Conserving African Beadwork

Tuesday, September 2, 2014



Sophie in the conservation lab

You may not know that our (soon to be departed!) Museum Assistant Sophie also studies Conservation at University College London. When an accident occurred in the gallery which led to one of our beaded African necklaces becoming broken, Sophie offered to take it on as one of her university projects. Here she explains how she repaired the necklace to its former glory.

“Accidents happen, and the silver lining of this one was that it provided me with the opportunity to carry out some really interesting research and treatment of very beautiful and intricate obj


ect. I’ve always been very interested in beadwork and so working here at the museum I have been particularly enamoured with the collection of necklaces, belts, beaded staffs and myriad of other objects so beautifully decorated with colourful and uniquely patterned beads. For me, this was an opportunity to work with something truly unique and that I was passionate about. 

The bead necklace before conservation
  Glass beads, although used in Africa on a small scale, were introduced more fully by Some of the beadwork on display at the museumexplorers in 1450 and saw a huge boom of use during European trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a period known as the “bead rush”. Beadwork is seen as a visually significant part of African culture and is often used to demonstrate social status, tribal associations and is a common form of personal adornment. This particular example is not attributed to any particular group and is likely created for a European market, but a classic African Helix beadwork technique is used, with similar stylistic examples in the collection from Zulu and Ndebele groups. As such, it represents African art and bead-working techniques in the 20th century and its adaption for outside markets and is a beautifully colourful example.

Some of the beadwork currently on display in the museum
When I got the necklace back to the conservation lab at UCL, it was my first chance to take a good up close look. It was clear the necklace was made up from tiny little glass “seed beads” mostly in opaque yellow, white, red and translucent green, threaded onto what appeared to be a vegetable fibre string. The fibre of the necklace was clearly broken in 2 areas which had lead to lots of the small beads coming loose and falling away from the thread.

Because the necklace was a 3D tube structure, the loss of the beads in the broken areas had collapsed the tight supportive design, putting strain on the remaining threads with the weight of the necklace pulling on them. The escaped beads were also in danger of being lost, as were others still on the necklace- with loose unconnected ends, very slight movements risked nudging other beads of their threads.

I decided that restringing the now loose beads back into the structure of the necklace would stop any more beads coming away from the loose ends and would strengthen the weakened areas of the necklace. But how to do this successfully and in a way that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to the untrained eye?

Mapping out the design helped me to visualise how the repair would work and meant I could check whether or not all the beads were still with the necklace. What seemed like a relatively simple task of figuring out the pattern, was actually quite difficult! The necklace is a 3D African Helix tubular shape, a beadwork technique where the shape is formed around a circular inner tube which is then removed.  

3D African Helix tubular design of the necklace
 This leaves the beads in a tight helix whereby they support each other in a 3D shape. Because the pattern is twisting and not flat, it was a difficult task to figure out how they meshed together, however, after a little time I found that the basic pattern structure of one vertical coloured bead surrounded by four white beads sitting at an angle, followed by further beads the same angle. Make sense?- it took me a while! 
Mapping out the design of the beads
Mapping out the design of the beadsA strip of Japanese tissue which was then spun into a "thread"

Fortunately figuring out the pattern meant I could confirm that all the tiny beads, although loose were still with the necklace, so it seemed appropriate to re-introduce them back. Sometimes re-threading beads on historical objects can be ethically questionable- for example if you get the pattern wrong, you are essentially re-writing the history of the object and the meaning of the pattern (incorrectly!), but in this case I was pretty confident I could do justice to the design of the original maker.

Tissue thread in place

I wanted to be able to re-thread the beads, but fraying and loss of the loose fibre ends at the break points meant that there wasn’t enough thread material to do so. It wouldn’t be as simple as just popping the beads back on the original thread and securing it. I had to think up a way of attaching a thread to the frayed ends of the fibres and thread the beads on that. I decided to make my own thread from very thin Japanese tissue paper, a material we often use in conservation because of its strength and adaptability, which I twisted and rolled between my fingers to create a tissue thread with an untwisted flat tabbed end- perfect for attaching to the original necklace fibre!

I used a starch-based adhesive to stick this tab in place to the original necklace thread (something similar to, but a little nicer than, wallpaper paste!) and once it was dry I could re-thread the beads in the correct pattern. This was the real fun bit as I could see the necklace coming back together. 

Threading the beads onto the tissue thread and the repair once complete The necklace after conservation

Once all the beads were in place, I secured the tissue thread by knotting it, with a bit of the adhesive to stop it from coming untied and voila: the necklace secure and repaired!

The necklace after conservation
I used this technique in both areas and in a relatively short time the necklace
was ready to be packed and sent back to the museum. It was a real treat to be to be able to carry out research on the necklace, and to repair it so it can be enjoyed by many more visitors to come. A big thank you therefore goes to for Sarah Turner, the curator here at the museum, for the trust she placed in me to work on such a beautiful object.

Today is my last day, so it seems apt that it is today that the necklace has now been returned to display.  You can find it in our First Floor African galleries in the museum which is, as always, free to visit!



Sophie Louise Rowe (Museum Assistant/ Conservation Student at UCL)

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