Beaded Paisleys

Suzanne Surfass © 2002 - © 2005

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Ah, the paisley. Colorful, curved abstract figures that delight the eye in all their myriad renditions. The paisley is one of the most enduring motifs, having been in constant use, in one way or another, for more than 2000 years.

In ancient civilization, it originated as a representation of a plant form -- the date palm, the Tree of Life, so named because of its supply of both food and shelter, the two main necessities of life. It is thought that the motif itself is representative of the tightly curled palm frond just as it begins to grow, prized by the Babylonians as a symbol of fertility.

The peoples of India used the Babylonian motif in many media, from stone carving to textiles. In Kashmir, where shawls were a man's garment, the best shawls of fine (but limited-supply) pashmina were so highly regarded that they were often presented as gifts between princes. The earliest examples of the paisley motif to appear on shawls in India are known only from the miniature paintings of nobles, princes and holy men during the 1600s.

In the 18th Century, the men of the British East India Company were the first to take an interest in the shawls, which they began to include amongst the gifts they brought back to their womenfolk. When introduced into Europe, the pattern was seen as something exotic and was soon enthusiastically copied by textile manufacturers in Britain and then France.

Millions of shawls were produced, in thousands of different varieties of paisley designs, patterns and figures. The largest producer of the shawls, which were the principle garments to be decorated with the motif and which remained an essential part of a woman's wardrobe for virtually a century, was the town of Paisley, a burgh in southwest Scotland in Strathclyde (population 84,789 according to Merriam-Webster). The luxury shawl industry of Paisley spread the name and the pattern across the world.

The Paisley Museum was established in 1871, and has built up an enormous collection of shawls for display and research purposes, including the manufacturers' original pattern books, which contain large numbers of examples of the various stages in producing a design for a shawl.

Beading your own paisleys

To create the beaded paisleys pictured above, I used a product called Lacy's Stiff Stuff. Since these paisleys are being made for the Handmade Motif Swap #3 that I am hosting for CQembellishers, I wanted a flexible foundation for the recipient's ease in attaching to their respective Crazy Quilt blocks, or for any other embellishment use they should choose.

In the beginning of my card-beading phase (back in 1995), I used index cards or manila folders for the foundation. I then preferred covering index cards with Contac™ paper so that they held up better from all the needle perforations. This also had the added benefit of protecting my traced design and not rubbing off before I finished.

Other suitable materials for this method of beading could include: Pellon's #50 stabilizer, heavy non woven interfacings, crinoline (fused to a muslin backing to prevent your knots from pulling through the weave), felt ~ virtually anything that has enough body to it so that it doesn't flop around while you're trying to bead. An advantage to interfacings and felt is that they come in light and dark versions, the latter being useful for dark fabric backgrounds.

Anne Checker of Checkerbeads has experimented with some different types of materials. You can view her results at:" 

Materials List
Foundation to bead on (e.g., Lacy's Stiff Stuff, or other suitable options as mentioned).
Pencil or pen
Template (optional) for tracing paisley shapes.
Seed beads in various sizes ~ 11º, 12º, 13º and 5º, 6º and 8º make for nice "textural" variations; bugle beads, pearls, sequins, etc. (I obtained the round flat sequins from Cartwright's: ;)
Beading needle
Beading thread of your choice (Silamide or Nymo works well).
White glue (optional for Step 6)
Iron-on fusible adhesive (e.g., Heat-n-Bond)
Scrap of cotton fabric for backing to cover/protect/seal your knots and threads.

Step-by-Step Instructions
1. Trace image onto foundation material. (See Illustration 1)

2. Sew beads onto the foundation, beginning with your outside outline. I place 3 beads at a time all the way around, although the illustration shows a two-bead method. (See Illustration 2)

3. Now reinforce your outside outline by backtracking through the whole row of beads. (See Illustration 3) The continuous thread will join all the beads and make for a smoother "set" to the beads.

4. Continue filling in by rows from the outside toward the center, setting each row close to the previous one to prevent gaps. (When using sequins, small gaps will be inevitable, so don't be too fussy.)

You will need to use a "stop bead" for placing sequins or other decorative beads as pictured above. (See Illustration 4)

5. You can continue with just rows, or you may decide to fill the center (or any area) with beads. This is called, appropriately enough, filling. You can sew on several beads at a time or you may decide to lay down a string of beads and couch them into place. (See Illustration 5)

Do not pack your beads too tightly or your motif will buckle and not lay flat. Just add enough beads for the area to be adequately filled.

6. When you have finished adding the beads and/or sequins, you are ready to trim the design from the foundation material. (See Illustration 6)

As an optional step, I sometimes apply a thin layer of white glue to the back to keep my knots secure, tame any stray ends and generally secure the threads before I cut just in case I accidentally trim too close.

I usually do this for pieces that get a lot of handling, such as barrettes.

Trim as close as you can without cutting into any of your threads on the back.

Optional Steps:

7. If you want a more finished back to your beaded motif (to turn it into a pin or some other piece of wearable), I use the following method:

While the glue is drying, prepare the fabric backing and fusible adhesive. Using your template, trace the shape onto 1) the scrap piece of cotton fabric and 2) the Heat-n-Bond fusible. Trim the fusible to be slightly smaller than the fabric area. Lay the fabric right-side-up over the paper-free side of the fusible, making sure the fabric covers all the fusible. Press firmly with a medium-hot iron.

8. When the glue is dry on the beaded motif back, it is time to adhere the fabric backing to the beaded foundation.

Place your beaded motif face down on a fluffy towel. Remove the paper backing on your fused fabric shape, and place the fabric shape over the beaded piece. Press firmly with a medium-hot iron.

9. Trim as necessary using small, sharp scissors. I sometimes run a thin bead of white glue around the cut edge to seal the edges.

I like to trace template shapes on paper and play with possible bead and thread options. A peek at some of my sketches is included below.   
Illustration 1: Trace Image of paisley shaped traced on Stiff Stuff with pencil:
Illustration 2: Outline
Illustration 3: Reinforce:
Illustration 4: Stop Bead

Illustration 5: Filling and Couching


Illustration 6: The backside after trimming:


My pencil sketches of possible designs in beads and threads:

Valerie Reilly, Paisley Patterns, Portland House, New York, 1989.
Ann Benson, Beadweaving, Sterling, New York, 1993. (Illustrations 2, 3 and 5 adapted from this book)

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