Whimsies and Obscurities

Beaded purse. Maker unknown. Glass beads, velvet, silk ribbon, and cotton. Iroquois, probably Tuscarora or Mohawk. New York. Circa 1850. Photograph courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Photograph by Thomas Neill.

I’ve always had a fondness for the obscure and the unusual, especially when it comes to needlework. I also have a penchant for gaudy Victorian handicrafts, so I was delighted when I recently stumbled across the Burke Museum’s online collection of raised beadwork bags and pincushions made by the Eastern Woodland Indians. These pieces, ranging from little drawstring purses to cushions shaped like hearts and high-heeled boots, are eye candy like nothing I have ever seen. Worked in a dizzying array of electric colors and lush floral patterns, the style doesn’t look particularly Native American—but sure enough, these works of art are part of a rich cultural heritage.

In the mid-1800s, affluent Victorian women visiting Niagara Falls would purchase these elaborate little souvenirs from women of the local Iroquois tribes, who earned their livelihoods with their beadwork. All sorts of “whimsies” were sold—bird figurines, picture frames, watch pockets, hanging baskets, even match holders—and many were functional as well as beautiful. These handcrafts perfectly blended the bold, abstract forms of Native American art with Victorian excess and European aesthetics, and vacationing women of the 19th and early 20th centuries clamored for them. 

C.E. Hobert's prison photograph. Photograph courtesy of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, Yuma, Arizona.

Of course, it was no surprise to find that PieceWork covered Iroquois beadwork in great detail in its March/April 2002 issue. There are even detailed instructions for making your own Native American-style beaded bag with a colorful floral motif—a perfect project to settle into after a long and dreary winter season!

The wedding dress made from a parachute by Wilhelmina van Niekerk shares the limelight with vintage airplanes at Calgary’s Aerospace Museum. Photograph by David Bly.

If you’re a lover of little-known needlework traditions, then PieceWork’s 2002-2003 CD collection is sure to whet your appetite. These issues are filled with fascinating stories: In the Yuma Territorial Prison, lifer C.E. Hobert spent his free time knitting delicate lace, including two collars, a chemise, and a piano scarf; a bride in WWII Holland was faced with terrible fabric shortages that made a wedding dress an impossible luxury, so she got her hands on a silk parachute instead; soldiers during WWI created pincushions embellished with beads, embroidery, and decoupage to send to their sweethearts who were waiting back home.

You can enjoy these stories and more with twelve issues of PieceWork from 2002-2003 at your fingertips, all on one CD. There’s so much to discover!