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Eleventh Century German Multi-Needle Beadwork

So, I took a few hours break from my current bout of insane workaholism the other day and did a little beading. This is what programming does to me: my mind goes from being a marvelous realm of creative joy to being a twisted up little thing that can only think in terms of methodology and function. Hurts my soul a little, not gonna lie, but it’s quite useful to those who employ me. Also, it makes me say hopelessly silly things like “How about a small scale mockup of Eleventh century German multi-needle beadwork on 1/4th inch wide organdy ribbon?” I’m fairly convinced I would not be doing this if I were in my right mind. Darn you, temporary left-brain dominance! Here’s the method I used…

According to the expert on the topic, beadwork in medieval Germany happened via a super-specific method. Beads were couched onto animal parchment, which was then mounted onto cloth – ye olde beaded applique, basically. The beads were strung onto one thread, and a second thread was used for the couching. Small metal “bezants” were sprinkled throughout the design for added sparkle. (The glass itself was rather not sparkly.)

That’s how it’s supposed to go. I’m fresh out of animal parchment, and I feel it would be a little too stiff for doll-clothes anyway. I’ll be cheating on this part. (Shocking, I know – missa cheating? What, again?)

I’d actually given up on being able to do anything close to this method, because the world bezant market seems to have crashed and I was at wit’s end trying to find an acceptable substitute that wouldn’t involve a crazy amount of itsty-bitsy-artsy-craftsy to create. Seriously, even my insanity has some limits… ;)

But there I was, one fateful afternoon, strolling the aisles of my local JoAnn’s, muscling (and being muscled) through a sale in the jewelry department during one of those “extra 20% off your purchase” coupon events that just bring out everyone’s Inner Bitch(tm), when a stray shopping-cart-body-check put me face-to-baggy with …

package of jewelry findings

I’m fairly certain that my mother was the only person in the aisle who had any idea what I was talking about. Tee hee…. It’s the small ones in the top baggy that I was interested in – they’re the right size, and they don’t have too much curve to them. I counted when I got home, and I’ve got 60 of the right size to play with. Yipeee!

So here’s how it works:

ribbon used for base
Since I need strips of beadwork, I'm using ribbon. The organdy is sheer enough to fade away in the background.
ribbon over dress sleeve
The ribbon is 1/4" wide, which is just right to fill in between my two little gold cords. The flat braid in the middle will be removed. Le sigh.

Now, here’s problem one with deciding to couch beads onto ribbon: ribbon is really thin, and doesn’t play well with an embroidery hoop. I need the ribbon to be under constant tension to make all that couching happen without everything going all lumpy. I suspect there’s a Right Way(tm) to do this, but I don’t know what it is, so I made up a My Way(tm) that worked well enough. It’s fair…

setup for embroider
To keep the ribbon under tension, I've pinned both ends to the table. I'm using a dowel rod to raise it up so I can sew.

You really can’t tell, but I’ve also marked just how much I need to work to make it around a sleeve. I did this very discretely, with a giant silver Sharpie. It’s pretty hard to mark organdy… I plan to do this sort of beading to finish the neckline (which has been defying me) and the hem, but I’m starting with the sleeves because they’re easy – straight, relatively small, no corners… I like that.

bead threads in place
The joy of this couch method, I feel, is that you can work with multiple strands of different colors at once. I've secured two bead threads in the ribbon, and threaded one with dark brown beads and one with amber. A third thread has been secured to do the couching.

by “secured”, I really mean that there’s a knot at the end. I’m planning to use the couching thread to secure the bezants. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, or even if I’m supposed to be using one couching thread for multiple colors, but it seems pretty logical to me. Also, this is a fairly teensy little ribbon, and three needles seems like more than enough to me….

couching the first bead on
To couch, bring the couching needle topside next to the space between the first and second bead. Pass the needle over the bead thread. Since I'm going to couch the brown beads next, I've picked up a few threads from the middle of the ribbon.

If you’re not running multiple lines of beads, you’d just pass your needle down and return it topside at the next bead space. Since I’m working multiple strands of beads with one couching thread (read: lazy), I’m picking up that little stitch in the middle of the ribbon, then passing the needle over the next bead thread before going back down to the wrong side of the ribbon. I ended up working from right to left for the first pass, then left to right for the second, etc, instead of always going one direction. It seemed easier.

several beads couched
Lather, rinse, repeat... I've decided to make it a bit more festive by crossing the threads to make a twist, which was the easiest thing I could come up with. I like easy...

To put down my little bezant, I’m using one of my favorite tricks. I start by positioning my couching thread so it comes to the right side of the work in the center of where I want the bezant. (That’s why it’s coming up from the center of the ribbon in that last picture.)

bezant and bead on thread
My thread goes through the hole at the center of my little bezant, and through a small green bead.
bezant secured by bead
Now the thread goes back through the center of the bezant and passes back down to the wrong side of the ribbon. The bead holds the bezant in place.

Here’s a funny one for you – I don’t really bead a lot, and it turns out that I only have two beading needles to my name. True story. So I had to unthread my couching needle every time I needed to get it through a bead. Stupid hard-headed stubbornness like this has gotten me veeeeerrrrry good at threading needles… *laugh*

closeup of stitch pattern for couching
In case the words above weren't clear as mud, here's a closeup of the couching stitch pattern...

