Beadwork – A World Guide

By Caroline Crabtree and Pam Stallebrass
Rizzoli International Publications, New York, NY, $50.00, 2002
(212) 387-3634 or

As you can probably tell from the price, this is a nice book, very nice, and it is a beautiful coffee table book of beading history for the masses. The photography is lovely, crisp, and excellent. The layout of the book is exquisite. While 208 pages are hardly a definitive history of beads, the big points are in this book and they are interesting in the way they are presented. The first section is the Introduction and has a brief overview of the ancient powers of beads and how they were made. It ends with a paragraph that I quote, “In many societies beadwork was, and still is, an indication of shamanistic power, status, wealth, or religious belief. Beadwork can indicate age, marital status, or regional origin.” Well, that puts our modern beadwork in perspective doesn’t it.

The next section, “Bead Manufacturing Centres,” begins with a colorful map of bead trading routes. It seems that beads have been something that traveled well for a long time. The tiny bead has been traded, bartered, and traveled all over the world. This section contains a short, but informative listing of the various types of beads. From this section, I finally learned what Faience beads were and how they were made. The modern isn’t left out either. Delicas were made in 1982 as a glass imitation of the former metal beads that were widely used in an earlier time in Europe.

The section on African beads is quite fascinating. The types of beading are separated according to the larger grouping of tribes. For example, the San and Ovambo are some of the oldest people we know of, genetically speaking, and they began beading with Ostrich shell beads. I’ve gotten to try my hand at making such beads at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and it isn’t easy. Drilling a hole in the shell was the most difficult part for me. It gives you a new respect for the artisans who produced those beads in great number. Another wonderful feature that this division by tribe allows is to highlight the type of beading that developed and many times is still practiced in remote areas. Examples would be the Brick Stitch and the Ndebele techniques, which developed with the needs of status and curing and social structures of the tribe.

When we think of the beading of the Native Americans, we seldom realize how closely Arctic peoples are related to northeastern tribes. Nor do we think of the influences that shaped the plains and southwestern tribes. Seldom do we think of the isolation of the northwestern tribes and how unique their carvings and beading is. There is wonderful diversity and culture in these regions and much of it expressed with beading.

Because some of the earliest bead trading took place in the Euro-Asia continents, some of the book is devoted to the unique designs and beads developed in these areas. Many of the Czech beads we enjoy today are from the rich history of the region. It was wonderful to revisit how the history of beads has always been a small industry and passion in this part of the world. These people take beads seriously and have spread many of the techniques we use everyday throughout the world.

What book on the history of beads could do without a section on Construction and Techniques? Not this one! I really appreciated the facts, and just the facts, without the accompanying myths of why this technique originated only at this one place. It was nice to read about the different areas where working on cloth or canvas have been practiced. The same can be said for the Brick Stitch, Diagonal Weave, Herringbone stitch, and knitting and crocheting, etc.

This book is really a wonderful and valuable reference tool for the library of the serious hobbyist, artist and history buff. Once you see it, you won’t want to be without it.