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Native American Beadwork

History of Beadwork

One of the best known art forms practiced by American Indians is beadwork. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, native populations of North America created their own beads. As none had metal tools, the construction of beads was a long process. Using little but tools made of stone or wood and abrasives such as sand, prehistoric Indians would fashion beads from native materials Most of the beads made by Native Americans were relatively large and were constructed to be worn strung on necklaces or thongs. It was not until the arrival of trade beads from Europe that the Indians could obtain small beads in sufficient quantities to make the beaded designs we know today.

This is not to say that beadwork emerged on the scene without a precedent. The people of the northeastern United States and the Midwest already were decorating their leather clothing and accessories with dyed porcupine quills. Compared with beadwork, quill work is very time consuming and tedious. Each quill must be attached to the background with a small stitch. Despite these constraints Native American artists invested many hours to create intricate and beautiful quill work pieces.

The art of making glass beads probably originated in Venice, Italy. In any case, we know that this area had a flourishing industry in the production of beads by the early 14th century. from there the production of beads moved to other parts of Europe, the most notable being Bohemia, France, England, and Holland. There also was a small bead industry within the United States.

Beads were one of the earliest goods that the Europeans traded with the Native Americans. Spaniards were already trading beads into New Mexico by the middle of the 16th century. Ultimately all beads came from trading posts, but the Indians soon spread trade beads far and wide through their own exchange networks until they could be found in the most remote parts of the United States.

At first, beads were entirely of the large variety intended for necklaces. Native Americans, however, soon realized the possibilities created by the availability of small, brightly colored beads. Suddenly they could create new designs with a broader palette. The comparative ease by which beads could be used for decoration created a veritable explosion of beadwork in North America. Traders soon moved to satisfy the market for smaller beads.

Uses of Beadwork

Native American beadwork, like quill work before it, is a decorative art form.  Utilitarian goods such as clothing, dwellings, horse gear, and utensils were at one time ornamented with quill work and beadwork.  Over time, the older ways of life have disappeared.  Even though clothing and dwelling styles have changed, and the original needs for horse gear and certain utensils have vanished, decorative beadwork continues to flourish.

As Indians came in contact with white settlers, clothing styles changed.  For example, articles of clothing previously made from buffalo skins began to be made out of wool or cotton.  Although the basic materials changed, Native Americans continued to decorate their clothing with beadwork.  During the mid-1800s, trade goods, such as beads, were readily available.  Due to forced relocation and life on the reservation, many Indians had time on their hands.  These factors led to a proliferation of beadwork during the mid-nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century there has been a growing interest in the renewal of Indian customs and practices among Native American peoples.  With this renewal has come a blending of some tribal distinctions.  Historically, tribal distinctions were evident in the design elements found in ornamental beadwork.  In the 20th century, particularly after World War I, styles of clothing emerged that began to cross tribal lines.  During the same period, tribal distinctions in beadwork began to blur.

Today, beadwork has come to symbolize the Native American heritage.  Beaded headbands are often worn on hats.  Some Indian men wear beaded bolo ties and belts, and some Indian women wear beaded jewelry.  However beadwork is most often found on regalia worn at powwows or dance contests.  A powwow is a celebration of Indian culture, through dance, music, food, and other traditional activities.  Dance regalia makes extensive use of beadwork.  Dancers often wear beaded moccasins, cuffs, chokers, arm bands, belts, and suspenders.

Beadworking Techniques

In the United States, designs have been made with beads either by sewing them to a background material or by weaving them into a fabric.  Although there are a number of techniques for affixing beads to a surface, most are variations of the overlaid stitch or the lazy stitch.

The overlaid stitch, often referred to as the spot stitch, is a technique found throughout the United States.  With this method the artist can perform finely detailed work as well as fill in large sections of background.  First the beads are strung on a thread or sinew.  If a design is to be made with contrasting colors of beads, they must be placed in order.  Then a second thread is used to fix the beaded strand to the material.  The second strand is passed over every two or three beads.  In most cases the outlines for a design are made with a single strand of beads and the remainder is filled in afterwards with beadwork.  This method is essential for producing the curvilinear, floral designs favored by the tribes of the eastern woodlands.

The second major beading technique is known as the lazy stitch.  In this method a row of beads is strung on a thread that is simply passed into the background material.  No second thread is used to bind the beads to the surface.  The thread is then strung once again with beads and passed back in the opposite direction.  In this way a series of small rows are laid next to each other to create a design.  This technique tends to result in a distinctive ribbed appearance.  In general, it was used by tribes west of the Mississippi River.  It is most suitable for the geometric designs favored by the Plains Indians.

There is a variation of the lazy stitch which has been practiced by the residents of the northeastern United States.  This is often called the raised or couched stitch.  With this technique more beads are strung on a thread than can be sewn flat on the material.  When the thread is drawn tight, the beads form a small arc.  A series of these arcs are sewn side by side so that they support each other.  Since the arcs do not lie flat, there is a three-dimensional effect.  This is used most often in designs based on flowers and plants.

Applique techniques, or sewing beads to a background surface, by no means encompasses the full range of beadwork techniques employed by Native Americans.  Rather, American Indians also have used weaving to create beadwork.  Weaving can be done with or without a loom.

