Zulu Beaded Chain Techniques

Written by jenny cornish
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Zulu Beaded Chain Techniques
The Zulu nation is part of what is now known as South Africa. (South Africa image by bluefern from Fotolia.com)

The Zulu live in what is now known as South Africa; they are famous for their spectacular beadwork. Zulu people have made and worn beads for thousands of years and use a variety of techniques and traditions in the craft. They used wood, ivory and shells before the introduction of glass beads, which were traded among African nations long before European colonisation, according to the Zululand EcoAdventures website.

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Chain Varieties

Different techniques produce different patterned Zulu chains. Author and bead expert Diane Fitzgerald has written a number of books on the subject in which she describes many different patterns. These patterns include the tri-leg chain, the spearhead chain, ladder, square tube, triangle tube, zigzag chain, lace leaf chain, two-bead covered cord, slinky chain, double weave, trefoil chain, bow-tie chain, switchback chain and flowerette chain. Fitzgerald explains each technique with diagrams and instructions for each and tips on completing it.

In her book "Zulu Inspired Beadwork: Weaving Techniques and Projects" Fitzgerald describes the techniques used to make the flowerette chain. She advises you use size 11 beads of two different colours and size 6 seed beads, along with a Nymo D thread, a 1/2 button with a shank, a beading needle and wax. Thread the needle and tie the button on one end, leaving a 4-inch tail. String one size 6 bead and add five size 11 beads of one colour and three of a second colour, then pass back through the last of the first colour to form a picot. Add four more size 11 beads of the first colour and then one size 6 bead. Repeat this process until the piece is around 2 inches longer than your wrist. The technique then involves working up and down the chain, making a number of rows of picots -- up to eight or nine, according to Fitzgerald.

The Zulu people have been creating beaded chains and other ornaments for thousands of years.
The Zulu people have been creating beaded chains and other ornaments for thousands of years. (zulu village image by TEMISTOCLE LUCARELLI from Fotolia.com)

Use of Colors

The Zulu use specific colours of beads in their chains to signify various meanings and messages; they traditionally have used beads to send "love letters," according to the Zululand EcoAdventures website. Traditionally, the Zulu use no more than seven colours, and the colours have complex meanings, which can vary depending on context. Black is usually a sad colour, while blue can mean faithfulness or in some contexts, hostility. Green can mean jealousy; alternatively, it can mean domestic happiness or more simply, grass and cattle. Pink can mean poverty, while yellow can signify wealth and fertility, but sometimes can mean hate. Red means love but can also stand for anger. White symbolises good luck and also suggests purity.

Use of Patterns

The Zulu use patterns in their beaded chains based around the shape of the triangle, according to the Zululand EcoAdventures website. The position of the triangle gives the chain different meanings; for example, if the tip of the triangle is pointing downward, it represents an unmarried or unfulfilled man. Conversely, a triangle pointing the other way signifies an unmarried or unfulfilled woman. Two triangles joined together to form a diamond mean a complete or married woman, and two triangles joined by their apexes represent a complete or married man.

Zulu Beaded Chain Techniques
The triangle shape has deep significance in Zulu chains. (three triangle image by OMKAR A.V from Fotolia.com)

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