Amazing Iroquois Beaded Mats
Table mats have many purposes; they decorate the tops of dining tables, chests, stands, and the flat tops of other furniture. Some are made out of colorful cloth or hand weaving, while others are crocheted or embroidered. Some mats are meant to be placed under vases or potted plants, and some compliment works of art that are placed upon them.
This mat made around 1850 is a true piece of art. Over 100,000 beads were hand sewn on this mat by an Iroquois beadworker.
Some, like the mat pictured above, are true pieces of art. This particular Iroquois mat is about 17 ½ inches by 17 ½ inches, the largest beaded mat ever documented, and is made of a luscious purple velvet covered with a floral design of tiny clear glass seed beads. Its shape with corner points is unique. Over 100,000 beads were sewn on to the velvet in the shapes of flowers, buds, leaves, and vine designs; most every spot on the surface of the mat is covered with beads. The beading is done in a technique called “raised beadwork” where the beads are raised above the surface of the background fabric. Raised beadwork is characteristic of Iroquois beadwork.
The mat was created by an Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) beadworker whose only light source to illuminate her work was the sun, candles, or oil lamps. Around 1850, she must have spent several weeks making this incredible mat. She lived in western New York State on either a Seneca or Tuscarora reservation. It is assumed that the maker was a woman, but it could have been a man as there are several prominent male beadworkers today, and there could have been some in the 19th century. We do not know the names of these early beadwork artists.
The Haudenosaunee, whose territory (Iroquoia) was located in what is now central New York State, were first introduced to European glass beads in the 16th century. It was during the early 1500s that explorers and traders entered into Iroquoia via the St. Lawrence, Hudson, and Susquehanna Rivers. At first the Iroquois wore the beads as jewelry, but by the 18th century beads were also sewn onto clothing and purses.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Iroquois beadworkers were also creating pincushions, needle cases, card cases, and mats. All were decorated with elaborate raised beaded designs. The pieces of beadwork were made for family and friends, and they were made to sell to tourists who traveled near their reservations. Beadwork created in western New York was often sold to visitors who came to Niagara Falls.
The featured beaded mat above is the most elaborate mat that I have ever encountered. It is so amazing that I bought it to give myself as a Christmas present. It is valued at several hundred dollars. Only one other similar mat has been found, and that is a smaller mat on red cloth that is currently in a collection in Birmingham, England. The similarity of the beaded designs on the two mats indicate that they were most likely created by the same hand.
This small mat was most likely made by a Seneca beadworker. It incorporates silver sprengperlen (tubular beads) in the center of the small circular designs.
Another mid-19th century mat that carries similar beaded motifs is this smaller deep red mat shown above that is 7 ¼ inches in diameter. It is round with eight lobes, which is a form that is more common than a simple circular mat. This mat was most likely made by a Seneca beadworker. It incorporates silver sprengperlen (tubular beads) in the center of the small circular designs and is in perfect condition.
The great similarity between these two bright red mats makes it obvious that the same sewer designed them and executed the raised beaded designs.
In western New York around 1850, another beadworker created the two mats shown above that are very different from the large purple one at the top but similar to the round one mentioned previously. The largest mat in this photo has eight lobes, while the smaller one is six lobed. The great similarity between these two bright red mats makes it obvious that the same sewer designed them and executed the raised beaded designs. The larger one is 7 ½ inches in diameter while the smaller one is only 4 ½ inches wide. The beadwork is sewn on a bright red fabric base. The majority of the beads are clear but white seed beads are inserted into the pattern. Like the other mats, the beaded designs depict flowers and leaves. These mats have multiple solid beaded outlines compared to the more open design on the big purple mat. These mats also have a heavy fringe of clear beads, while the large mat has no fringe. The bright red mats share with the deep red mat the beaded outlines and the fringe. Of course, they all include an unbeaded area in the center on which to display something.
Shown here is a rare mat and pincushion set. Out of the tens of thousands of pieces of Iroquois beadwork that I have recorded, I have seen only two other mat and pincushion sets.
What the larger red mat in the photo with two mats has that the other ones do not have is a surprise: a matching pincushion. The pincushion is six lobed and 4 inches in diameter, and it fits nicely in the center of the larger mat. Notice how the pincushion matches the beadwork of the other two red mats perfectly. Mat and pincushion sets are very rare. Out of the tens of thousands of pieces of Iroquois beadwork that I have recorded, I have seen only two other mat and pincushion sets.
Other Iroquois beaded mats have been documented and many appear to have been made by other beadworkers. The mats reported on in this article demonstrate that at least three beadworkers were creating amazing mats in western New York in the mid-19th century. The excellent preservation of the mats for more than a century and a half indicates that they were treasured by their owners and appreciated for the work and skill that went into their creations.
Dolores Elliott is a retired archaeologist who has researched the art and artifacts of the indigenous people of the Northeast for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, her research has concentrated on the beadwork created by the Iroquois. As a museum consultant she has mounted over a dozen exhibits. She has written fourteen publications about Iroquois beadwork, and she organizes an annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference. For more information check out www.otsiningo.com. She can be contacted through email at Dolores@stny.rr.com.
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