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
|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|
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|
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:
- 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.
- Print out the pattern, and cut out the triangular strips.
- Using a toothpick or bamboo skewer, tightly coil the large end of the strip around the stick, pinching it with your fingers.
- 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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.|
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:
- Roll lengths of desired colors (over protective wax paper)
- Twist them together into one long coil. It doesn't need to be perfect.
- Cut off small, even pieces of your twisted roll, and roll into a ball between the palm of your hands.
- 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!
- Make the base of your bead by rolling a piece of clay between your palms.
- 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)
- Stack thin pieces of clay together and merge them together using the rolling pin.
- Roll this multicolored piece of clay into a "cane". Trim off the edges.*
- Using a pairing knife, cut thin slices of the cane which gives you a multicolored swirl pattern.
- Add these thin swirl pieces all over your base bead.
- 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.