My current obsession: beading

The Métis are often called ‘The Flower Beadwork People’ for their stunning floral designs worked out in beads or embroidery.  Intricate decorations on clothing or tools had been long practiced by native peoples using a variety of materials such as dyed porcupine quills, shells, moose hair tufts and so on.  Beads were a huge hit, no doubt because of their bright colours and shine but also because they did not take nearly as much effort to make as other more traditional materials!

What I have been told is that Métis women began using the floral patterns for which they are now famous because they were introduced to these patterns by nuns who taught embroidery, and also that the inspiration came from the various floral patterns on European cloth.  Beaded pieces done by various native women can be found amazingly well preserved in various museums and in family collections, and it is striking how quickly the floral patterns caught on in many nations.  It used to be, again from what I have been told, that you could identify a person’s family and sometimes even the bead worker herself by the patterns or particular flowers used.

Our men used to be called Peacocks of the Praires for their brightly decorated clothes.  Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters would spend countless hours during the winter months decorating jackets, gloves, moccasins, parfleches, tobacco pouches and pretty much anything else that could be beaded. For those with a trained eye, the Métis beading style is very distinctive and reflects the teachings associated with our beading which in turn reflects a Métis worldview.  Beading is not just about how to attach the beads to cloth, or what techniques you use, but is also about those teachings which guide and explain our interactions with the natural world and with one another.  If you have a chance to learn these teachings from a Métis bead worker, I hope you take the opportunity and understand the value of the knowledge being passed to you.

I am amazed by the skill involved in producing beadwork, regardless of which nation’s tradition is being represented.  I love the feel of the raised beads on a pair of moccasins or a rosette and the sheer volume of work that goes into a single person’s powwow regalia.  I have long wanted to try my hand at beading.  I began a while back with loom beading.

Loom beading is fun, but it is of limited use.  What I really wanted to do was learn how to bead off-loom.  Along the way I’ve had to learn about the different sizes of beads (11/0 being pretty standard), how they are cut (rounded on the ends, or flat), where the best beads are produced (Japan or the Czech Republic), and what kind of thread to use that won’t break or rot but will be strong enough to make a piece last (a bead worker has literally just now suggested Nymo size D thread).

Here is my first piece:

This took me five hours.  It’s about as big as my fist.  It is lop-sided and not properly proportioned, but over all I am happy with it as a first go.  What I really love about doing work like this is that while your hands are busy, you can’t exactly zone out watching television (or being on the internet), so I listened to powwow music and some radio while I did it, and chatted with my girls.  It is a wonderful social activity, and I find it very relaxing.

Of course, what I’m aiming for is more like this:

This perfect piece was done by Lisa Shepherd, and definitely puts mine to shame!  This is the kind of intricate and precise detail our Métis women are known for.  I urge you to check Lisa’s site out to see how she puts this skill to use.

I want to do a few more trial runs before I begin designing the patterns I will use for my daughters’ regalia.  They have been hounding me for a long time to get started on their powwow outfits and I agree it’s time I get to it!  This is a skill I want to develop so that I can pass it on to my daughters, and to me is a visual symbol of our culture and its teachings that should never be lost.  Beyond that, it is intensely satisfying!


This is another ‘trial run’ I’m working on.  It’s on framed canvas and is a present for my daughters for their new room.  This bit is one very small corner of the canvas so far.

Share this: Google+ Reddit Print

Categories: Metis beadwork, Pow wow

10 Responses to My current obsession: beading

  1. Lindsay Jolivet says:


    Is there an email contact I could reach you at? I had a question about the small Cree language-learning group you were thinking of starting in an earlier post. You can reach me at the email included.


  2. Lisa says:


    I love your new obsession!!! Beading. It is my great joy. I thought you’d want to know that I’ll be teaching a workshop this winter. Take a look in the Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Parks & Leisure WINTER guide. I hope to meet you in the class.

    Kind regards,
    Lisa Shepherd,
    Metis Artisan

  3. Pam says:

    Just found this on the internet and LOVE this post (even though it’s a few years old). When I was young, my Grandmother told us we were some how related to Louis Riel. I remembered seeing her little bottles of beads and her dancing jigs during get togethers. After she passed, we researched the family tree and found out we have two Cree Grandmothers on my Father’s side. They lived in the Red River area in Manitoba. Now I regret not learning more from my Grandmother about her history and what she knew. I am now obsessed with learning to bead in a traditional way that would honour my ancestors. It’s a tradition that should have been passed on to all of us. Unfortunately, we grew up in an era where this part of our heritage was kept quiet. What crap! It’s time to reclaim and be proud of it.

    I have been told to check the local Friendship Centers for beading classes, but so far – no luck. I have purchased a loom to begin with and have started looking up tutorials on the internet. I will be sure to check out Lisa Shepherd’s work.

    Proud to be Metis!


    “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” – Louis Riel

  4. astrid O. says:

    cool….does anyone recommend specific sources so I can learn how to do beadwork?

  5. Sheila Dolle says:

    Hi, I volunteer for the National Park Service, Hudson Bay Site at Fort Vancouver, state of Washington. I am in the costume department of this site. The site has many re-enactments from the time period 1840 to 1945. The metis dress is a large part of our department, but so little seems to be known about it. I am excited to purchase the book on beadwork. I cannot find anything to show me pictures of the jewelry that was worn by the Metis at Fort Vancouver during the time period they were at the Fort. I would love any suggestions or direction you could give me for the above mentioned time periods at the Fort Vancouver Site. Thank you, Sheila

  6. Barb Rees says:

    I just found your article today when writing a Toastmaster speech on beading because I took a beading workshop with Lisa Shepherd who is a wealth of knowledge and stories. I’ve only been at this a few days and already it’s become my new obsession. It is teaching me many life lessons and as you said it makes me sit quiet, stops me from rushing around. I’d be curious to see where you are with your beading now. Hiy hiy/thank you for sharing. Barb

  7. MarkAB says:

    Six years out from the OP … Your beadwork doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’. True, symmetry and regular patterning may be more appealing to the eye; but it is the ‘imperfections’ that make your beadwork uniquely yours, and thus more appealing to the spirit. I would rather have an imperfectly-beaded bracer made by a child and given in love, than a perfectly-beaded vest made by a machine and bought at a store.

  8. sophie says:

    what is the name of this piece of beadwork?
    do recomend any beading books?

Leave a Reply