Bead embroidery was practiced long before the last major ice age, with beads fashioned from seashells, seeds, broken eggshells – any colourful discard of nature. Since the first person strung the first bead, almost every culture has prized beadwork.
The history of beadwork spans at least 5000 years. By about 2500 BC, we find from the tombs at Ur in Iraq that remarkable beadwork constructions were created from thousands of very tiny, fairly consistent lapis lazuli beads. There were sewn onto a base to create a covering layer of beadwork.
Israel’s Mount Carmel in 1937 unearthed human skeletons that had been buried with elaborately beaded headdresses, made from the thin, splintered bones of small gazelles and from white dentalium, a kind of shell that still washes up on eastern Mediterranean shores.
embroidery was not only a high art, but a royal one, a token of status and luxury for kings, sultans, pharaohs and emperors, for whom designs were created out of precious gold and silver threads drawn through fabrics. Sometimes the embroidery was further embellished with bright beads, peacock feathers, lustrous pearls and glittering gems. Gold and silver bezants were often used as beads to enhance.
Pearls, rhinestones and other pretty bead trimmings are the sartorial equivalent of champagne – their mere presence suggests a festive occasion. Beads are a sensual pleasure to work with, and their own intrinsic beauty makes it easy to create objects of beauty. Beads are suitable for inclusion in many styles of embroidery. High-quality beads are a lasting, unfading, glowing art material.