Always Learning – Tackling Tambour Beadwork

In the 1800s, women learned needle arts from their mothers and grandmothers and from each other. They also read the ladies magazines like, Godey’s Lady’s Magazine/Book and Peterson’s Magazine. These were published monthly and generally bound in annual volumes at the end of the year.

Today, we can read books and magazines and easily attend classes and learn from experts.

Lacis, in Berkeley, California is an amazing resource for vintage and antique fiber arts information, clothing, books, tools, and materials. They have a small museum for exhibiting collections. The current show is undergarments from the 1800s – 1920s. They also attract incredible experts and offer classes in fiber arts techniques.

I attended their class last week on Tambour Beadwork taught by a delightful person, Robert Haven.  Robert’s passion and talents are evident in his ability to explain the beauty in tambour, teach the technique, and generate enthusiasm for the embroidery.

Vintage Tambour Bead and Sequin Applique

Tambour has been used for creating decorative beadwork and embroidery since the 1800s. It was also used for creating fine lace on net. The origins of tambour are not well known but there are documented examples of early tambour work from China, India, Persia, and Turkey. It has been honed to a fine art in France for the fashion industry and is taught at the Ecole Lesage in Paris.

Tambour work is done on fabric – generally silk charmeuse – stretched tightly over a frame. The embroidery or beadwork is done with a tiny hooked needle that pulls thread up thru the fabric and produces a chain stitch. The technique can be used to embroider or attach beads, sequins, and anything that can be strung. The challenge is that the beads and sequins are attached to the underside of the fabric on a frame and you work on the top. This means learning to feel the work underneath and looking at the stitches on the top.


Vintage Tambour bead applique back - showing chain stitch

I did not find this technique to be easy and a lot of the other students struggled, too. But once you master this technique, it is a very fast way to apply beadwork and sequins as well as chain stitch embroidery. Robert Haven made it look so very easy! And I would recommend taking a class from him or attending any lectures he gives.

Tambour Class Student - needle on top of fabric and sequins being applied underneath fabric


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You know what a sampler is, right?  It’s a piece of fabric with some pictures and maybe words made out of colored thread.

Spanish Beadwork Sampler 1842

Yes, and a sampler is much more than that.

It was part of a young girl’s education – her portfolio of household skills that would help her catch a husband. A young girl’s first sampler was usually done at home by the age of six. Girls from affluent families would go on to fine embroideries of silk, wool, and beads – ornamental work such as bible covers, samplers, and pictorial needlework. Some attended small community schools, called “dame schools” for the women–usually widows or spinsters–who ran them.  Others were sent to Convents that educated girls and taught them needle arts. In addition to sewing various stitches, they learned numbers and the alphabet as well as symbolism, particularly religious.

Samplers and other needlework were proudly displayed in the family’s home as proof to eligible bachelors and their mothers that a young girl showed evidence of wealth, social standing, appreciation for the arts, and skill in domestic arts. This was a socially acceptable way to flaunt a young girl’s skills and gave her mother bragging rights to extol her daughter’s skills and marriagiability. Bead samplers particularly illustrated wealth and skill as beads were very expensive compared to thread.

French Beadwork Sampler Lion c 1825

Different cultures had different ideas of what a sampler should be. French, Spanish and Portugese girls focused on nature and scenery and signed their samplers.

Portugese Beadwork Sampler 1839

Most samplers were needlepoint or cross stitch on fabric and some were stitched onto punched paper.

English Sampler on Punched Paper c 1850

To hone additional skills,   samplers were also knitted  or done on a loom.

Knitted Beadwork Sampler c 1860


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Raiding the Graveyard

These antique bead and wire wreaths are sold incorrectly, and maybe ironically, as wedding wreaths or christening wreaths.  Ironically and maybe, humorously, because they are memorial wreaths and were used to decorate coffins and gravestones. The bead and wire sculptures were popular from 1860 thru the early 1900s and came in a variety of shapes – wreaths, crosses, ovals, lozenges, clovers, and more.

French and English Memorial Wreaths c 1870 and 1850

The French, English, and to a lesser extent, Germans and Eastern Europeans, have placed permanent memorial wreaths on graves. The French wreaths are pretty – generally purple and white creations with flowers and cherubic ceramic angles. The English and German ones are black with flowers.

