French Bead Flower Making – A Vintage Craft Is New Again

Vintage Crafts

How do People Use Bead Flowers?

Bead flowers can be used in every way you use silk or fresh flowers. The only difference is that it will be many, many years before bead flowers deteriorate. Therefore, they make ideal inserts in bridal bouquets, bridal headdresses, hair barrettes, pins, napkin rings, corsages, “potted” plants, 3D pictures and wall hangings.

A few notable people who owned and treasured examples of this fine art were Marie Antoinette, Madame Pompadour, Napoleon’s Josephine, Princess Grace, Princess Caroline, Patricia Nixon and William Randolph Hearst.

Bead flowers can be made out of many kinds and styles of beads, and beads can have a wide variety of finishes. The most common type of bead used is a seed bead, gauge 10 or 11, and used on wire of 24 or 26 gauge. I have seen very tiny flowers made with gauge 15 seed beads. The edges of the beads can be squared off or rounded, depending on the artist’s taste. Japanese beads are of very high quality and are very uniform. If you make bead jewelry, you may have used Toho or Miyuki beads in your jewelry and other projects. One-, two- or three-cut beads add sparkle, and trumpet beads and rhinestone centers can be used as an accent. Beads can be matte or pearly, colorlined or unlined, opaque or transparent, and the list goes on. Beads can be bought on hanks, or loose in bags and tubes.

As strange as it may seem, weather can have an effect on the availability of beads. Because of weather conditions in many parts of the world, certain colors of beads can be made only at certain times of the year. About six years ago, the fashion industry bought up all the available pink beads, and jewelry makers and flower beaders had to use other colors until the climatic conditions changed again, production of pink beads could resume, and the supply could catch up with the demand.

History of Bead Flowers

The art of making flowers out of beads is many centuries old. Although there is very little documentation on the development of this art, research has shown that the first primitive bead flowers may have been made as early as the 1300’s in Germany, when steel needles and wire were developed.

In the ensuing years as the craft spread across Europe, different methods were developed: the Victorian method, also known as the English or Russian method, and the French method. The main difference is that in the Victorian method, which is similar to modern bead jewelry-making techniques, the thread or wire passes through each bead twice or more, and the wire passes from row to row on the sides of the piece; in the French method, the wire passes through each bead only once, and passes from row to row in the center or on the bottom of the individual piece.

One of the reasons that flowers are associated with churches has to do with beads. In the thirteenth century a form of prayer using a string of beads was instituted by St. Dominic. The string, called a rosary, consisted at that time of 15 units of beads. Each unit contained 10 small beads, preceded by one larger one. A prayer was recited at every bead. The word “bede” (sp) is Middle English for “prayer.” Because of the length of the original rosary, it became customary to pay someone, usually a resident of an almshouse, to recite the prayers. These people were referred to as bede women or men, and it was they who made the first bead flowers. The craft was handed down through the centuries and came to be associated with the church and its decorations.

The French used bead flowers as funeral wreaths. These wreaths were called “Immortelles,” and ranged from 3 feet to 4 feet in height. They would be left at the grave of the deceased. Since they were made on metal wire and were exposed to the weather, most of these items were destroyed within a year, but a few examples remain today. Occasionally you will see one on Ebay. Once an Immortelle disintegrated, leaving only a pile of beads, the beads would often be recycled into other projects. Not only are there bead flowers mounted on the frame of the Immortelle, but the frame wires are wrapped in beaded wire as well. Wires strung with beads might have been coiled or braided as well before wrapping onto the piece. The whole surface of the Immortelle would be wrapped over with wire strung with thousands and thousands of beads.

In Venice in the 16th century, middle class and poor women made bead flowers for churches, banquet tables and parade floats. At that time, someone could walk down the streets of Venice and see women sitting outside every door, making ornaments out of wire and tiny glass beads. At one time Venice was a center for the actual production of beads. According to one source, at one point all the beadmaking activity in Venice was moved onto the island of Murano. Murano glass vases and other items are still treasured today.

Around the Napoleonic era (1768-1821), Italian and French peasants who tended the vineyards in the summer were recruited to work with beads in the winter. They would be assigned to embroider the ball gowns and jackets of the court nobility with beads. Imperfect beads or beads that would not fit over the needle were saved and made into flowers. These imperfect beads may have been strung onto wire for the flowers with horsehair or human hair. These flowers were used to decorate church altars, and were carried by altar boys for Easter and Christmas.

