Flower Beads, Then and Now

History of Bead Flowers

The art of making flowers from tiny rocaille or seed beads is many centuries old. It is thought to have started in Europe as early as the sixteenth century although very basic bead flowers may have been made considerably earlier. As its popularity spread, different methods were developed; the French method whereby wire only passes once through the bead and the Victorian method, also known as the English or Russian method, where the wire passes through the bead two or three times.

There has been a long association with the church and flower beads. A string of beads, a rosary, was used for prayer, the string consisting of 15 units of beads, each unit containing 10 small beads and one larger one. Each bead was held in turn as each prayer was recited, the 150 beads representing the number of psalms in the bible. The man or woman who recited the prayers for the community were the first people to make flower beads and so the association between church and flower decorations began.

The French used bead flowers as wreaths, called Immortelles, which were left at the grave of the deceased. These could be up to several feet in height and when, after time they disintegrated, the beads were reused for other decorations.

Venice became the centre of bead manufacture and during that time most women other than the very rich, made bead flowers for churches, banquetting tables and floats. Murano glass is still valued today.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s French and Italian peasants who worked in the vineyards in the summer,worked with beads in the winter months embroidering gowns and jackets. The beads not used for this purpose were made into flowers to decorate churches.

In America a flower pattern was first published in 1865 suggesting flowers could be used as hair and clothing decorations and another was released in 1928. It wasn’t until 1957 that bead kits were being sold, and bead flower making grew in popularity in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s until the 1980’s when supplies from Eastern Europe became difficult. At the turn of this new century there is renewed interest in French beaded flowers.

BEAD TYPES

Rocaille or seed beads are used in making bead flowers as described above. They come in a huge variety of colours and the most popular size is 10 or 11 gauge although very tiny flowers can be made of 15 gauge bead. Czech beads are the least expensive quality bead available, and perhaps a good place to start. Japanese beads are very high quality and uniform in shape but more expensive.

Beads in the shape of flowers and leaves come in different materials such as plastic, glass, clay, acrylic and lucite which was initially used in costume jewellery, but became very popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s and is much used now in contemporary jewellery.

Flower beads come in a variety of colours and designs and beads from different countries have their own characteristics, some countries specialising in clay or plastic, other crafting their flower beads from semi precious gemstones. This provides designers with scope to find new and innovative ways of using flower beads in their designs.