Broken objects whisper their secrets. Are you listening?

8 minute read

It’s a well known fact that museums display only a small fraction of the number of objects they care for. Decisions about what goes on display are driven by several factors, but aesthetics certainly play a large part – how complete something is, how unique (or representative of a type) it is perceived to be, and how much conservation might be required before it can be safely displayed. What about all the objects which don’t quite fit the criteria, perhaps because they are broken? Are they doomed to spend the rest of their days in boxes being ignored? What other kind of value do they hold?

Working on the Stores Move Project, I have the privilege of working with collections in store every day. We recently processed a lot of beadwork from Southern Africa and this was of particular interest to me because I have been making beadwork myself for several years. Seeing pieces from around the world inspires me to keep being creative and try new things. Complete pieces are wonderful but broken pieces are often even better because they give me a glimpse into the techniques used to make them. 

Beadwork on display at MAA

If you haven’t come across the word beadwork before, the Merriam Webster definition of it is as follows: ‘Beadwork is the art or craft of attaching beads to one another by stringing them onto a thread or thin wire with a sewing or beading needle or sewing them to cloth”. In this blog, I will be focusing on woven pieces of beadwork which are made with or without the use of a loom (rather than stringing, embroidery, crochet, or knitting). 

Beadwork is made by people all around the world. It is usually made with small glass beads, sometimes confusingly referred to as seed beads, although it is also possible to use nuts, seeds, shells and manufactured beads of different materials like shell, ceramic, and plastic. Pieces of beadwork are undoubtedly made to be aesthetically pleasing and are often used as personal adornment, but they may also indicate information about the beader or the wearer through their shape, colours and patterns. 

Here are some examples of beadwork which you may have noticed in the gallery at MAA.

A case containing traditional dress. At the top is a feather hat, then a dress with a beaded tie and belt. Some photos on the right of the outfit are also on display.

Figure 1. Beaded headdress, shirt, necktie, and belt owned and worn by Chief Red Dog, hereditary Chief of Starblanket Nation, File Hills, Saskatchewan, Canada. Maudslay Gallery North America display case. Collected by Robert Rymill. MAA 1930.834 A, 1930.834 B, 1930.835 and 1930.834 I.

A small brown-coloured purse with a red patch and beaded decorations.

Figure 2. Fish skin purse with beaded panel, made by Matleena Fofonoff in the traditional Sámi style for coffee and salt bags. Anár (Inari), Finnish Sápmi. Collected by Sharon Webb.

A beaded necklace and two brooches, one with an AIDS sign on it.

Figure 3. Beadwork brooches and necklace, including an AIDS brooch, Grahamstown, South Africa. Maudslay Gallery African beadwork display case. MAA 2001.43, 2001.40 and 2001.46.

Making beadwork

A complete piece of beadwork by its very nature doesn’t easily let you see how it is made. The threads are usually woven to make them as invisible as possible. The point, after all, is to create something from beads, not thread. When you have a broken piece of beadwork though (or an incomplete piece), you can try to trace the path of the thread and begin to understand how it has been made. 

Below are three examples of Southern African beadwork which are broken in a way which reveals some of their secrets. All three of these are made with small glass beads known as ‘seed beads’ due to their size. These are ideal for making woven beadwork pieces because, although they are not completely regular in size and shape, they usually sit next to one another in neat rows. If you look closely at the photos, you can see small variations in bead size. During the making process, the artist will try to select beads which balance one another out to avoid warping the beadwork.

When I work with beads, I tend to use a stainless steel needle and nylon thread in a colour which matches the beads. Clearly these options haven’t always been available, so older beadwork is often strung on cord made from cotton, plant fibre, or sinew. Needles for beading need to be very fine due to the size of the hole in seed beads so, if a fine enough needle wasn’t available, it’s possible that thin wire was used and folded around the thread or alternatively wax or glue might be used to stiffen the end of the cord. In the rest of this blog I’m simply going to refer to the stringing material as ‘thread’.

Beadwork can be damaged in many ways but in these instances sections of the beads themselves have broken away, leaving the thread largely intact. Historic beadwork sometimes suffers from glass corrosion which can be caused by altered pH conditions and ultimately leads to the glass shattering. This is seen most often with blue beads due to the chemical composition of the dye. 

Example 1 – Beaded ornament from Eswatini

A diagram showing the beadwork on a broken necklace.

Figure 4. Beaded ornament with rectangular panels, possibly from Eswatini. Red arrows indicate the thread loops. MAA Z 23482. Image by Katrina Dring.

This ornament was originally described as a child’s necklace, but since we don’t have full provenance details this is likely to have been a guess based on its size. It is made up of five rectangular beaded panels hanging from a single cord with a loop and brass button fastening. The cord is wrapped with pink glass seed beads, while the panels contain white, light blue, and black and have a red border at the bottom. 