In Victorian times, royal European brides often wore wreaths or circlets of bead flowers and carried bead bouquets on their wedding day. The custom was for the bride to abandon the fancy hair styles of the time, and wear her hair simply, straight down her back, and adorn her head with a floral wreath. If she were getting married at a time of the year when fresh flowers were unavailable, bead flowers were an excellent solution.


In response to the 9/11 tragedy, many flower beaders from around the world collaborated to make a modern-style funeral wreath for each of the three crash sites. These wreaths are now in the Pentagon, the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the New York Wreath was temporarily placed in the Wheaton Museum of American Glass in Morganville, New Jersey. Recently the New York Wreath was moved to a permanent display case in a board room at the World Trade Center Museum Foundation Headquarters. The Pentagon wreath is in a large, glass wall-mounted case in a new hallway in the Pentagon. This hallway leads to a chapel commemorating those who died on 9/11.

Swarovski Project

Several years ago, when the Swarovski Crystal company was first making their line of crystal beads, they commissioned several bead flower artists to design and create the first Swarovski crystal bead flowers. The beaders adapted existing patterns and wrote new patterns to accommodate these new, larger beads. A sparkling garden of flowers was the result. This collection of flowers toured the world, and is now back at the main offices of the Swarovski company in Austria.

History of Bead Flowers in America

In 1865, Godey’s Ladies Book published a flower pattern that suggests the flowers could be used as decorations for hair and clothing.

The Dritz Traum Company released the earliest U.S. pattern, in 1928. It was titled “Hiawatha New Imported Crystal Bead Models.” You may recognize the Dritz name, since they still produce needles and other items.

By 1957, Samuel Wallach of the Walbead company was packaging and selling kits, “Bead a Bouquet,” which included a wide variety of beaded flower instructions.

In 1965, Aleene, of Temple City, California, released what was possibly the first U.S. book of patterns, simply titled “Bead Flowers.”

The art of bead flower making was popular in the U.S. in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Years 1966 through 1983 brought us a flurry of publications. These books are now considered the “bibles” of the French beader. The noted authors of these books include the highly respected Virginia Nathanson, Bobbe Anderson, Samuel Wallach, Helen Leibman, Ruth Wasley/Edith Harris and Virginia Osterland. Although these books sometimes appear in garage sales, collectors are willing to pay well in excess of $100.00 each, when they can be found.

Virginia Nathanson was a Vaudeville performer in her youth. Later on, she saw a bead flower arrangement in a department store in New York City. She wanted to discover the secret of these everlasting flowers, so she bought the arrangement, took it home, and took each flower completely apart. By this rather drastic forensic method, she learned the four basic techniques of French bead flower making.

Mrs. Nathanson’s first book, “The Art of Making Bead Flowers and Bouquets,” is now in reprint in softcover. The instructions in this book are very clear, and this is an excellent book for the beginner.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, most of the seed beads sold in America were imported from Czechoslovakia. With the last phase of the Cold War, around the late 1980’s, Czech beads were difficult to find, and popularity for the craft diminished.

In 1991 Helen McCall produced a book dedicated entirely to miniatures, and in 1995, Leisure Arts produced a few patterns, in an ornament book. Still, the art seemed to be fading away, in the United States.

Then, the late 1990’s saw a dramatic interest in beaded flowers around the world. Books were published in Japanese, French, Italian, Russian, German, and Dutch. Although some of the styles “cross over,” most of these books use the Victorian technique.

In the last several years, Mario Rivoli bought up many vintage bead flowers and spray-painted them to create astonishing effects on the flowers. These beads are often seen in shops in New York City, and in magazines and on the Internet.

With the start of the new millennium, the United States has shown a renewed interest in French beaded flowers. Magazines are describing the art as “what’s hot” and French-style pattern books are once again appearing.

Quality beads are now available from many sources. The Internet is making the books and materials available to all beaders, regardless of their location. Many of the books are available from Amazon, and wire, beads and other supplies can be found online at very reasonable prices.

The art of bead flower-making is very old, but is new all over again!


Jonalee Crabb

Sharon R. May, Scouting Out the Bead

Virginia Nathanson, The Art of Making Bead Flowers and Bouquets

Wasley and Harris, Bead Design


Godey’s Ladies Book

Dritz Traum Company, Hiawatha New Imported Crystal Bead Models

Samuel Wallach, Bead A Bouquet

Aleene, Bead Flowers

Lark Books, 500 Beaded Objects

Dalene Kelly, Bead Flowers For The New Millennium

Carol Benner Doelp

The Author:

Photo. Earl53


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