the West Kingdom Needlework Guild

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Beaded boxes



While it takes more stitching than the medieval method, Lady Grizel of Dunfort’s method for stitching seed beads is so secure that she claims the finished product is actually machine washable. This is what we’ll use for our “beaded boxtop.”

Grizel’s method has three steps. The beads are STITCHED down onto the fabric, then they are LACED together, and finally they are thoroughly COUCHED. By the time we’re finished, each bead has three or four independent threads holding it down, and the chances that it will come loose any time soon are minimal indeed.

Here are the steps.

Step 1: Stitching

Thread your needle, knot the end, and come up through your fabric where you want to start laying down beads. Thread a few beads on your needle — three or four is a good number, you may want to use just one or two in a tight spot or on a curve. Lay the beads down along the design line. Plunge your needle back into the fabric a little beyond the last bead — you don’t want to pull the beads so tight they buckle, but neither do you want them loose.

Bring your needle back up at the beginning of your little group of beads, and go through them all again. Now thread a few more beads on your needle. Lay them on the design, plunge your needle, then bring it back up at the beginning of the new group and go through them again. Repeat this — it’s called “lazy backstitch” — until the lines of your design are covered, or until you want to stop and secure the beads you’ve done before going any further.

You’ll notice that once all your beads are laid down on the fabric, your beadwork becomes just as portable as any other kind of embroidery, since you no longer need to carry jars of loose beads around with you.

Step 2: Lacing.

With a new thread, working entirely on top of the fabric, you’re now going to lace your rows of beads together into a solid unit. Again, take care that you don’t pull your thread so tight that the beads buckle or become distorted.

Bring your needle up at the beginning of a row or group of beads and go through them all at once. Go through the next row of beads in the opposite direction, from right to left. Go on to the next row, left to right again and so forth.

When you’re done with this first round of lacing, turn your work around and lace each row again from the opposite direction. Each bead row will have two lacing threads through it in opposite directions. This insures that all the rows of beads are securely held together at both ends of the row.

Step 3: Couching.

Now you’re going to go back and do what our medieval forebears did, couch between beads.

Bring your needle up next to a row of beads. Take a small stitch over the row, in between two beads so that all you’re really stitching down is the thread between them. Tug gently on the thread if you need to so that it “pops” down between the beads and is invisible.

You probably don’t need to couch between every bead. Every two or three beads is plenty, since you’ve secured them in two ways already. Griz suggests that when you couch, you take a stitch over two rows instead of one, and that you take your next couching stitch over one of the rows you just did plus one new one. This cross-links the bead rows, making it even less likely that beads will be lost. If you have trouble with your thread showing, be patient with it, and poke it with your needle if necessary to make it pop down out of sight.

When your beads are thoroughly couched, you’re done. Take your work out of the frame, trim it as needed, and apply it to your project using stitching or glue as appropriate.

Finished beadwork can be gently pressed (as long as none of the beads are plastic) by laying the beadwork face down over a thick towel or other cushioning.

When machine-washing garb that has beadwork on it, it’s a good idea to put the garment in a muslin bag to keep the beads from hitting the sides of the washing tub and becoming broken or scratched.

The Box

For this project, I chose a small cylinder-shaped pasteboard box, about three inches across and a couple of inches tall, from the local craft store. The bead embroidery is for a central motif on the top of the box, and for a border to reach around the bottom half of the outside, below the edge of the lid. I worked the beading in #11 seed beads on washed cotton velveteen, backed with heavy linen, stretched in a roller frame. This worked very well, except that I made the mistake of choosing a very dark color of velveteen, which meant it was hard to mark the pattern on it, and I needed extra good light to be able to work on it.

partially completed motif for top of box running stitches on paper pattern basted to cloth draw over running stitch lines with chalk

I solved the pattern-marking problem by drawing the pattern out on white paper, basting the paper to the cloth (see above), and taking small running stitches along the pattern lines. The paper can then be torn away and the lines gone over with chalk or marking pencils.

The top motif and border pattern are both from a book on the enamels of Limoges (1100 to 1300); these motifs were originally enameled on metal, but they seemed appropriate to translate into simple beadwork. The original enamels also inspired my color scheme of turquoise blue, deep blue, gold and white. The outline [below] is actual size for the box I used.
Actual size pattern for top motif
Actual size pattern for top motif

 

approximate diagram of bead layout on pattern The beads I used were ordinary glass seed beads from my neighborhood bead store. There are about 400 beads in a strand; colored beads come in packages of about 12 strands, and the gold beads (which are faceted and plated with real metal), 2 strands for about the same price. The center motif and border take just about 2 strands of gold, one of dark blue and less than half a strand of the other two colors.
Bead diagram (very approximate)
 

Once the pattern was marked, I began at one end of the border, just laying down a line of beads at first. It took a little experimenting to discover how many beads made the right size and shape of “teardrop” that wouldn’t become too fat when outlined with the gold. After I’d done a few border motifs, I started working on the top motif, working from the center outward. I had the same problem here, figuring out how many beads to use where, so I’ve drawn a diagram at the bottom of this page to give you an idea of approximately how many beads the motif takes and where to put them. Since real beads aren’t all exactly the same size, yours won’t look exactly like this, but it gives you an idea of where you’re going.

Once the beads are all laid down, laced, and couched, the finished beadwork is gently pressed and then cut out (with seam allowances!). The top circle and a narrow straight strip are sewed together to cover the lid. The border and a plain cloth circle cover the box’s sides and bottom. The pieces are carefully glued onto the pasteboard with fabric glue and let dry. Last, a cord is glued along the edge of the lid to hide the raw edges.

Actual size pattern for border
Actual size pattern for border

Further Information

Grizel’s main bead page:
http://www.medievalbeads.com/

Nine pages of instructions on Grizel’s method of bead embroidery, with abundant illustrations: http://www.medievalbeads.com/notes.html
(available for viewing on line or as a PDF)

Survey of bead types (not all of them period for dates before 1600):

http://www.medievalbeads.com/notes/article-bead-showntell.html

My thanks to Grizel and to Mistress Catherine Lorraine for helpful suggestions with this article.
My thanks also as Guild Chronicler to Maud de Clayton, Juliana Sattler, Jakob der Jude, Wilhelm der Grosse, Ghislaine d’Auxerre, and Her Imperial Majesty Elisabeth Grey, Empress of Adria, for

All rights reserved to text, pictures, patterns, and attachments, unless otherwise noted, by Robin Berry 2003.

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This particular web page last updated on April 6 2005.