Since before the time of European contact, embroidery has been the art form women used to add beauty to their clothing and to express individual creativity. Although porcupine quills have given way to beads and geometric designs have been replaced by floral ones, this cultural artistic expression continues in the NWT today.
History of Beadwork
Brightly coloured seed beads first became available to the Great Slave Lake Region about the middle of the 19th century, from the Hudson’s Bay Company. About the same time, Métis introduced new designs to local women who were using porcupine quills to make European designs of zigzags, lines, repeated triangles and diamonds.
The women welcomed and enjoyed the brightly coloured beads and new designs. Beads could be used far more freely and easily than the scarcer quills. Owning beads reflected increased social standing and wealth and wearing them advertised it.
By the end of the 19th century, distinctive regional styles had developed reflecting the adaptability, creativity and innovation of the Dene and Métis beadworkers.
Various materials, such as tanned moose and caribou hides, stroud, and coloured velvet, can be used as canvas for beading. Black velvet was a popular backing in the early 20th century. A flour and water paste is applied using a pointed instrument, to draw pattern outlines on velvet. Charcoal, lead pencil or ink are used on hide.
Today, most beading is done with artificial sinew or dental floss. However, natural sinew is still commonly used for sewing beads along an edge where they are vulnerable to wear.
Decorative beading can be either sewn or woven. Almost all sewn beadwork is “crouched”, a technique that uses the overlaid or spot stitch. This is ideal when the leather or cloth is to be entirely concealed with beads or where very delicate line-work is required. Beads are threaded and laid in the desired position. A stitch is made between every two or three beads. If a broad surface is to be covered, line after line of beads are stitched close together.
For more information on beadwork, please download this brochure.