Bead Embroidery: What the heck is it?

When I talk about bead embroidery, I’m normally discussing the intuitive type. However, that’s not the only art form out there!

bead embroidery

Image – Robin Atkins

Where did bead embroidery originate? I’m sure that there are readers that will know more than I do on this subject, so I hope that those people (and you know who you are), pipe up with a little more information.

I’d like to start with a definition according to Wikipedia: “Bead embroidery is a type of beadwork that uses a needle and thread to stitch beads to a surface of fabric, suede, or leather. Bead embroidery is an embellishment that does not form an essential part of a textiles structure. In this respect, bead embroidery differs from bead weaving, bead crochet, and bead knitting.” In other words, if you cut the beads off, the underlying surface will not fall apart! Just think what would happen if you tried to do this with bead weaving? Tinkle, tinkle, bouncy beads, all over the place!!!!! LOL! Quick, get out the vacuum!

bead embroidery

Image –

Google the term, and you will come up with a ton of eye candy! If you do the same for the intuitive variety, you will even see some of my pieces pop up! It tickles me pink every time I see them! More showed up, when I was actively involved in the Bead Journal Project, but I guess those have been bumped for more recent pieces!

bead embroidery

Now Google First Nations, Native American, Tambour, Metis, German, Russian, Ukrainian, and any other ethnic group you can think of!! There are tons of images out there!

bead embroidery

Image – Naomi Smith

bead embroidery

Image – Catherine Sequalino Poitier

I am obsessed with this art form! I work intuitively, so my work is more freeform than others, but each type has its own beauty! I’m most familiar with First Nations, Tambour (French couture), and contemporary embroidery (cuffs, necklaces, frameable pieces, etc.). However, one of our new BeadFX customers, recently showed me photos of traditional Metis work, and I was just blown away! Why didn’t I know about this art form before? Their floral work is simply amazing!

bead embroidery

I bead both flat, and 3-D pieces (dolls), in a variety of sizes (even really teeny ones!). I have addicted (err, introduced) many students to my process in BeadFX workshops, love my visual journaling approach, and teach what I love! Isn’t that what it’s all about? If freeform, and intuitive isn’t your thing, then BeadFX even has instructors that teach both First Nations, and Tambour types of beading! It’s all wonderful!!!

bead embroidery

bead embroidery

bead embroidery

bead embroidery

bead embroidery

Where will my future beading adventures go? Well, I’d like to bead an orb! Then a little leather, a bit of felt, and perhaps a piece of clothing (now where did I put that jean jacket?)! I’ve never made a bead embroidered necklace, but then again, I don’t really know where I would wear one. But, I could certainly do a cuff!!

This is a huge subject to cover, but I do promise to explore it further, in future blog posts!


  1. Bennett McCardle

    Challenge accepted!

    How about dating the earliest bead embroidery back to around 6000 to 5000 years BC, in Siberia — shells elaborately drilled and stitched in decorative designs onto animal hides?

    For the conventional style of modern bead embroidery, it seems that the earliest in Europe was in the early medieval period, the 12th century (the 1100s), when small seed pearls were sewn on vellum to decorate religious items. (Still done in Russia with holy icons today – Irina Rudneva learned her bead skills doing that).

    Then, some time in Europe of the 13th-14th centuries (1200s and 1300s) beads began to be embroidered on clothing.


    I suspect there was some bead embroidery in East Asia around the same times, as thread embroidery was so widespread – but adding beads wasn’t a big historical tradition that I know of. (Clothing in tropical countries tends to be lighter and more perishable, so lighter weight surface embellishment is preferred). Jewellery history took a whole different turn there, and neither glass seed beads nor pearl embroidery were much of a thing as far as I can tell, even in India till the 18th century or so.

    In Africa, shells, and later beads, were sewn onto leather, probably from an early date, where the climate allowed. Later, seed beads were embroidered onto the great Yoruba crowns and healers’ regalia, but probably not before the 1600s or so.

    Indigenous people in North America, before glass seed beads were brought in in the 1600s, used shell (whole, or round sequin-like shell operculums, or long hollow dentalium shells, or shaped wampum shell) and porcupine quills instead.

    The amazingly fine-grained Dene (Athapaskan) dyed quillwork embroidery of Nunavut/Yukon we see very little of, as it’s old (pre-seed bead) and most of the best is in US museums. It’s as complex in pattern and colour as any later fine beadwork. Alas, I’ve only seen it in books.


  2. Bennett McCardle

    Drat, your system won’t accept French accents. So could you correct correct Den to Dene in the last para of my comment above? There should be an acute accent on the final “e” but it disappeared when I posted…

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