Witty Cross-Stitch Won't Cut It
October 19, 2011 6:23 PM   Subscribe

New Hobby; Need Help. Colorful bead art like the pieces that Mardi Gras Indians wear... how to learn?

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I got to go to the House of Dance and Feathers and see some of these huge amazing feathered outfits that weigh up to 200 pounds and have the most awesome pictoral beading. I mean, pictures of two handsome Indians with visibly washboard abs lighting a fire while their horses drink from a river, for instance, all in beads, and the whole thing less than a twelve inches across! Up close (and checking out the back), I could see and feel that every bead was individually sewn into place, every sequin, in careful little rows.

The founder of the museum, a former Mardi Gras Indian Chief, told me that the pieces of beadwork are called "patches," and if you google image "mardi gras indians bead patch," my god, do you see? Aren't they insane?

So how do I do that?

I know I need canvas, a frame, and outlines of my illustration to follow.

But then what? The clips I've seen on Youtube of Mardi Gras bead art utilize a hot-glue gun, which I totally don't want, it's super cheating. I want to sew every bead and every sequin like a chief does.

But how? Anyone know any good guides? Is this comparable to an existing craft form for which there are books I can read and learn from? (I don't want to cross-stitch or embroider, I want big-ass, heavy, full blocks of beaded color illustrations when I'm done.) Crafters and Beaders help a girl out! Where do I begin?
posted by sestaaak to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are the beads sewn onto fabric, or do they seem connected with thread? The former I don't know anything about beyond, 'Wow, that's a lot of sewing!', the latter is done with a bead loom and can be used to make pictures or whatever size you want.
posted by thylacinthine at 6:52 PM on October 19, 2011

I can't tell you how to learn this but I can tell you it's heavily inspired by Plains beadwork and was possibly done on a loom. If you've never seen the work of Marcus Amerman that might kind of blow your mind too.
posted by Miko at 6:53 PM on October 19, 2011

Oh, I'm an idiot, I just went and had a closer look, I see what you mean now. That's not a bead loom, you string a bunch little beads on some thread, and then sew the string of beads down, stitching either side of the bead to secure them, it's a little like painting with strings of beads. I'm trying to remember if it's called anything!
posted by thylacinthine at 6:55 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the existing craft term you are looking for is bead embroidery. I know you said you don't want to embroider, but to actually apply beads on fabric without glue, that is exactly what you want to do. The basic instructions would be the same to use on creating Mardi Gras Indian patches. You can probably even find a book at the library to teach you the basics.

I do lots of different kinds of crafts and I think you could learn the basics easily and apply them to creating patches. By the way, I think it would be so awesome to create these for yourself! (Watching Tremé on HBO had me fascinated by the Mardi Gras Indian culture, so beautiful! Sadly, I have not been to New Orleans yet!)
posted by blacktshirtandjeans at 6:57 PM on October 19, 2011

Best answer: Here's a bead embroidery how-to.
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on October 19, 2011

Best answer: FWIW some Mardi Gras Indians use hot glue to attach their beads but sewing them is more traditional and is considered more artful and true to the history of the practice. Not to mention I'm sure it's much more durable.

I don't know how you'd go about learning it either, but I do know that traditionally the craft is passed down through a mentoring system (more than an apprenticeship, the adults who teach it are also mentors and authority figures for their students) and that it is considered a lifelong art which continually improves and cannot be perfected.

I also know that the most elaborate suits, worn by the Big Chiefs, represent literally thousands of hours of work per year and thousands of dollars of investment as well. (By people who are generally employed full-time, have many family and community responsibilities, and are typically not particularly wealthy in any financial sense, at that.) And the suits are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the tradition is concerned.

It's really a pretty incredible tradition and I can see why you'd be interested in trying to pick up the craft. I'm sure you learned a bit about its history, what it represents, and what kind of practices are involved while you were at the museum. It's really one of New Orleans' finest traditions.
posted by Scientist at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

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