapis based on the handful of remaining beads. I've reconstructed where beads might have sat based on the size of the lapis beads elsewhere on the piece. Based on this size there are generally 4, sometimes 3 beads between tie downs. But if this section wasn't lapis beads, and instead something as big as the coral beads, there might only be 2-3 beads per tie down.

Tieing down the beads every couple of beads in the tricky bits was much easier.

When I came to a corner in the pattern my instinct was to try and use smaller beads to better fill the gap. This meant that I was threading on only a few beads at a time before couching them down. But in the longer parts I was threading up long strings of beads before couching them and I could have used pre strung beads or a necklace as my string. I wonder how medieval beaders handled this? Did they pre-string all their beads (you loose less that way)? Did they individually thread beads as they couched? Did their beads have as much size variation as the cheap glass beads I was using? I doubt I can answer that question with certainty as it is likely some beaders worked one way and some another, but can I see any evidence for any of these questions in medieval beading works?

  • This piece is unravelling square by square, rather than by colour. But the inticate geometric pattern of the squares would make it difficult to fill in single beads of different colours, quite different style from the outlined large pieces that are more common. But it does argue for some pieces that are individually strung.
  • On this piece Jen/Grizel notes that "and the technique is more like cross stitch or Victorian needlepoint in the design NOT like the flowing couchwork of the Germans. Straight lines, not contoured ones." I think this is similar to the above piece, and both probably stitch down all colours with the same thread.
  • This piece has a diversity of bead sizes (within each colour) similar to my cheap seed beads. It also has one spot (pictured right) where a smaller blue bead has been squeezed into a corner, but nearly none of the other spots do this, so it could be a coincidence.
Finally the prevalence of small metal plaques - note the small gap with thread showing in the middle. I could have avoided it but it would have been difficult. But if I'd had a metal plaque to put in the middle, I could have been a fairly mediocre beader and you wouldn't have a gap in the middle.