Quantum Leaps #4-5: The Dawn of Bead Netting* Techniques and The Discovery of Countouring
Time: Ca. 2500 – ca. 2200 BCE
By ca. 2500 BCE the Egyptians had apparently figured out how to use simple bead netting techniques. Threads were still present but they played a structural rather than visual role, existing solely to support the beads. It’s possible that similar developments were underway in other parts of the world at about the same time if not earlier. The dawn of bead netting techniques can be thought of as Quantum Leap #4.
I said “apparently” because the examples of bead netting shown in the image above were not found intact; they were reconstructed in the 20th century.
Millicent Jick (1928-2010), then a volunteer gallery instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, undertook one of the better-known reconstructions, starting with 7000 loose faience beads found in 1927 in the tomb of a female contemporary of King Khufu or Cheops (reigned 2551-2528), the second pharaoh of Dynasty 4 (2613-2494). Khufu's great pyramid still stands at Giza. The threads that had once connected the beads disintegrated long ago, but some of the beads remained in their original pattern, allowing archaeologists to guess that they had once formed a netted dress of the sort worn by women depicted in numerous Dynasty 4 tomb paintings.
So diaphanous were these bead net dresses that scholars assume they were worn over, or even stitched to plain linen undergarments. (However, there may have been certain exceptions. An amusing ancient legend from the Papyrus Westcar tells of a boating party arranged by King Khufu. As the royal boat floated on the water, the King supposedly gave a bead-net dress to every young lady in attendance, with the request that the dresses be donned on the spot. "Never mind the undergarments!" he is said to have said - or words to that effect.)
After studying bead net dresses painted on the walls of Dynasty 4 tombs and on Dynasty 4 figurines, Jick made calculations that enabled her to estimate how wide and how long the dress must have been at various points. She also settled upon two bead netting techniques: ladder stitch and an open diamond net. When the reconstruction was finished months later, not one bead was left over. I learned this recently from Rose Zoltek-Jick, a member of Millicent's family.
(I don’t know the details of Millicent Jicks’ reconstruction. I would guess that she formed the open diamond net by working vertically in columns, but she could also have worked in horizontal rows. I would also guess that Jick formed connections through beads, as we do in both ladder stitch and peyote stitch - but she could have used brick stitch, in which connections are formed as threads loop around one another while inside of beads. Incidentally, peyote stitch can be thought of as the closed-net counterpart of an open diamond net. It’s a question of how many beads are added per stitch. Add one bead per stitch and you get peyote stitch. Add two or more and you get an open diamond stitch.)
Using beads from the same tomb, Jick also reconstructed a broad collar, apparently by linking concentric lengths of ladder stitch - or did she used peyote stitch? In either case, we assume she achieved the contouring present in the original collar, which fits elegantly around the nape of the neck. Contouring entails increasing and decreasing the number of beads per row or per column.
I see the discovery of 2-dimensional contouring as it applies to bead netting techniques Quantum Leap #5.
While the broad collar makes use of 2-dimensional contouring, the lower part of the dress appears to makes use of 3-dimensional contouring. This last point is debatable, however - is it known for certain whether bead-net dresses were actually cylindrical, which would make them 3-dimensional, or tied in the back, which would make them more or less 2-dimensional? Nor do we know how the bead-net dress in the image above was styled for the photo shoot that produced the image we see. Was the skirt made to look more contoured than it would have been in real life, ca. 2500 BE?
Our list of early 2-dimensional bead netting techniques expands in Dynasty 6 (ca. 2323-2150 BCE), when a spectacular belt was interred with Prince Ptahshepses in his tomb at Saqqara. Consisting of a long, narrow bead net panel affixed to a band of pure gold, the belt was finished with an enameled gold buckle. The belt is preserved at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
No reconstruction was needed in this case because the beads were strung on fine gold wires, which are impervious to the ravages of time, in a technique whose surface-level appearance resembles both brick stitch and peyote stitch.
Without cutting into the panel to study the thread path we cannot know for sure, but for several reasons I believe peyote stitch to be the more likely candidate. In fact, as we'll see in Quantum Leap #5, peyote stitch eventually became commonplace in ancient Egypt. (No doubt the ancient Egyptians knew peyote stitch by a very different name – assuming that they gave it a name of its own.)
In subsequent centuries, the three techniques discussed in this post – ladder stitch, open diamond stitch and peyote stitch – would be used in many other parts of the world, probably because they are easily learned and highly versatile.
Did these techniques diffuse from a single ancient Egyptian source? Or were they invented independently in other locales? I’d be inclined to suggest that both diffusion and independent invention were involved in helping these techniques achieve their near-global reach in 2015. They were the first techniques I learned as a young beader, aged 10 or 11. Although I'm not using them in my current work, other beaders are, with impressive results.
*For the purposes of this post, I am using "netting" in way consistent with popular, ie. non-academic American beadworking culture, to connote freestanding structures formed of beads united by one or more threads in a variety of techniques, without the use of either a loom or a ground fabric.
(The text above is copyright Valerie Hector 2015. All rights reserved.)