Beadwork can be found on baskets and bags, jewelry and dolls, leather goods from moccasins to belts. While early Native American beads were handmade by drilling holes into seeds, stones, and pieces of bone, the beadwork most familiar to contemporary collectors features glass seed (small) and pony (larger) beads, which were first introduced to indigenous North Americans by European traders in the late 17th century but were not widely used until the 19th, when indigenous peoples were forced onto reservations and had few options other than traditional art forms to earn an income.
In general, the most common application of these beads was to string them on necklaces and other examples of Native American jewelry, but beads were also woven to create prismatic bands of patterned color, or sewn individually and in strings onto all manner of clothing. To attach beads to garments and shoes, two stitches were widely used. In spot-stitch sewing, a thread would be pre-strung with a desired color or pattern of beads. The thread was then sewn to the fabric or leather, usually in short lengths, so that through repetition, panels or bands of pattern and color emerged. Although used by many Native American groups, the Ojibwe or Chippewa of the Great Lakes region were famous for the craftsmanship of their spot-stitch leather leggings, which were usually geometric in design, as well as their shoulder bags, which often featured colorful, floral beadwork.
Lazy-stitch sewing was an applique technique favored by the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Plains peoples. In a lazy stitch, the thread itself is used to attach the beads to the garment, rather than relying on a second thread to tack the bead-laden thread down, hence the name of the stitch. Like the spot stitch, the unsecured lengths of beaded thread are short, which keeps the threaded lengths of beads from dangling and flapping around too much when the wearer is moving. That said, both stitches give beaded clothing an animated feel, as the beaded designs vibrate and shake in response to the movements of the wearer.
One of several noteworthy variations on the lazy stitch is embossed beading, in which the beads applied using the stitch define the contours of padding applied to the base garment, adding another layer of dimensionality to the already dimensional beads. Another is the Crow stitch, named after the people who used it most, in which a lazy stitch is caused to turn, usually at a right angle, by a spot stitch sewn on top.
Not all beadwork techniques rely on a base to sew them to. The most important of these is netted beadwork, in which beaded thread is used to create lace-like patterns that can be worn like necklaces.
One of the most famous examples of beadwork is wampum, which was originally a shell-based form of currency, and possibly even literature, among the Native peoples of the Northeast. Wampum was traded back and forth between Colonists and Natives. Indeed, in some parts of the Colonies, wampum was legal tender, but the overproduction of the indigenous currency on the part of Colonists resulted in what could be described as wampum inflation, making the beaded bands and belts less useful as currency, even as they hung onto their ceremonial value.