It's 2014, and our family is embarking on our virtual travel to West Africa. To explore these countries and their culture, we will follow along with the festivals, cook and eat traditional foods, learn of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

How to Make Beads Inspired by Krobo Beads {Beads in West African Culture}


Beads are an important part of the culture throughout Africa. Worn by men and women, in West Africa beads are used for adornment, indicate status and wealth, and are often considered to be imbued with magical powers. Whether for style, symbolism or magical properties, beads adorn hair, neck, arms, legs, waist, wrists, ankles, and are worn as sashes and as headdresses. They are commonly used in West Africa as waist beads: worn around the waist to promote the health of a child, and on young women are considered attractive and a means of promoting fertility. Sometimes beads are used to monitor a child's health and growth rate: if the string of beads loosens, this tells the mother that her child is not well.


Girl from the ethnic group "Fulani" in Benin
Photo Credit: Dietmar Temps
Beads are often passed down through the generations, and can even be found in royal treasuries.Chiefs and Queen mothers wear their best beads during functions, and loan them out to family members during festivals.  During the Dipo initiation rites, girls are covered in family beads as a demonstration of the family's wealth. They can also indicate status: in Benin, certain beaded bracelets are worn to indicate that a woman is married.


Chiefs of Ghana - note the beads around their wrists, necks and heads
Photo Credit: Sweggs

Beads are often considered magical, and play a part in animist practices. They can be found as part of charms, fetishes, many ritual objects, and at shrines as offerings to appease gods. The Yoruba place beads on the wrists of infants to protect them from vengeful spirits, and some tribes have special beads worn during pregnancy for the protection of the child.

Beads are made of glass, stones, wood, bone and iron. Some more unusual materials include hippo teeth (to simulate ivory), python vertebrae and even the shells of ostrich eggs.

Photo Credit: Go2net Vaughn
Beads also have a dark history in Africa: known as trade beads (or slave beads), from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Europeans used beads as currency to trade for gold, textiles, palm oil, alcohol and even slaves. Predominantly made in Venice, just from the mid 1800s to the early 1900's, millions of these beads were produced and traded. 

The Krobos in Ghana are especially known for their traditional bead production (these beads are an important feature in the Dipo coming of age rites). Following steps that have been used for centuries, glass scraps are collected (from bottles, etc), pounded into powdered glass, and poured in handmade clay molds. Sometimes color is added (sometimes they are painted afterwards), then the beads are fired in a kiln. You can read about how these beads are made with a photographic account here.


Photos Credited to John Tolva & One Village Initiative 
After learning about the importance and role of beads during the Krobo initiation rites for girls (the Dipo ceremony), Elle and I spent days making our own beads. We started off making paper beads, then delved into making polymer clay beads, both of which were a lot of fun. To skip ahead to the polymer beads, click here


You can read more about the Krobo coming of age initiation rites for girls in our earlier post here.

Paper Bead Tutorial & Printable Pattern


I'm rather surprised I had never made paper beads before - they are simple and fun, with lots of different options, depending on the size of your pattern and the type of paper you use. Elle got so caught up in making these beads, she even made a bracelet for six of her friends. At it's most basic, all you need is:
  • paper
  • scissors
  • glue
  • a toothpick or bamboo skewer
  • printable pattern (below) or ruler and pencil to make your own
If you want to turn your beads into jewelry, you'll need thread or jewelry elastic thread, which is great for bracelets or necklaces that are a little too small to fit over your head. 


The easiest way to start is to print one of the templates onto copy paper or cardstock. Elle loved using colorful cardstock for the beads she used for bracelets for her and her friends. 
  1. Print out the pattern, and cut out the triangular strips.
  2. Using a toothpick or bamboo skewer, tightly coil the large end of the strip around the stick, pinching it with your fingers.
  3. Dab a length of glue, and start rolling the strip around itself, keeping it tight. Add glue as you work you way down the strip, until the very end tip. Hold it for a moment for the glue to set.
That's it for a paper bead! Here are some tips when rolling:
  • The tighter you roll, the nicer and sturdier your bead will be.
  • For a symmetrical bead (as pictured), keep the strip centered as you roll - you may need a little practice with this.
  • You don't actually need to add glue along the length as you roll - many people just add glue at the end tip, but we found it easier, though messier, to use more glue (with a glue stick). When we didn't use glue, the bead would often unravel before we got to the end, or slip off to the side, making it asymetrical. With practice, we might need less glue :)
  • You can apply a varnish to the finished bead which gives it a glossier look and protects the paper - you can use clear nail polish or mod podge for that. Make sure to let the beads dry on the toothpick.
The type of paper you use will make a difference to the bead you will end up with:


These beads show how different paper and/or pattern creates different sized beads. The two bead to the left are made with cardstock, and the two beads to the right are made with copy paper. Using the same templates, you can see how the end results are different.
Here are the two printable patterns you can use, that will give you similar results to the beads pictured above:



You can also make your own template:


  1. To make your own pattern, take a piece of paper of desired height - remember the length of the triangle strip determines how thick your bead will be. 
  2. Mark off the base in equal widths - the above picture shows a magazine page being marked off at 1 cm intervals. Turn the page over, and mark off the same widths on the other end of your paper.
  3. With a ruler, start by tracing from your first marked spot at the bottom to the top corner of the page. From the same bottom spot, make a line to the first top marking. Continue connecting the dots in triangular patterns. 


