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Beaded Bouquet

Italian circa 1500.

By Jonalee A. Crabb known in the SCA as Roxelana Bramante

In Italy, specifically in Venice and the area immediately surrounding the city, women who strung beads for a meager wage were referred to as impiraperle or impiraressa. In Venice, making glass beads was a highly skilled urban craft started in the early Middle Ages and whose guild organization was particularly strict. Guild regulations (of the paternostreri e margariteri guild) allowed for the wives, daughters, and widows of its masters to participate in the first stage of bead production, the sorting of the glass canes according to size, and the last stage, stringing the beads together for sale or export.1 Over time there were far too many beads that needed to be strung and so other women who were not related to a guild master were hired to help with the workload. At about 1525 there were 24 glasshouses recorded at Murano (the island off the coast of Venice were the glass houses were moved to reduce the possibility of fire.) In 1606 there were 251 bead and rosary firms recorded and 70 years after that there were only 11 first rate bead and rosary firms though it is not said if the reduction is due to consolidation or decrease.2 The practice of hiring out for bead stringers became so wide spread, a French traveler in the mid-seventeenth century described the streets of Venice as "crowded with women of all social backgrounds engaged in stringing and making decorations with small bugles."3 The ornaments are not described but some time later a glass cane factory in Murano advertised its products as: "Venetian glass beads for trimming; chaplets and natives ornaments; pound-, seed-, aleppo-beads; ceylon-, maccà-, lamp-, mosaic-, and fancy-beads; gladstone; beaded articles: beaded flowers; fringes for lampshades; bags, necklaces."4

There is very little information dealing with the bead stringers prior to 1600 so its not known for sure what the early beads were strung on for shipment. Later accounts prove the beads were strung on iron wire to make floral decorations and on cotton or silk threads to make common bunches. Natacha Wolters says "In the town of Venice in the 16th century, middle class and poor women modeled flowers made with beads [perles] strung on wire [fil métallique] to adorn churches during religious feasts, as well as the banquet tables and parade floats [les barques dapparat.]"5  It is not known how the beads were acquired for these flowers or if it was just the bead stringers who were creating them. It is possible that, because middle class women were involved, beads were purchased and strung with the express purpose of creating the flowers for decoration. It is not unreasonable to assume beads which did not fit over the eye of a needle were the first used for flowers as there are few things one can make with beads strung on wire.

In Dress Accessories it says "Silk-covered wire could be twisted into a myriad of forms to decorate items of either secular or sacred use and it is generally artefacts of the latter type that have been preserved. These include a number of 14th and 15th-century reliquaries embellished with multi-colored silk-wire flowers, often with seed pearls and beads threaded onto them, for example a 15th-century reliquary crown of St Kunigunde in Bamberg cathedral, West Germany, and ritual cushions known as paradise gardens for nuns taking their vows (Meckseper 1985, 476-8, no. 392)." I managed to track down the Meckseper book and have included pictures of the Paradise Gardens that date to 1480. Though there are gardens of these flowers in over a dozen cities in North Germany and Belgium, these pictured are composed mainly of intricately wound silk thread and wire though some of the flowers are made of coral beads. I was unable to find a picture of the reliquary mentioned but the pictures of reliquaries I was able to find are covered in jeweled and bead flowers. Most of these flowers look to be votive offerings from the upper classes, whereas beaded flowers would have been something more associated with poor and middle class offerings (and would not have held up throughout the years as well as gold and jeweled flowers).

The flowers I chose to make for my bouquet were lilies, roses, and periwinkles. Both roses and lilies have a long assoiation with the Virgin Mary and therefor would be perfect for a church bouquet. Periwinkles are mentioned in a manuscript dating to about 1500 as being part of a floral crown for Saint Barbara in the south of France but periwinkles are also native to Italy. (I thought about violets too because everything should have some purple somewhere but I liked the periwinkle documentation which showed periwinkles used in a religious context.) The Dominican nuns at the convent in Alsace possessed a manuscript describing in detail a devotional exercise whereby a floral crown is created for Saint Barbara, a crown where each flower represents one of the many virtues of the saint. The manuscript spells out exactly how many prayers are needed to create several different varieties and colors of flowers.6 For example, a daisy requires one hundred Hail Marys to complete, a periwinkle needs thirty Our Fathers for its completion. In creating my periwinkles I noticed that if I had used larger beads and used three bluish-purple on the top row, two in the center row, and one white bead on the bottom of each of the five triangular petals I would use a total of thirty beads per flower - the exact number that the manuscript requires in prayers. So I created a daisy using exactly 100 beads though it was far less challenging as there could be many variations, all of which look like daisies and are fairly simple to make. It is possible that Ave bedes could be either beads the size of small rosary beads or Hail Mary prayers depending on the translation.