Although a great number of weaving techniques have been documented, there are several primary types under which most can be grouped.  The first of these involve techniques for weaving on the loom.  Looms for beadwork have been constructed in a number of different ways.  Some Indians have used full looms.  These consist of two vertical pieces across which are tied crosspieces on the top and the bottom.  The horizontal, or weft, threads are then passed through the warps.  Others have employed backstrap loons.  A backstrap loom has no rigid pieces that run the length of the warp threads.  Rather, the cross piece at the end of the loom is tied to something like a post or tree, while the other is tied to a belt that goes around the waist of the weaver.  The weight of the weaver's body is used to keep the warps taut.  Today, such work is often done on a commercial loom or a so-called box loom, constructed from the four sides of a wooden box.  This is especially convenient in contemporary urban environments where the loom can simply be placed on a table.

Among the major techniques of weaving beads on a loom has been the square weave.  In this weave the warp and weft threads cross each other at right angles as is the case in the most basic woven fabrics.  The beads are secured on the weft thread between the warps.  Another technique requires the use of a heddle loom.  This technique was used largely by the Sac and Fox, Winnebago, Micmac, Menomini, and Chippewa tribes.  The heddle is made of wood or bark and is employed to hold the threads of the warp.  Every other thread of the warp is fixed in place, while the others can be moved up and down to provide a space for the weft threads, which are strung with beads, to be passed through.  Between each pass of the weft, the warp threads are raised or lowered to fix the beads in place.

A number of techniques for weaving without a loom have been recorded from locations throughout the Americas.  In general, these are very time consuming approaches.  For this reason, they are not practiced as frequently as they had been in the past.  Beads can be woven into pieces of cloth for ornamentation.  One example can be found in a type of sash in which single strands of beads are incorporated into the fabric as it is woven.  These sashes are woven without the benefit of a loom.  This technique has a wide distribution, and has been found among such tribes as the Kickapoo, Chippewa, Sac and Fox, Osage, Micmac, and Menomini.

Another technique involves the weaving of beads into a net-like web.  In this method a sort of web would be created in which beads would be used in the place of a knot to hold the individual strands together.  This has been employed to make decorative items such as necklaces and headbands, as well as bags and pouches.


Traditional arts are always in a state of change and transformation.  This is particularly true with technology and materials.  The existence of beadwork is just one illustration of this fact as the native inhabitants of North America adapted the new material to the existing art of quill work.  With the passage of time, other innovations in materials have taken place.  At first beadworkers would punch holes in buckskin with bone awls and then push the sinews through to string the beads.  As contact with European Americans increased, they began to use iron awls made of discarded nails.  Eventually this gave way to the use of needles.  Sinew was replaced with cotton or silk thread.  Recently, single ply nylon has become a favored material because of its great strength and resistance to rot.  The backing material for bead applique has changed as well.  Although buckskin is still used in a great many cases, it is time-consuming to prepare and is often less readily available than skins tanned with vegetable or chemical processes.  For this reason, some beadworkers have turned to commercially prepared leather or even to canvas.

The weaving of beadwork also is an innovation based upon an introduced technology.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest were the only native inhabitants of the United States to weave cloth on a loom.  The concept of the loom, therefore, was introduced to many of the tribes from the Europeans.  In the weaving of beadwork, however, they took this concept and made it their own as they created a novel use for the loom.

The forms and designs of beadwork also have changed over time, as each artist has made her own unique contribution to the art.  In recent years, however, there have been several major developments in beadwork that have accelerated this process of change.  One of these is the role of the market in beadwork.  As non-Indians have come to appreciate Native American art forms, there has been incentive to introduce traditional beadwork forms to new items.  Now beadwork has started to find its way onto such things as seed caps, watchbands, and tennis shoes.

Probably the greatest change to have come about in the form of beadwork, however, has been the blurring of tribal distinctions in design.  At one time the designs used by a group were unique to that group alone.  Often permission had to be granted before a person could wear the patterns of another tribe.  Once this permission was granted, the design could only be worn in the presence of the tribe in which it had originated.  This sort of division is no longer always the case.  Today many Native Americans feel free to employ whatever designs appeal to them.  This tendency seems especially prevalent among Indians who live in urban areas.  This is probably due to several factors.  For one, the rate of intermarriage between tribes has increased, blurring the lines of tribal membership.  The proximity in which the members of the groups now live to each other has had the same effect.  In many cases young urban Indians also may learn the art from a member of another tribe.  Along with the instruction comes the design influence and aesthetics of the teacher.


The art of beadwork serves as a powerful symbol of Native American ethnicity.  Prior to the loss of their freedom, Native Americans often wore extensive beadwork as a part of their everyday clothing.  Now this is rarely the case.  It has, however, continued to be a highly visible component of Native American festivals and powwows.  In the art of competitive dancing, which has emerged as a major component of powwows since the 1920s, the costume has achieved a level of significance which almost rivals the dance itself.  In this context, the regalia with its beadwork, sends a strong signal of group membership that is hard to ignore.


Native American Beadwork (PDF)

Traditions  1993 © KSHS

Entry: Native American Beadwork

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2012

Date Modified: April 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.