I had decorated a guest bedroom wall with a selection of these antique bead and wire sculptures. A French friend walked into the room and gasped audibly, “Why do you have those on your wall?” Later, on a visit to her family in France, she took one of her sons to a graveyard in France to show him the wreaths as they were used. The wreaths were all gone! They were victims of a collectable frenzy and can be found on eBay or at flea markets

As part of French history and culture, the wreaths featured in a classic 1950s movie, “Forbidden Games” (Jeux Interdits). This movie tells a heartwarming and sad story of children in France during WWII. To deal with the war, the children found dead animals and created their own graveyard for the animals. Then they robbed local cemeteries of these wire wreaths for their animal graveyard. They eventually got in trouble with the Catholic Church for doing so.

The French cultural influences can be seen around the world. I was delighted to come across a modern version of these wreaths in a shop doorway in Hue, Vietnam. These are used today in Vietnamese funerals but are made of colored plastic straws cut into short pieces and strung on wire like beads.

Vietnamese Memorial Wreath c 2000

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Drag Me Into History

I wanted to be a smarter collector and began researching various topics – native cultures, the history of knitting, the history of textiles, ceramics, Victorian diets, life in Africa, and just plain history!

Thus, I know who the Bey of Tunis was in 1800. And that the first war the United States fought after the Revolutionary war was in the waters around Tunisia – and with pirates. Not much different than today! I know  what a Prince of Wales Plume is and what sprang is.

I also learned that Syphilis – is known by different names around the world:

  • the English called the disease the French Pox,
  • the French called it the Neapolitan or Italian disease,
  • the Italians and the Dutch called it the Spanish disease,
  • Portugese called it the Castilian disease,
  • Russians called it the Polish disease,
  • Polish called it the Russian disease,
  • Turks called it the Christian disease,
  • Persians called it the Turkish disease, and
  • Japanese called it either the Portugese or Chinese disease.

(for more information on diseases and some really disgusting pictures, go to Hartford)

How did I get into this?  I wanted to learn about death in the 1800s and why the fascination with it in woman’s art?


Beadwork Memorial for Tiley Keen 1856

Plagues came and went – taking many lives with them. Women died in childbirth – not necessarily from the birth process but many died from dirty medical practices that resulted in secondary infections.  Men went off to fight wars and died. Babies died from a myriad of childhood diseases. And the women were left to remember those who had died.

It was popular to memorialize lost loved ones in pictures. This tribute to Tiley Keen was likely created by her mother. The inscription on the gravestone reads, “To the memory of Tiley Keen who died June 25, 1856 aged 1 year & 11 months. They said she was a lovely Child, or did they say in vain. God saw our idol would be spoiled And took her home again.”

This is a fairly typical memorial style – with the tombstones and palm trees and mountains in the background. An unusual feature is two additional tombstones at the bottom with initials and dates of death – likely other relatives.

The Victorians were heavily into symbolism. The gravestone itself means mortality. The palm trees symbolize eternal peace and are a symbol of Christ’s victory over death, generally associated with Easter. The tree trunks of the palms are leaning – meaning mourning for a short interrupted life, There are several flowers at the bottom of the picture – the most notable being the lily of the valley which means purity or rebirth. The sun shining in the sky symbolizes everlasting life.

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Recognizing Women’s Art

Art created by women historically has not been recognized as art – because the artists were women.

Women’s art that is ignored includes the home and needle arts – sewing, knitting, and beadwork. From the 1700s on, beadwork was an integral part of a young girl’s education in needle arts. Beadwork was created as needlepoint, embroidery, knitting, crochet, netting, and loom weaving. The resulting work adorned everything from slippers to samplers to cigar cutters in the nineteenth-century home from Victorian England across the European continent to Tsarist Russia, and reaching across the ocean to both North and South America. The heyday of beadwork was between 1820 and 1880.

Beadwork and Needlework Portrait of Victorian Lady c 1875

Beadwork items were cherished and displayed with pride. Pretty beadwork tools and supplies were used everyday – pincushions, workbaskets to hold scissors, needle cases, and thimble holders. Knitting required special tools like the two cuffs for holding a ball or capping the ends of the double pointed needles used then. A lady’s desk might contain beaded items such as a cylindrical paper holder, blotter, a pen wiper, a stamp holder, a whetstone for sharpening the knife for quill pens, and a paperweight. There might be small notebooks or folios covered with beadwork panels. Beadwork spectacle cases would hold reading glasses. Gifts were made with beadwork decoration.

Cigar Box Humidor with Beadwork Panel c 1860

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