Also, I’m using some sort of crazy thread made of many many little filamentous strands. It’s super-strong, doesn’t seem to tangle on itself (probably because there’s very little twist and no ply at all to it), but most importantly it’s on this little bitty spool that’s been hanging out on the corner of my sewing table since forever, so I decided to use it up. I’m pretty sure it’s completely synthetic. *shrug* I do rather like the not-knotting aspect. It could be a very thin faux-sinew. It might be surgical thread. It is a mystery; my gift to all of you wonderful readers who really, really like all the different types of thread. Any guesses? (This is not a trick question – the spool isn’t labelled in an way, shape or form.)

A few inches, finished
I've finished about half of one sleeve. That took the two hours I had available. Have I mentioned that I am the world worst beader?

I truly am.


I had to move the project off my sewing table so that I could, you know, sew. I transferred it to a padded noteboard I made year’s back – you know, the ones that hang on the wall that you can pin postcards (or, more usefull, fabric swatches) to? They were quite the thing a few years back. Anyhoo, I realized that this is the single most portable style of beadwork I’ve ever seen – your beads are pre-strung, so you don’t have a billion little containers of beads to take with. If this were hooped, I’d just need to bring the working hoop with the string beads, a spool of thread and snips and I could work anywhere. The fact that I could do this on the couch at night, without fiddling with the beads themselves, really increases the likelihood that this will not end up in the forgotten projects bin.

No, really, I have a box labelled “Finish someday”. There’s another one lavelled, “Immediate gratification – almost done, easy to finish”. Would you like to guess how many things have ever come back out of that box?

All of them! Ha!

But only because I needed to put something large in the bottom, and then everything went right back in…. I think simply knowing they’re there spurs me on to start new and interesting projects. ;)

I have to go back to work now. :(


  1. Laura
    Laura May 4, 2011

    Question – I have been looking at the beaded collars on Saxon gowns of the 16th century, and I am wondering if this same method was used there. I need to make one for my new German this year and have no flipping idea how to go about doing it, or making it even a little bit historical. My last Saxon collar was (no lie) the heavily beaded top of a mock t-neck tank top from roughly 1987. It stretched like crazy, but was SO comfy. Thoughts, oh wise one? ;)

  2. missa
    missa May 5, 2011

    *pauses to look up 16th century saxon costume*
    By “collar”, do you mean the decorative band that follows the neckline on some gowns, or do you mean the standsy-upsy-around-the-neck-covers-shoulders-too business?

  3. missa
    missa May 6, 2011

    Oh! The choker-looking thing! Got it.
    Grab any ol’ pattern with a standing mandarin-style collar. The collar is the piece you want. Change the cut so the center front is on the fold and it opens at the back. Make it with a decently stiff interlining so it will support the weight of the beadwork, etc without wrinkling. This will be less comfy, but it won’t stretch out on you. Then dec the snot out of it. ;) I’d cord the edges, just to define it, and combine applied cording, beads, and maybe some larger mounted-gem-looking-things.
    In a crunch, you could just cut it from felt, build up the raises areas of the design with hot glue, spray the whole thing gold and antique it with some acrylic, then add gems. But that would be, like, totally cheating. ;)
    I have nothing helpful in my brain about what the Right Way(tm) to make this would be. The mandarin collar pattern will get you something that fits close to the neck. The curve will go a little lower than the picture of Judith, probably, but only by a hair so it should get you where you’re going.

  4. Laura
    Laura May 6, 2011

    I wasn’t sure if the beadwork technique you had demoed (sp?) was the “correct” way that they beaded these things Back in the Day. I had an idea on stiffening it, but wasn’t sure if there was One True Way to bead the sucker. I have seen it made of Fimo (no lie!) but I kind of love your cheat method. Hee.

    If I was to be All Historically Accurate and stuff, would I bead it the way you did the other one?

    • missa
      missa May 6, 2011

      I don’t know. The only research I’ve read on the use of this type of bead couching technique dates it to the eleventh century. I don’t know how far forward it goes.
      My gut tells me that beading isn’t generally one of those areas where there’s a huge amount of rapid evolution of methodology and technique, so regional methods probably hang on for a good long time. I mean, beads change in shape, material, etc, as style dictates, but they’re still basically a thing with a hole in the middle. You don’t see anyone going crazy developing beads with two intersecting holes to create beads that are twice as likely to get onto the darned needle, or sudden trends of double sewing and knotting off every bead to make the work more secure. But a gut feeling is a far cry from actual information… :( Sorry.

      • missa
        missa May 6, 2011

        Check out the information at – that’s where all my understanding of the technique is coming from. It’s a really good fill technique, I think, and I’m not showing that off well with my little ribbon here. :( It does make it easy to manipulate several strands of bead at once. From the author’s text, it looks like it was common to bead the whole surface of a design drawn onto animal parchment, then remove the beads from areas meant for bezants and such by snipping the carrier threads and removing individual beads – that makes it a pretty flexible technique, especially if the labor is divided (ie, one craftsperson handles beads but a separate craftsperson handles the other embellishments). *shrug*

  5. Laura
    Laura May 6, 2011

    Hey thanks! That is a great site.

  6. missa
    missa May 8, 2011

    So, I’ve re-read the description given for the couching technique about 32 times over the last 48 hours (obsess, much? Not I…), and the only thing I’m still really not sure about is the ratio of couching threads to stringing threads – there’s no clear indication of whether it’s one-to-many (as I did) or if it’s strictly one-to-one.
    Is it odd that something like this really gets me down? *laugh*

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