The detail pane to the right of the image shows the most damaged panel, with several gaps and a total of ten missing beads. The red arrows in the detail pane point to extant loops of thread which have stiffened over time (some pieces of thread have also broken away).

From the pattern of the remaining thread, I recognise this technique as something called brickstitch. A loop of thread passes through the hole in each bead and connects it to the thread securing the layer below. Horizontal layers are built up one bead at a time with the beads in each row offset, like bricks in a wall. 

A diagram showing the placement of beads.

Figure 5. Diagram showing the path of the thread in brickstitch. The base layer, indicated by red thread, is stitched first using a more secure stitch called ladder stitch. The layers are then built up one at a time (indicated by the orange line, then green), each individual bead being fixed to the layer below.

Example 2 – Xhosa armband from South Africa

A diagram showing the placement of beads on an armband.

Figure 6. Xhosa beaded armband from South Africa, with detail of broken section. Green and red lines indicate the direction of the threads. MAA Z 23494. Image by Katrina Dring.

I was really intrigued when I saw this piece, as the beads sit in rows of clear pairs, each with a tilt towards one another. This is a pattern which I am familiar with through working with a stitch known as herringbone stitch – but in the areas where the beads are missing it’s clear that this is something different. 

I don’t know the exact technique used to make this, but I can make some assumptions based on the thread in the broken areas. There seem to be two threads running through each bead which suggests that it was made on a loom of some sort. The green lines in the detail pane indicate a vertical thread which passes through each column. The red lines indicate a secondary thread which passes through the rows, weaving up through one bead and down through the neighbouring one. This secondary thread is what causes pairs of beads to tilt together.

One of the benefits of using a loom is being able to add multiple beads to your work at once. It is possible that the first stage of making this piece was to thread the vertical rows (green line), using the loom to keep tension and allow the pattern to be laid out fully. Then the secondary thread (red line) could be used to strengthen the piece, ready for it to be removed from the loom. 

In the detail pane you can see that a single yellow bead has been placed inside the blue chevron. This may have been a simple mistake, but it is also possible that this single bead was placed intentionally. Beadwork pieces are used in many cultures to indicate social standing or life-stage, and we know that the colours used in some Southern African pieces were intended to convey messages. For an example within the MAA collections, take a look at Zulu ‘love letter’ necklace 1927.369. William Ridgeway, the collector, recorded the meaning of each colour, presumably as explained to him by an informant.  

Example 3 – Xhosa armband with leather borders from South Africa

A diagram showing the placement of beads on an armband.

Figure 7. Xhosa beaded armband from South Africa, with detail of broken section. Green and red lines indicate the direction of the threads. MAA E 1905.85. Image by Katrina Dring.

My final example is another intriguing one. As with the last piece, there are vertical threads which run through each column and hold them in a grid. This time there appear to be threads which run diagonally through the piece as well, providing extra reinforcement and connecting one column to the next. This time we have a bit of the edge exposed, and it suggests that the thread running through the column wraps around a thread running the length of the edge and then turns into the diagonal. The other edge is obscured by the leather trimming, but it is clear that threads are exiting from there to travel along the diagonals as well.

Like the last example, it seems likely that this one was made on a loom. The columns may have been strung first (green line) with tension being provided by a loom, then the secondary thread (red line) was woven through each bead on a diagonal to provide strength off the loom. Since we can see the diagonal threads exiting from the leather strips along the short edge, the leather was added before this reinforcement was done. 

Looking more closely at these leather strips, you might see that they consist of a folded piece of leather. Threads for the beadwork exit along the fold; the open edges are sewn together and have metal loops inserted, presumably to facilitate the fastening of this armband. 

Based on the gaps it looks like five of these metal loops are missing (one from the left and four from the right), and there is an additional mystery leather thong attached to the bottom right corner. I can imagine several ways these ends might be fastened together. Perhaps the metal loops were brought next to one another with a slight offset, allowing the leather thong to pass all the way through and be tied in a knot at the opposite side? Or perhaps they were laced together with a longer, separate thread or thong, creating a looser armband? Maybe there were additional metal links which we don’t know about.

What next?

Objects displayed in museums are often rare complete examples, or conserved, and arranged in such a way to hide their ‘flaws’, but there’s a lot to be learnt from broken objects. I hope this brief exploration of three pieces of broken beadwork have inspired you to go seek out those flaws. You might be amazed by the secrets they hold! 

For further information on African beadwork, check out this blog from the MET by James Green. Or for more specifics about South African beadwork, check out this article from Art Africa by Anitra Nettleton. 

To search our online database, go to https://collections.maa.cam.ac.uk/.

To read more about MAA collections, check out the UCM blog: https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/blog/category/museums/museum-of-archaeology-anthropology/

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