Saturday, May 21, 2011

Where Did Beaded Flowers Come From?

Beaded flowers are fascinating. No matter what style you prefer, flowers made from tiny glass beads strung on ordinary wire are intriguing pieces of art. But where did they come from? Who were the first beaded flower artists? Read on for some hints.


The art of making flowers out of beads is many centuries old. Although there is very little documentation on the development of this art, research has shown that the first primitive bead flowers may have been made as early as the 1300's in Germany, when steel needles and wire were developed.

In the ensuing years as the craft spread across Europe, different methods were developed: the Victorian method, also known as the English or Russian method, and the French method. The main difference is that in the Victorian method, which is similar to modern bead jewelry-making techniques, the thread or wire passes through each bead twice or more, and the wire passes from row to row on the sides of the piece; in the French method, the wire passes through each bead only once, and passes from row to row in the center or on the bottom of the individual piece.

One of the reasons that flowers are associated with churches has to do with beads. In the thirteenth century a form of prayer using a string of beads was instituted by St. Dominic. The string, called a rosary, consisted at that time of 15 units of beads. Each unit contained 10 small beads, preceded by one larger one. A prayer was recited at every bead. The word "bede" (sp) is Middle English for "prayer." Because of the length of the original rosary, it became customary to pay someone, usually a resident of an almshouse, to recite the prayers. These people were referred to as bede women or men, and it was they who made the first bead flowers.

The craft was handed down through the centuries and came to be associated with the church and its decorations.

The French used bead flowers as funeral wreaths. These wreaths were called "Immortelles," and ranged from 3 feet to 4 feet in height. They would be left at the grave of the deceased. Since they were made on metal wire and were exposed to the weather, most of these items were destroyed within a year, but a few examples remain today. Occasionally you will see one on Ebay.

Not only are there bead flowers mounted on the frame of the Immortelle, but the frame wires are wrapped in beaded wire as well. Wires strung with beads might have been coiled or braided as well before wrapping onto the piece. The whole surface of the Immortelle would be wrapped over with wire strung with thousands and thousands of beads.

Once an Immortelle disintegrated, leaving only a pile of beads, the beads would often be recycled into other projects.

In Venice in the 16th century, middle class and poor women made bead flowers for churches, banquet tables and parade floats. At that time, someone could walk down the streets of Venice and see women sitting outside every door, making ornaments out of wire and tiny glass beads.

At one time Venice was a center for the actual production of beads. According to one source, at one point all the beadmaking activity in Venice was moved onto the island of Murano. Murano glass vases and other items are still treasured today.

Around the Napoleonic era (1768-1821), Italian and French peasants who tended the vineyards in the summer were recruited to work with beads in the winter. They would be assigned to embroider the ball gowns and jackets of the court nobility with beads. Imperfect beads or beads that would not fit over the needle were saved and made into flowers. These imperfect beads may have been strung onto wire for the flowers with horsehair or human hair. These flowers were used to decorate church altars, and were carried by altar boys for Easter and Christmas.

In Victorian times, royal European brides often wore wreaths or circlets of bead flowers and carried bead bouquets on their wedding day. The custom was for the bride to abandon the fancy hair styles of the time, and wear her hair simply, straight down her back, and adorn her head with a floral wreath. If she were getting married at a time of the year when fresh flowers were unavailable, bead flowers were an excellent solution.

Getting materials for beaded flowers is much easier now than it was in previous centuries. Some popular suppliers are Jillybeads, Shipwreck Beads, and Paramount Wire.

I hope you enjoyed this post. The history of beaded flowers is a long, convoluted and global story. Come back for a future post on the history of beaded flowers in America.

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