Published on August 7, 2014 by Amy
Native American beadwork and fabric appliques were important components of Native American visual arts, especially in the Great Lakes region and Northeast. Beadwork appliques were also very important among the Plains Indians as well. When Lewis and Clark and other Europeans introduced Italian seed and clay beads, which were already famous worldwide for their color, stability and beauty to the Native Americans in the early 19th century, they helped take an already-thriving art form into a new and vibrant visual art that created unique designs on fabric, buckskin and leather.
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The technique of lazy stitch or applique beading was perfected by the Plains Native Americans to attach the applique to buckskin. You can do this yourself by pushing a needle through the top layer of the buckskin, or leather-work that you’re using, but not all the way through the material. Pull several beads, at least four to eight of them, onto a loop of thread and then thrust the needle through the skin and return it through this holding stitch back onto the surface and repeat your pattern. The flat loops holding the beads are interconnected but separate, so if some of the applique comes loose the entire work does not fall apart. You can use a pattern that identifies the tribe you wish to emulate by stringing the beads onto thread, and then sewing them onto fabric.
Native Americans found new and inventive ways to create the appliques that decorated their ceremonial items as well as their attire. Using the Italian seed beads and pony beads as the basis for their designs, the Native American weavers created small hand-held looms upon which to string beads into intricate designs, and then transfer these appliques by sewing them onto fabric or leather. The advantage of using the loom method was that the beads were more tightly connected to each other, and the knot work between the bead sections ensured that if one bead came undone, the entire applique would not ravel. A small hand-held loom will allow you to string the beads in a Native American pattern and then you can transfer the applique to a headband, skirt or purse, attaching it to the fabric firmly by sewing it in place with a blanket or overhand stitch.
Native Americans were also adept at creating fabric appliques, which were often complex designs in their tribal motifs that were attached to clothing. Leftover materials, ribbons and embroidery threads were incorporated into clothing, blankets and ceremonial regalia by cutting and sewing the fabric into different motifs and color patterns. Since these appliques were attached to the surface of other materials, small blanket stitches attached them. Beads, shells and other materials were optionally attached within the surface of the applique to enhance the three-dimensional effect of the final product. You can use the fabric technique to cut and arrange appliques onto material and either sew them by hand or with a sewing machine and very small unobtrusive stitches.
In the 1800s, Native American women purchased or bartered for silk taffeta ribbons in different colors and widths. By laying two ribbons atop of each other with their sides together, she cut out a half-shape along the edge. When she separated the ribbons she had a mirror image of the cut and therefore a full shape. This shape was then used as the design for placement over a third piece of ribbon so that the colors of the third piece showed through the initial two ribbons’ cuts. These ribbon appliques were then sewn onto fabrics.