Flowers, according to Jack Goody, were used in Roman times but disappeared for several hundred years (from church use) because of the pagan associations. Flowers crept back into the church by being left as devotional offerings before statues of the divine during the early Middle Ages. By the 1400's flowers were an integral part of religious festivals again, first in the form of garlands and later making a transition to bouquets. Goody goes on to explain the reasons for the shift but it is certain that by the mid sixteenth century the bouquet was the more prevalent of the two and I have included several pictures of period religious bouquets that resemble the one that I produced.

By breaking down the elements of this bouquet I can more easily explain my choices of materials. First let us look at the vase. While many of the bouquets pictured in the paintings are shown in pitchers, some are shown in glasses and I have found a picture of common drinking glasses which look almost exactly like my vase. The dark color hides the small stones I used to counter weight the flowers. Stones were available all over the place, all the time. Hyacinth colored glass dates to 1603 but other shades of violet and purple existed long before then. I covered the top of the stones with dried moss.

The flowers are created using two different methods of stringing - the French method and the Continental method. (The other method, the English, is characterized by woven stitches using thread and dates to the mid-seventeenth century. The English method is far more complicated and unique to England and America, showing the English preference for needle work in all forms.) The French method is charaterized by the fact that the wire goes through each bead only once and is therefor the only method which would work with exceptionally small-holed beads. The Continental method uses the ladder stitch which can be seen in many period pictures of jewelry and is a very common and well know stitch (used for the Periwinkles). Period flowers were probably not quite as elaberate but, having seen the Paradise Gardens, I cant be so sure. Artificial flowers were well know in faberic, silk, gold, gem stones, and other more common elements, beads amoung them.

The bead colors I chose to resemble what I know about period bead colors. Green was a very common color, as was white. Master Talbot has in his collection sixteenth century Dutch bead fragments which look exactly like the white beads of the lilies. With the cut edges (not rounded like the other beads) these beads would not have been practical for use in embroidery projects as the rough edges would take a toll on the thread. I have acquired many antique Venetian beads in various shades of green, all of which date prior to modern colors and resemble period green colors. They also show that, while the beads I used were of the must common size, beads could be made much smaller than any needle could accommodate. The pink and coral colored beads, today called lined beads, were made in the same manner as Venetian white-heart beads. Heart beads could be made in two ways, the easiest is to take a blob of glass and dip it into another color of glass so when it is blown and drawn out there is an inner and and an outer color. These beads have colored center glass and clear outer glass. Today the glass is made in one color and a paint color is blown down the middle of the hole ( the technique was know in period but it appears that it wasnt used much), silver lined beads are blown with metal paint.

The wire used in period was either brass or iron as both were common. I have used both but my dentist now insists that I use plastic coated wire if I persist in using my teeth as tools. No tools are needed to create these flowers except something to cut the wires, but I find that I can get better tension if I hold the wire between my teeth and one hand (thus requiring me to bite down on the wire) and using the other hand to twist the petals. Plastic coated wire is not period but colored wire or silk covered wire are. I therefor wrapped all the larger stems in silk embroidery floss so they would resemble the Paradise Gardens and the pictures of artifacts in the book Dress Accessories.


  1. Trivellato, Francesca Out of Womens Hands: Notes on Venetian Glass Beads, Female Labour and International Trades In Beads and Beadmakers edited by Lidia D. Sciama and Joanne B. Eicher, Berg, New York 1998. Page 51
  2. Kidd, Kenneth E. Glass Bead-Making From The Middle Ages to the Early 19th Century Minister of Supply and Services, Canada 1979. Page 19
  3. Trivellato, Francesca Out of Womens Hands: Notes on Venetian Glass Beads, Female Labour and International Trades In Beads and Beadmakers edited by Lidia D. Sciama and Joanne B. Eicher, Berg, New York 1998. Page 54. Quoted from Poullet, le Sieur Nouvelles relations du Levant Paris 1668 chez Louis Billaine. Bugles are beads that are long and narrow, generally the same size as standard seed beads only cut to be longer.
  4. Ibid., page 54. The author does not say where this quote is from but it appears to date to right around 1806.
  5. Wolters, Natacha Les Perles Syros, Paris France 1996. Page 45.
  6. Berlin, SBPK, Ms. germ. oct. 54, folios. 335r.-39v.

Davenport, Millia The Book of Costume, Volume 1 Crown Publishers, New York 1948

Egan, Geoff and Pritchard, Frances Dress Accessories c1150 - c1450 Medieval Finds From Excavations in London:3 HMSO Publications, London 1991

Francis, Peter Jr. Beads of the World Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania 1994

Goody, Jack The Culture of Flowers Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1993

Jargstorf, Sibylle Glass Beads From Europe Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania 1995

Lightbown, Ronald W. Mediaeval European Jewellery The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1992

Meckseper, Cord ed. Stadt im Wandel: Kunst und Kultur des Bürgertums in Norddeutschland 1150-1650

Sciama, Lidia D. and Eicher, Joanne B. editors Beads and Beadmakers Berg, New York 1998

Weiss, Gustav The Book of Glass translated by Janet Seligman, Praeger, New York 1971

Wolters, Natacha Les Perles Syros, Paris, France 1996