Making your own pattern is simple but time consuming. It does open up more possibilities: 
  • The base of your triangle will be the width of your bead - the wider the base, the wider the bead. 
  • The longer the triangle, the fatter the bead.
  • You can make a long slender bead with a wide base and a short triangle.
  • You can make a round (ish) thick bead with a small base and a long triangle.
  • By making your own pattern, you open yourself up to various papers - magazines, scrapbook paper, junk mail, boxes (cereal, etc)
Using different materials creates different sized beads - we used a cereal box to make large round beads, using the same 1.5cm base:

The boxboard is so sturdy, we didn't need to use a toothpick, we just folded it over itself. 
If you want to create a specific colorful pattern, you can color the edges of your paper strips. This does take longer though!



You only need to add color to the edge of the strip, since that is all you'll see. Be sure to color over a scrap piece of paper so you don't get marker on a good surface. Using permanent markers is best if you want long lasting beads or if you will varnish them. You also want to use the same color for the last inch or so of the strip. 

There is also the option of decorating your bead once it is complete. We didn't do this, but you can see an example of this here.

After making many a paper bead, we decided to try polymer clay beads. Polymer clay is modeling clay that hardens at low temperatures in the oven. Brands include Fimo & Sculpey.

Polymer Clay Bead Tutorials


To make polymer clay beads, you will need:
  • polymer clay, in various colors
  • wax paper to protect your surfaces
  • a bamboo skewer
  • a pairing knife
  • a rolling pin for cane beads
  • an oven to bake them in
  • a shallow dish
  • thread or jewelry elastic thread to turn those beads into jewelry
At its most basic, you start by warming up the clay with your fingers, basically by smooshing it for a few minutes. Roll it into a ball between your palms, poke a hole in it and bake according to package directions. 


To make two and three tone clay beads:
  1. Roll lengths of desired colors (over protective wax paper)
  2. Twist them together into one long coil. It doesn't need to be perfect. 
  3. Cut off small, even pieces of your twisted roll, and roll into a ball between the palm of your hands. 
  4. Skewer (see below)


Don't make the beads too large - we made that mistake with the beads below, and they became cumbersome and too heavy to wear. Approximately 1/2 inch diameter worked best for us.


Elle had the most fun making cane beads. The key is to make a "cane" of colors that gets sliced and attached to your base bead. As noted above, try not to make these too large!
  1. Make the base of your bead by rolling a piece of clay between your palms.
  2. Warm up a few pieces of different colored polymer clay, and using a rolling pin, flatten them rather thinly (but not so you can't take it off the wax paper)
  3. Stack thin pieces of clay together and merge them together using the rolling pin.
  4. Roll this multicolored piece of clay into a "cane". Trim off the edges.*
  5. Using a pairing knife, cut thin slices of the cane which gives you a multicolored swirl pattern. 
  6. Add these thin swirl pieces all over your base bead.
  7. Roll between your palms - this will smooth out that pattern over your bead.
*I didn't take a picture, but I rolled that end piece of the cane into a ball, and it came out gorgeous! It looked marbled. You could make great beads just by cutting off pieces of the cane and rolling those into beads.

Skewer and bake:


  • Don't just push the skewer into the clay bead or it could become misshapen - screw the skewer into the bead for better results.
  • To bake, place several of the same size (they will harden at same rate) along a skewer and balance these over the edges of a dish. By not placing the beads directly on a pan, the bottoms don't flatten or burn - the beads will harden evenly. I've also seen some with one bead per toothpick, and the toothpicks speared into a ball of aluminium foil to hold them up to bake.
  • Our smaller beads took approximately 45min to harden at oven temperatures of 230F. The larger ones took 2 hours. Read the clay package instructions to be sure. The balls should feel perfectly hard once they are done. 
And that was our foray into bead making - having done the work and made the beads herself, Elle is more attached to them than something she could have bought. It has also been a fun way to create a connection with the importance of beads in West Africa, especially to the Krobo who make them. 

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:

13 comments:

  1. ooooooo.... I like the polymer clay beads. My daughter has been creating beads using newspaper for a few years. She keeps them in plastic bags sorted by color. I wonder what she will end up doing with them. Great tutorial.

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    1. Thanks Julie :) making paper beads can be a nice, relaxing, repetitive task - a bit meditative. Fun that your daughter has so many she can sort them out by color!

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  2. I Love This!!! Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You're so welcome! Thanks for stopping by :)

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  3. Marie, this is such a fabulous post, so full of artistic goodness! I've never really got on with Sculpey, but you've inspired me to give it another go!

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    1. Thank you Claire :) Elle loves playing with polymer clay - our problem is we often burn it when baking!

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  4. Oh wow those all turned out so cool looking. Now I kinda want to have a try at my own beads.

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    1. You should! I was surprised at how much I enjoyed making them :)

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  5. Your results are STUNNING and I love how you used African jewelry for inspiration. Thanks for sharing at the After School Linky Party!

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    1. Thank you! It was a fun craft we'll be doing more of :)

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  6. What beautiful beads, and they look strikingly like the authentic African ones.

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    1. They do, don't they? My favorite are the cereal box beads.

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  7. Awesome Collection!
    I saw your all post but it is very interesting that you added many types of information in your site.It will be helpful post for us.
    thanks a lot for sharing this article.


    African Glass Beads"

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